I’ve been wanting to write about writer’s block for some time. Because I don’t believe in it. And I’m writing this as I’m stuck on Chapter 3 of my memoir. Let me explain.
It’s the insinuation of the term that bothers me; that you can’t write, are blocked from writing, period. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t make it about semantics but I’m a writer. My life is words. Sue me.
For insight I asked people on FB and personally for their thoughts on writer’s block.
- Cynthia Oka said when she’s blocked, it’s one of three things: “there is truth I don’t want to know, I am processing information and don’t have language for it, or I actually have some living to do that I’m deferring by trying to use writing as an escape.”
- Ynanna Djehuty wrote: “I find that my ‘block’ is something I’m avoiding bringing to the page.”
I mention only these responses not to negate the truth of those who responded, but because these are the ones that resonated. Still, I have to honor and respect, especially now, that there are times when a story just won’t give. Life has to happen in order for that story to exist. That’s where I am right now—living so this story can move and take shape in a way I know it has to. It doesn’t make this process any easier. Especially when I’m so anxious to finish. Anxious in a terrified, excited way. In an “Oh, shit, mom’s gonna flip” way. In an “it’s time she knows” way. In a “fuck it, I gotta free myself of this” way.
The third chapter, where I’m “stuck,” is my mother’s story. How I imagine she became the mother, woman she was and still is. I’m trying to figure out why she doesn’t mother me and never really did. Why she was so harsh and cruel sometimes. Why and how she could be so abusive. I’m a writer. I figure things out, come to terms with things through story. It’s why I’m writing this. (And, in the same vein, how I defend my theory that writer’s block does not exist since you can always write. It’s story block that exists and that’s a whole different beast onto itself…)
Excerpt from Chapter 3 “How I Imagine It” (A Dim Capacity for Wings, A Memoir by Vanessa Mártir)
My mother endured the kind of poverty in Honduras that you only see in Save the Children commercials. She once told me a story of when she was seven years old. She’s sitting on the latrine. It looks like the one I used on my first trip to Honduras when I was nine. I was a spoiled Americana who had only used a toilet that flushed so I didn’t have to look at where the stuff went. The toilets at home were white and eddied the business away. This thing was a black bottomless hole where I imagined all sorts of vermin squirmed, waiting for an unsuspecting child like me to grab and gnaw. The wooden planks of the shack were old and splintered, black in parts where the moisture had seeped into the grain and was growing mold. You could peek out in spots where the wood had warped. Mom is sitting, on the wooden top, no toilet seat to protect her rear, but by this time she knew how to sit so the splinters didn’t dig into her. She’s grown immune to the stench and the frightening thoughts of what’s festering in that hole. She’s swinging her skinny legs, elbows propped on her knees, face in her hands. She’s scarred from mosquito bites and so many falls. She picks at a scab and wonders what they’ll eat that night. Tortillas and frijoles, for sure. The staple diet de los pobres. She hopes abuelita Tinita had scrounged enough to buy at least a piece of meat. Un pollito o una carnesita de res dripping in fat and juices. It’s been so long since mom ate meat. That’s when she felt the shudder in her stomach, like something is moving, slithering. Then she starts to choke. Something had lodged in her throat so she can’t breathe in or out. She kicks the flimsy wooden door of the latrine. Her worn-too-many-times panties and shorts are still around her ankles. Her t-shirt is still rolled up above her belly button. Abuelita, who is sitting on a stool in the patio shelling beans, runs to her and shoves her hand into mom’s mouth. Mom gags but nothing comes up. Tinita shoves her fingers deeper until she feels it. She grabs hold and yanks, pulls out a tapeworm two feet long. Mom falls back onto the dirt, sweating and heaving.
Mom was raised by her grandmother, Tinita, for much of her childhood. Her mother, my grandmother, worked long hours as a domestic. She’d been working since she was five; it’s what she had to do to feed the family. When mom was 10, grandma was given the opportunity to move to Puerto Rico with the Turkish family she was working for. It was an offer she couldn’t pass up. It was her ticket out. Her chance to go to what many saw (and still see) as their salvation: the United States.
