Ah, at last the house is empty and quiet. Anne's at work, the kids are at summer school, the dogs are working really hard (also known as sleeping on the kitchen floor) and I have the entire place to myself.
It should be an easy and productive time to sit down and get some of these stories out of my head, but whenever I start, I feel almost ADD-stricken and immediately lose interest and motivation. It's been like this for weeks, and I've finally had enough. I vowed to figure out what exactly was giving me writer's block, so I could destroy it and move on down the road before it had a chance to rebuild itself.
I started out with what I figured would be the first chapter of the son of Spongebob Vega$pants, the still-untitled saga of CruiseTrek 2006, with book signings in Montreal and Boston.
I stood in a small empty room, one story above the street, and looked out the window. I clutched my well-worn copy of Just A Geek in my hands, and tried to ignore their slight trembling.
I've done this a hundred times before. Why am I so anxious today? A woman walking a dog caught my eye, and I followed them down the block and across the street. There was a knock at the door behind me.
It was Scarlett, the manager of the bookstore.
"Are you ready for me to introduce you?" I could hear the buzz of people in the room behind me. It was hot and humid, and though one fan was working very hard, it wasn't enough to keep the stuffiness entirely at bay.
I took a deep breath. "Yeah," I said."
The Internal Critic peeked over my shoulder.
"That pretty much sucks," he said.
"You've been saying that about everything I write for months!" I said.
"Why don't you take a break?" He said.
I sighed. "Fine."
I went out onto my patio, and worked in my patio garden a little bit. My tomato plants are almost as tall as I am, and are both covered with little yellow flowers and even a few tiny green fruits. They got a little over-watered by my enthusiastic caretaker (Ryan) while I was gone, though, so they also have many yellow leaves that needed pruning.
I crouched down on the bricks, and began to pick off the dead and dying leaves as I listened to the ever-present sound of suburban life in summertime: the drone of a distant lawnmower, the squeal of children playing in the pool across the street and tag in the backyard behind my house, and the music of birdsong all around my yard. These sounds of domestic life were comforting. They simultaneously reminded me of my suburban childhood, and that I am lucky to provide a similar childhood for my own kids.
Ferris came out through the kitchen door, blinked her eyes in the bright morning sunlight, and exploded toward the Eastern wall of my yard, where a lizard ran across the top. The lizard population in our neighborhood is at a hundred year peak, it seems, and Ferris has decided that chasing them is her new favorite activity. I can even say to her, "Hey, Ferris, there's a lizard!" And she'll go running to the usual lizard-spotting places in the yard until she finds one. I watched her for a minute, and went back to work.
"This is why I planted this garden," I thought, as as the pile of pruned leaves grew at my feet and the slightly pungent (pointy?) smell of tomato stalks began to fill the air. "I planted this garden so I would have an excuse to walk out of the house, and just do this."
I finished up my work, and headed back into the house, happy and content, ready to sit down and let the creativity burst through my fingertips and fill several screens.
I stared at the blank screen for several minutes.
I clicked around on the Internets for several more.
I read e-mail, and skimmed Fark, Slashdot, and Kos.
"Well, this is certainly a productive day for you," the Internal Critic said.
"I can't get started!" I said. "This is pissing me off."
"Why don't you put the trip report story on hold for a bit, and write about something else, like the Fourth of July at Darin's."
I selected all the text and erased it. I thought,"That story, while funny and hopefully engaging, isn't the story I really
want need to tell today. Rather than force it, I'll see if I can get out this thing about the Fourth that was pretty significant. I really need to write more stories. I miss writing stories."
I began to type. Over the next forty-five minutes, I got the following out:
On Fourth of July at Darin's house this year, while I sat in his pool with his two year-old and our friend's six month-old, I realized how much I've changed in the last few years. The changes didn't happen all at once, and I wasn't even aware of any of them until that very moment, but the realization that I'm profoundly different now than I was just five years ago has occupied my subconscious -- and often my conscious -- constantly since then. It has demanded my attention and observation, and in doing so I have crossed a rubicon in my thirty-third year.
