Distracting the Oxpecker

I feel ridiculously self-conscious talking about writer’s block. I am one of those people who believes that all present tense descriptors only relate to the moment as it passes: not the future. And that the past is “history” and not something one can cling to in the present. Though I know we all do that for comfort sometimes.

And sometimes I think “writer’s block” sounds like a humble-brag.

I took enough Spanish in college to remember that there are two verbs used when describing people. You can say: soy feliz or you can say estoy feliz, “I am a happy person” or “I am a happy person in this moment – as the words escaped my mouth”.

The correct way to say, “I am a writer” is soy escritora. But I can’t bring myself to say that if I’m not writing. In these pauses between books, between journal-keeping, between poems; what am I?

I try to tell myself I am not “a what”… Still: what am I dong with my life?

A few years ago I named the problem: the oxpecker who sits on my shoulder and pecks at my brain. My writing practice has always come in seasons, and always with varying production. But the drive to write never left me entirely until three years ago. It’s bound up somehow emotionally with the day E. and I were running on the beach and I just couldn’t seem to find the energy. I wasn’t “tired” or “fatigued”, it was a feeling I’d never experienced before. It was as though I just couldn’t get the engine to turn over, to catch hold and run.

I kept telling E. that something was wrong, but it was nothing I could point to. Until my leg turned purple the next day, and I was hospitalized with deep vein thrombosis.

My body is healed, but the shock having walked around for 51 years, ignorant that I’ve had a weird congenital defect seems to have broken my confidence in so many other ways. And when I sit down in my little library to write, I feel that same sense that something is wrong. That tiny fear of not being good enough – of needing reassurance – has grown and animated itself as this bird that pecks at the wound in my mind. I would say that it feels like my life in on pause, but I see myself growing older. Time is passing.

Yesterday a good friend asked me to join her at a “share your practice” session at one of the local arts centers. A young dancer was going to hold a workshop. It was so much fun. She lead us through a kind of guided meditation dance, and through a series of exercises with gesture work, and partner work with abstracting gestures. I am not a dancer. In fact, I don’t think that I can ever be a performer again really, but her instructions kept me focused and in the moment so the oxpecker was also distracted from her own goal: to protect my ego at all costs.

When the workshop was finished the dancers decided to do a half-hour jam. No rules. No distractions. The oxpecker returned to pick at my wounds. We have a phrase in drama pedagogy: rules as tools. Now I am thinking: rules as distraction.

Now how can I apply that kind distraction to my writing practice?


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  1. You’re a runner, you know. Every breath has four states – in breath, pause, out breath, pause. Do we notice those pauses in the process? Maybe a half-moment brief, mostly we keep to being enamored with big-active-things, forget the spaces in the in-between. No pause between notes, no music. And, empty space ain’t empty!

    But yes, our minds are predominantly judgement machines. And you said yourself, we take the now and apply it to future futile tense. I was taught by Wm. Staffords interview response. Question, what if what you write today isn’t as good as what you did the day before? In sage response, I simply lower my standards, he said. Still brings a smile to my lips.

    Turning our “editor” off is one of the harder things to do when writing. When living too I think! But possible. In a writing challenge long while past we were challenged for national poetry month, not one poem per day, but thirty poems in thirty minutes! Timer set in motion, no time to spare, then write. Alright, again, again. Granted nothing of much quality, but my editor was trying, trying hard. Then after about five minutes my editor shouted back, too much, exhausted, I can’t keep up – and just gave it up, went away. No fear, it comes back easily. But there’s a lesson there.

    Now when judgements arrive I endeavor to be my better monk, just say thanks for stopping by but now I gotta move on to the unknown next. Some more pithy than my reality. But the horizon looks welcome to me.

    By way of local blessing and insanity, I’ve become resident with a rather rare blood disease. Medicine runs around fourteen thousand per month. My personal co-pay share is lots less… but here’s one thought arriving, how is my life worth that much? I don’t have an answer. I don’t.

    So there’s a difference betwixt being a writer, as a statement of purpose, and sitting down pen in hand, writing. Do you think? And always, always, except when we don’t, don’t take any of it too seriously. Write when and because you do. Isn’t that enough? Ren, your writing always makes me look and even somedays, write myself. Appreciation. Gratitude.

    • I do think writers, by definition, write. I don’t think they have to write well. But thinking about singing doesn’t make one a singer, even though there are plenty of singers singing badly or singerd just devotedly singing in in their showers.

    • I do think writers, by definition, write. I don’t think they have to write well. But thinking about singing doesn’t make one a singer, even though there are plenty of singers singing badly or singerd just devotedly singing in in their showers. I don’t thinknit means I take it seriously, but what is the point of language if it has no context?