My grandmother had already lost at least three children (that I know of) to poverty. Mom says she remembers one, her older brother Diego. The one grandma loved the most. Diego was seven when he got sick with diarrhea and fever. They did what they could, tried to cure him with natural remedios. There was no money for doctors or medicine. Mom says that grandma was never the same after that. Imagine being raised by a mother like that. Perhaps she loved the children that remained less to protect herself. If you know your kids are going to die, you love them less, you detach, so that when they do, you’re not completely destroyed.
Maybe this made it easier for grandma to go to Puerto Rico to work as a maid. What other option did she have? She only had a third grade education, and this she owed to a rich family she worked for who took pity on her and paid for her schooling. When the family moved, her schooling came to an abrupt end. So, when given the chance to work in Puerto Rico, she took it and didn’t see her daughters for five years.
She sent them money and bales of clothes and gifts but the mail system was unreliable and corrupt so often the packages never made it to them. It was Tinita, already old and bent over, who had to take care of those girls, my mom and aunt.
Mom told us stories of her childhood when she wanted to us to see how good we had it and when she was calling us ungrateful. Stories about how she ran barefoot to school in the morning because shoes were a luxury so the one pair she had were saved for special occasions. If she was late, she would have no milk for the day. It was powdered and tasted like chalk, bugs floated on the top of the yellow concoction, but they drank it because it was nutritious compared to the food they had. And then there was the story of her muñequita.
The Catholic Church up the road gave Christmas gifts to the children in the barrio. They were donated by charities from overseas but by the time the load reached the barrio, the rich had taken their pick from the lot. So one year, Mom was given just a doll’s head. She had a mass of brown curls and big blue eyes. It was the only doll mom had.
A few days later, mom awoke to find that abuelita had fashioned a body for the doll using rags she sewed together and stuffed with dirt. She made the doll a dress out of one Mom had outgrown. Mom slept with that doll for years. She cried every single time she told that story.
Hunger taught mom that life was brutal but she didn’t imagine it could be worse in this country. Nothing could have prepared her.
If you sense there’s more to the story/chapter, that’s because of course there is. The thing is, there’s this huge secret I’m revealing here that no one in the family talks about. I don’t even really know for sure how it happened, that is, what happened to my mother. Am I being vague? Yes, I know. This is the kind of energy I’m grappling with—the guilt, the knowing I have to do it, the fear of causing more damage beyond the PTSD that I know my mother suffers from. And what will my family say? Will they call me a traitor? An atrevida? Will I be further ostracized and looked down on? I’m not sure about any of it. I know that when I dared to talk about it to three key people, I was floored by their reactions.
My brother, my sister and my uncle. We all “know” various versions of the story. And when I told them what I was writing, that I’m writing about it, that I’m writing what happened or how I think it did, they all understood. They understood why and agreed that I had to do it. I was, no, I still am fucking floored.
My sister said, “I get it. Do it.” She’s not much of a talker when it comes to those things though that same day she confessed for the first time that mom was a lot harder on me and I was always blamed for things she (my sister) did. This too bowled me over. See, I love my sister but she suffers from the middle child victim mentality. Of course, this is coming from one who suffers from the youngest child nobody-loves-me syndrome so take it for what it is.
My brother said, “Mom’ll have to understand that this is your craft.” What?! Of course he’s a heroin addict who I can picture using this information to manipulate me or mom so… I’m sorry if that sounds hateful or insensitive. I still wince when I say or write those words—heroin addict—but denying it or glossing it over doesn’t make it any less true. And it doesn’t hide the fact that for my own safety and peace of mind I’ve come to expect that kind of shadiness from my brother. He’s done it enough times to me. It makes the blow of his betrayals easier to deal with when I expect him to be who he is or, rather, who he has become. Make sense?