"That is the most pretentious pile of wordy shit I've ever heard," my Internal Critic said.
"I know," I said, "but I've been letting you paralyze me too much the last year or so, so I'm just going to keep going, and then edit it down once it's totally finished."
"I'll get off your back if you go play Katamari Damacy," He said.
"Really?" I said.
"Sure. Just go play for a half-hour or so, and let your mind drift. You'll find the perfect combination of words and images that you seek in the hand of the King of the Cosmos."
"Now who's being pretentious?"
I put a few stars into the sky, and made a couple of constellations. Sure enough, my mind drifted.
What I want to get across with this story is how my priorities have changed, and how I don't mind that; in fact, I welcome and cherish it. I want to convey how big a deal this is, because when I was younger I refused to give up any of those things that I thought defined who I was: my creative drive, my relentless quest to Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn't A Mistake, and the material thi -- wait. That's not even it. Goddammit.
I finished the level, saved my game, and walked around the house aimlessly, growing increasingly frustrated with each step, until I found myself standing in my bedroom.
"Man, this place is a mess. I think I'll make the bed and put away this pile of clothes I dumped on the floor last night."
When I was done, I sat on the edge of my bed and flipped Biko's Kitty Hooch catnip mouse around for him. He's almost thirteen years old, but he loves that little mouse -- which had its head eaten off by Riley a few days ago -- and whenever it comes out, he's like a kitten again.
I held its tail between my fingertips, and flicked it from side to side. His pupils grew so big, he had Betazed eyes, and he pounced! His right paw swung out at it, and knocked it from my hand. It flew across the bed, and landed on the floor near the hamper, which was overflowing with dirty post-vacation clothes and towels.
"Woah. That's a mess. I think I'll empty out the hamper, and wash these towels, so it's one less thing Anne feels like she has to do." (I try to wash all my own clothes, but Anne beats me to it too frequently, and I've neglected my share of the towel and sheet washing, lately.)
I filled up a basket, and walked out to the laundry room, which is actually in the garage, and not its own room at all. Man, it was hot out there.
While I filled the washer with clothes my mind drifted again . . .
This story is about how I saw Darin playing with his daughter in the pool, and how I loved watching them, and how I loved it when she laughed at my silly antics -- going underwater and leaping out at her -- and how I told Ryan and Nolan to keep the splashing in the deep end to a minimum, because Mike's son is little, and we didn't want to scare him. Just ten years ago, I would have been so annoyed that there were babies in the pool, and we all had to be mellow and quiet and reserved, but when she giggled at me and said, in two year-old, "Go under again!" I had a sudden realization that everything in my life now revolves around family. Everything I do, even the things that I mostly do for myself, are really for them. The things that I think of as sacrifices, well . . . they aren't, really. Man, it's hot in here.
A huge drop of sweat ran down my forehead and into my eye. I realized that I'd been standing at the open washer, staring at the ripples and folds of about half my wardrobe much longer than a normal person would, considering the stifling heat. Somehow, I'd managed to not spill the cup of detergent in my left hand. I closed the door and started the cycle.
I filled my geek. glass with water, and sat back down at my desk.
On Fourth of July at Darin's house this year, while I sat in his pool with his two year-old and our friend's six month-old, I realized how much I've changed in the last few years. The realization that I'd changed wasn't as shocking to me as the reaction I had when it hit me: in the past, when I've felt like I'm "growing up," I've always felt a certain sadness, like I'm trading my cool BMX bike for a lawnmower, and finally admitting that my Metallica concert T-shirt from the late 80s isn't only too ratty and torn to keep wearing, but I'm too old to continue wearing it. As I sat there in the pool, watching my best friend since I'm fourteen hold his two year-old baby girl in his arms as they blew bubbles at each other, I wasn't sad that we are all grown up now. In fact, I was happy and content.
