Science, Wonder & the Days Ahead

When I think of writer’s block, I often think of the classic image fed to me by mainstream media: the frustrated novelist, head in hands, surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper.  My favorite version is Billy Crystal’s Larry in Throw Momma from the Train who, after spending most of the film trying to complete the opening sentence to his new book (“The night was…humid.  Foggy.  Dry yet raining…”), is thrown into murderous rage when the titular character disdainfully completes his sentence with “sultry.”  The experiences of actual writers have been more complex.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge became trapped by the success of his youth and developed a mean opium addiction.  In his later years, he bemoaned his inability to craft poetry while still managing to write essay after essay. Mark Twain suffered an eight-year block in the midst of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but finished the book in three months after he gave up on a plot point he had previously considered essential to the story.

In my experience, the blocks and slumps that writers undergo are often as individual as the writer.  I have experienced my fair share of slumps—sometimes due to exhaustion from putting most of my creativity into my day job; other times due to unresolved emotion underlying the piece on which I was working.  I’ve known other writers who have been unable to escape patterns of past expression; been stymied by the influence of “great” writers; or just living rather than reflecting.  I’ve noticed most of these slumps happen not during the initial writing of a poem or story, but rather the editing.  Writing is rewriting and it can be a bear. 

I am actively in the middle of rewriting a full-length play, several poems, and an essay.  Earlier this fall, I also hit a slump.  I was tired after a busy spring and summer, it’s true, but most of this slump has come from an unexpected place: current events.  The Brexit vote, the campaign season leading up to the US presidential election, the election results, the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, among other things have left me concerned and anxious.  After the recent siege of Aleppo, words have been failing me regularly.  At the beginning of the year you could find me writing for an hour or two early in the morning.  Now, troubled by what incidents might have transpired overnight, I just turn on the computer first thing and click through news websites. 

One reliable salve for my feelings of writerly inadequacy traditionally has been to retreat into the world of nature and science.  This can be challenging since I live in New York without an easy way to escape the city, but I’ve been able to clear my head in the past by noting the flowering patterns of the plants in the churchyard garden down the street, finding constellations on the occasional clear night, or visiting the deep-sea submersible at the Hall of Science in Flushing.  I’ve also created virtual adventures for myself, listening to the “voice” of the planet Neptune recorded by Voyager 2 and marveling at a sculpture controlled by honeybees.  Perusing engravings of diatoms has sent me deep-sixing into the teenage version of myself who was awed by the architecture of unicellular marine organisms and the incredible rate of a rabbit’s heartbeat found in my biology books. 

The world is still an amazing place, for all its flaws, and its wonders do continue to provide inspiration for my writing.  Lately though the first chapter of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking has become something of a touchstone.  An account of the period after her husband’s sudden passing and during her daughter’s life-threatening illness, she begins that story with the terse four sentences she wrote right after he died while waiting for his dinner.  Didion then confesses that for months afterward she wrote nothing other than those sentences.  “Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant…”  I read the book a decade ago; more than ever, those terse sentences of hers ring in my head.

Some days I’m able to write; other days I am not.  Four sentences.  Six paragraphs.  Three pages.  I’ve stopped counting.  I record what I can.  If any of my words happen to be beautiful or my musings insightful, wonderful.  But I’m not betting on it.  For the next few months I anticipate making notes, quoting sources, and occasionally finding solace in marvels like the many ways to map the human brain or the fascinating roles color plays in nature.  Whatever happens, I trust that the odd assortment of observations I am collecting—must collect in my notebooks ultimately will enable me to make sense of the events that currently are unfolding.

Catherine Fletcher is a New York-based writer.  Recent poetry has appeared in The OffingNew Contrast, and Ekphrastic Review.  She previously served as the Director of Poetry Programs for the New York-based organization City Lore.  She is currently a fellow at Arizona State University's TWP Science and Religion program.

Read Catherine's poem, "Hot Spots."