Wednesday, October 12, 2011

HOW I GOT OVER WRITER'S BLOCK


I'd like to say it was as simple as putting pen to paper -- or rather, fingers to keyboard -- but that would be too easy. As any wordsmith knows, writer's block is a brutal, ruthless thing. It pops up unsuspectingly and refuses to get out of the way, obstructing your path to creativity for hours, for days, for weeks, for years.

Yes, years.

It happened to me. For a year and a half after I moved to Buenos Aires in 2006, aside from the odd rambling email, I didn't write anything. My literary silence was especially disturbing because writing was partly why I went to Argentina in the first place. There were other reasons, too -- boredom with the rat race, with New York City, with life in general -- but what I really wanted to do was write free of deadlines, office politics and editorial expectations.

I was also going to follow up on some advice given to me years earlier by music critic Robert Christgau, one of my favorite writers. (Once, when giving Prince a rave review, he wrote, "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home," which remains, for me, the most indelible line in all of rock journalism.) Shortly after I moved to New York City and was working at People magazine, I called up Christgau and invited him to lunch. I couldn't imagine doing anything like that now, but I was young, restless and bold, with a beautiful daring streak.

Of all the things Christgau told me during our two-hour lunch (which went over time and made him late for a meeting with Nelson George, another fantastic writer I'd long admired!), one comment in particular stood out: "To be an interesting writer, you have to lead an interesting life." (That was right up there with "Know your competition, and know it well!" -- Professor William McKeen, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.)

It's not that I wasn't doing interesting things in New York City. I was. I was writing too, mostly rewriting, because that's pretty much what editors do. But I wasn't really leading an interesting life. I was having interesting moments, but they were really nothing to write home -- or blog -- about. I was good at churning out copy for magazines, but I was doing it for the money. I wasn't particularly inspired, because the life I was leading wasn't particularly inspiring.

So off to Buenos Aires I went. Off in search of sexy Latinos, cheap vino, adventure and inspiration. That first year in BA (as expatriate locals call it), there were so many things to write about. I was living on a new continent, learning a new city and a new language. I went out every night. I fell in love. I was even robbed and attacked by three men in my apartment! (Read about it here.) People always asked me -- and still do -- how I spent my time without a 9-to-5 job, as if days are something to be filled with routine rather than lived. There was always something to do -- even if it was nothing.

But I didn't write a word. What Christgau hadn't mentioned was that leading an interesting life wasn't enough. You also had a to have a knack for self-reflection. That wild, crazy, exciting life I was living was basically just a series of misadventures until I began to reflect on them.

That's when the words started pouring out. They came so quickly that I started a blog to get them all down. Secret diaries are so old-school. Oversharing is in, and all good bloggers are obsessed with it. These days I can write in my sleep, and sometimes I do -- literally. Ideas, like the theme of this post, come to me in dreams. I write as I snooze and wake up with the work mostly done. (I need to start remembering to bring a pen and paper, or my lap top, to bed!) Interestingly, I probably do more writing now than I did when I was being paid a lot of money to do it. I definitely enjoy it more.

Of course, as surely as I will eventually return to the 9-to-5 grind, writer's block will rear its hideous head again. Over the last five years, I've spent considerable time on five different continents -- North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Asia -- and strangely, I've been most affected by writer's block in North America and in Australia. Someone I met recently suggested that it might be because being in places where my native language is not widely spoken forces me to step further within, to self-reflect, and that's when the words come pouring out.

May they continue to flood my computer screen, uninterrupted and uncensored.

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