"Arrgh!" I slammed my fist onto the desk and nearly deleted the entire thing. "This isn't working at all!"
"Hey," the Internal Critic said, "don't cockblock me, man. I'll tell you when it's working and when it isn't."
"Okay," I said. "Is this working?"
"It's working better than you think it is, but you're not quite there. You should look into your archives and find stuff that you really like, you know, like watching game tapes to see what you did right."
"Is it a little weird that I'm talking out loud to you?"
"Yes, but it's not as weird and risky as a huge rambling existential meta-post that's cleverly disguised navel-gazing."
"I'm going to get shit for this, aren't I?" I said.
"Probably. Do you care?" He said.
"Let's find out."
I switched to firefox, and went to gada.be. I searched for my name, and found the obligatory "Wil is an asshole" BBS posts. There was one story that was just a huge fabrication, and another that was written with all the insight and maturity of a six year-old.
"Well?" The Internal Critic said.
"Before I answer, can I give you a different name? Because now you're more of an imaginary friend than an Internal Critic."
"Unless you want to call me Oh-So-Clever-and-Entirely-Overused Literary Device, no."
"Okay, Internal Critic," I said. "I honestly don't care."
"Do you know why?" He said.
I shook my head, and steadied myself against the desk as a bit of post-cruise vertigo threatened to send me to the floor.
"Because you've moved on and they haven't." He said. I was quiet for a minute and let that sink in.
I spun my chair back to my desk, put my hands on my keyboard, and began to write:
. . . As I sat there in the pool, watching my best friend since I'm fourteen hold his two year-old baby girl in his arms as they blew bubbles at each other, I wasn't sad that we are all grown up now. In fact, I was happy and content.
My own kids splashed around in the deep water behind us. My friend Mike adjusted his son's sun bonnet and said, "Mom wants you to keep this on, dude."
"This is the first of many battles you're going to have with your mom where she wants you to look lame because it's 'good for you,'" I said to his son. Mike laughed. "So I suggest you get your dad on your side as quickly as possible and choose your battles carefully."
"Hey! I heard that!" His wife said from the edge of the pool.
I winked at Mike's son, and we all laughed together.
Ten -- no, six years ago, I would have wanted nothing to do with babies in pools, and would probably have stood near the barbecue with one of my other friends, drinking beer and talking about how much the Dodgers suck. I did that this year, of course, but my favorite moment on this Fourth of July was right there, in the pool, watching my two friends adore their children, while my own swam around behind us. My friends are just beginning their journey down the path of parenting, and I'm nearing the end of mine. Oh, sure, I'll never stray too far from it, but I've carried my children about as far as I can, and now that they're learning how to navigate their adolescent life, I'm more comfortable than ever about gently nudging them into adulthood.
"Well, you had some good stuff there, but it got a little unfocused near the end." The Internal Critic said.
"I want to show the distinction between how I feel now, and how I felt before, and mark this moment so I don't forget it, but I want to -- hey! Wait a minute!" A slow but certain realization began to dawn around me.
"What is it?" He said, with the patience and anticipation of a master whose pupil is about to gain great insight.
"Okay, when I went to do the Subject Line Here show, I spent a lot of time digging through my Exile archives, but I couldn't find anything that I really liked. There were lots of commentaries, tons of pictures, and copious links to my work elsewhere, but none of the narrative non-fiction stories that I used to write all the time at WWdN. It was frustrating to me while I looked, and by the time I was done, I was positively depressed."
"Because the reason I want to be a writer in the first place is to tell stories. Like when I cite David Sedaris and This American Life as my influences --"
"This thing you're doing today? It's neither of those things. Sorry to point that out, but as the Internal Critic, that's my job. Go on."