My uncle, my mom’s brother, was the biggest surprise of all. He’s going through his own drama so we’ve been talking a lot about life and love and our family. On the day we had this particular conversation, we were out celebrating a birthday. He asked about my writing and I told him about the memoir and exactly what I was revealing. I told him I didn’t want to dishonor anyone but had to be honest. He raised his eyebrow and smiled his nervous smile, the one where only the left side of his lip curls. “Oh shit,” he said with a laugh. That’s when I asked, “So what do you know?” He has a slightly different story than I do, but what’s even more interesting is that he’s willing to tell me it knowing full well that it’s going in the book.
So I’m sharing all this (and not sharing so much) because I’m realizing that this is why the fourth chapter won’t give. It won’t until the truth of the third, or how I imagine it, even at 37 with added information, is pushed and pulled out. I’m imagining a sopping wet towel being wrung on both sides until it’s dry. That’s a whole lot of wringing.
All this is to say, yes, you can be blocked on a particular story but you can still write, like I’m doing right now. And, you should write. Because this will help that block move. Because it will help the story move. Because writing will put a wedge between story and the wall you’ve hit.
I’ve started chapter 4 but I know it can’t, won’t happen until chapter 3 is fleshed out and mourned and honored. It’s just how it has to be. I am reminded again to trust the process. To trust the universe, after all, I was chosen to write this book. There’s a lot to say for that.
I don’t think I’ll ever be completely unafraid of what I’m about to divulge. I don’t think I’m supposed to be. I think fear is a part of memoir as is guilt and worry. I think it’s up to me to use these emotions to pull the story out. To refine and rework it until I know I’ve done the best I can. Until I’ve honored my truth as I believe it. I’m close. Closer than I’ve ever been. And that right there is a whole different kind of solace, redemption even. What else can I really ask for?
The other day I was flipping through “The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir” (Yes, I read obsessively. Everything from memoirs and collections and articles and essays to random guides and how-tos because they feed my writing and my teaching) and came upon this in Chapter V – Methods for Movement:
The first thing to know about the process of writing is that you spend most of your time not writing. There’s the time spent researching and thinking, the time spent daydreaming and snacking, the time spent cleaning your desk as a procrastinatory tactic, the time spent watching CNN (for background) and the time spent watching Love and Death (also background). For most people, the actual tapping-away-at-the-keyboard time is comparatively brief. That said, you do have to log some decent time at said keyboard.
I don’t want to dishonor the space that not writing holds. It’s necessary. To process. To research. To prepare. It’s just that I’m at the get-it-done-anxious-riddled phase. I also don’t mean to be discouraging; I’m just being honest. Sharing my truth—I have an urgency to write, to get these stories down. Perhaps that’s why I wrote my second novel (which is a 352 page manuscript that isn’t published yet because, well, memoir took over and that’s just how it works) while commuting on the train to and from work during rush hour. That’s what I call writing in the cracks.
Yes, memoir is an entirely different process. One I’ve been living with for well over a decade. And I can only share where I’m at now—that to write the book, story, poem, collection, whatever it is you want to write, you have to sit your ass down and write it. If you’re feeling blocked, write about that. Just write. Write about the weather. Write about what your desk looks like. Neat and organized, your post-its stacked in order by size and color. (You people drive me crazy!) Or maybe it’s in complete disarray, bills piled in a corner next to the hill of paper clips that you never got around to putting in the container that’s sitting right next to it. (You, you I understand!) Or maybe you have a desk and have never written there and instead choose to write on your futon or at your kitchen table, like me. Write about why that is! Write about the way your beloved’s hair hangs down over her shoulder so when she flips her head just an inch, it all cascades down her back and makes you shiver. Write about how fucking gorgeous your hands look tapping across the keyboard and how good that makes you feel. Write about how you need a manicure. Write about how you don’t want to write right now because it’s a chore and you’d rather be watching TV or having sex or eating something incredibly oily and fatty and delicious. The point is to fucking write. Why? Because no one is going to do it for you. That’s reason enough. So off you (we) go to unblock ourselves by just writing. Yes? Word.