"Yeah, I know. Anyway, when I cite them as my influences, I always say that I want to make other people feel the way I feel when I read or hear them, and for a long time I did that at WWdN with stories like The Trade, Fireworks, and all those stories about bonding with Ryan and Nolan. But when I moved to Exile, and I got jobs writing for Suicide Girls and CardSquad, I stopped doing that. I started writing for work, for pay, to support my family, instead of as a reason to feed that creative monkey on my back. Time that I used to spend crafting stories and sharing them with the audience was now spent tracking down stories for the newswire, and playing and writing about poker. When I did sit down to write in my blog, I think that I got caught up in the toys and nifty gadgets here in Exile, and lost the need to create stories like I used to."
"Is that why you're writing this in a text editor?"
"Yeah." I scratched the side of my head, and stared out the window at The Big Tree. The Big Tree is this Chinese elm that I have stared at over the years when I can't get a few words to go together. Its leaves shook a bit in a gentle breeze.
"I need to take a break for a second and process this."
I walked out of my office and around my house again. I stopped in the kitchen and washed some dishes.
I think that when people have asked me, "How much longer are you going to be in Exile?" What they were really asking was, "When is your blog going to be like it used to be? When are you going to write stories again? Because it's a big Internets out there, filled with a lot of tubes, and if you don't start making with the stories that I liked, I'm not going to give you my time any more."
"This is going to come off like I'm completely fucking nuts," I said to Ferris, who thumped her tail on the floor when I walked in.
She said, "Just don't put any talking dogs into your story, and you'll be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Don't push it, buddy. But as long as we're talking, how about a biscuit?"
"Do you want a cookie?" I said in the excited talking to a dog voice. She stood up and wagged her entire body. Riley heard her tail whacking the side of the oven, and came running in from another room. I gave them biscuits, and made myself a sandwich.
While I ate, I read Bloglines from my Powerbook, which had been left on the dining room table last night.
"Hey! Isabelle Mercier is at the final table in the 5000 NLHE event!" I quickly clicked over to CardSquad, and wrote a post about my Team PokerStars teammate. When I was done, I fired up iTunes and . . .
"I know what I need. I know how to find some inspiration and get this story out of me."
I made a smart playlist of Doughty, Soul Coughing, Mingus, Coltrane, Miles, and Sonny Rollins. I connected to Airtunes, and put it on party shuffle.
"This is the music I've always listened to and been inspired by," I thought. "Let's see if this helps."
Mingus played I'll Remember April. Rollins played Blue 7. Soul Coughing played Screenwriter's Blues. Doughty played Rising Sign.
Remember when you were a teenager and you listened to The Queen is Dead, and it seems like Morrissey wrote all those songs about you -- no, for you -- and that guy or girl who you furiously pined for? I swear to jeebus, Doughty's songs were written just for me.
"I find my dreams and inspirations leading toward a real love."
"40 grand in the hole. I’m gonna open it up and let my yearning shine."
"What is my life without the heart at risk?"
"It was open but I failed to use it"
"I am going to Los Angeles to see my own name on a screen, five feet long and luminous."
"Signal got lost to the satellite, Got lost in the rideup to the plungedown."
"Upon the rails, among the weeds, I had a moment of serenity"
"I feel as if I am looking at the world from the bottom of a well"
"I don't need to walk around in circles"
"Move aside and let the man go through, let the man go through"
"We are all in some way or another going to Reseda someday to die."
Incidentally, I really like 4 out of 5. It's hard to find deep and inspiring meaning in a bunch of lyrical equations (unless you're a Feynman, and I'm not) but that song rocks.
I finished my lunch, put my dishes in the dishwasher, and paced the house again.
"Man, there's a lot of dog hair on the carpet here. I think I'll vacuum."
Accompanied by the turbine action of a hoover wind tunnel, my mind drifted again.
It doesn't matter if I can turn this into a story or not. Hopefully, just coming to this realization will help me clear out this writer's block and set me back on the road to writing the stories that will eventually make up the next Dancing Barefoot.
"Do you remember when you woke up in April and heard a mysterious voice in your head say, 'embrace who you truly are, and the rest will follow'?" It was the Internal Critic. At least he wasn't criticizing me.
"Yes. That was . . . weird."
"That was me. Or your higher self. Or something else entirely."
"Uhh . . ." I turned off the vacuum.
"Look, who it was wasn't important, because it was actually just you, just like I'm you. And now you're doing another Wesley Dialogues, so you're dangerously close to being a hack if you keep this up." He shrugged. "Critic. It's my job.
"The point is, you've known all along who you are and what you're meant to do. You're a geek who is meant to create and perform. But you're also a family man. You adore your family, and even though your relationship with your boys has been consistently and steadily undermined, you've never given up on them, nor they on you. Even though you often feel like you're not doing enough as a husband, your wife has never given up on you, nor you on her. Even though you frequently feel like the black sheep of your conservative family, you've never given up on each other. You're domesticated, alright, but that is okay.
"You had to figure that out, because what you do is not who you are, but if you don't know and embrace who you are -- "
"I'll never be able to relax, settle down, and tell those stories I want to create." I said.
"Exactly. Do you know why you have had writer's block for so long? Do you understand why you've felt frustrated, uninspired, and unmotivated?"
"Because if I didn't push myself to a certain point, I wouldn't have taken the time to examine my life and realize that the domestication which I thought was so horrible isn't really domestication as much as it's a happy acceptance that I'm an adult now, and -- excuse me."
I walked to the kitchen window and shouted at some teenagers who may or may not have actually been there, "Hey you damn kids! Get off my lawn!"
"It isn't domestication." I said, "It isn't trading my snakeskin jacket for a suit and tie. It's as simple as sitting in Darin's pool with Mike and their babies, and thinking, 'Man, this is so cool.'"
"It was so vitally important that you have this realization, all the voices in your head got together and had an intervention. We put up a nice big writer's block so you'd realize that everything is actually okay. Also, you need to stop playing with the nifty toys at Typepad and just start writing again. It's fine to write your geek news stories -- which, I can tell you as a critic, are actually pretty entertaining -- and it's fine to play and write about poker. But that is not your purpose, so budget your time and energy appropriately, and get back to telling stories."
I put the vacuum away, and walked back into my office. I sat back down at my computer and found the words I'd written earlier in the day. I selected all of it, and hit delete. I took a breath and began to type.
I don't know if I can really explain it, and you'd all think I was totally fucking nuts if I tried, but I crossed yet another rubicon this week. It essentially comes down to this: when I was younger, I put my career ahead of everything else, and I resented everything that got in its way. Then I got married, began to raise children, and watched my priorities slowly but steadily change. This week, I realized with shocking and stunning clarity that the most important thing in my life, and the reason I do everything I do, is my family. I know that I wrote about that in Just A Geek, but this thing that happened on Tuesday . . . well, I don't know if I can clearly articulate it, but it was even more powerful than the events detailed in the chapter Alone Again Or . . . (.pdf link) from Just A Geek. Fifteen or twenty years ago I scoffed at anyone who said that being a family man was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Today, I can speak from experience: those guys were right.
My blog hasn't been what it once was, because in ways I can't explain -- again, you'd think I was out of my mind -- in order for me to have this vitally important moment of clarity and growth, I had to lose and then find my creativity again. I've talked a lot about straying from the path, and how I keep thinking I've found my way back to it, but it seems like each time I think I'm on the main road I discover that I was just on another, almost parallel road to the one that matters. Who knows if this is the real one, or just another one that's so similar I can't tell the difference. I know that this road feels like one where I can tell more stories, though, and that feels right to me.
I'll start on the still-untitled saga of CruiseTrek 2006, with book signings in Montreal and Boston just as soon as I write this story about Fourth of July that I need to tell.
Anne came home. I heard her hang up her keys on the mirror by the front door. "Where's Wil?" She said to Ferris. I'm pretty sure Ferris said nothing in return. A minute or so later, she walked into my office.
"Hey, why's the house so clean?" She said.
"Oh," I said, "I was writing."