Sunday, October 18, 2009

Writer's Block & Other Things

Last Saturday I was in Soho, waiting to meet for the first time the memoirist Said Sayrafiezadeh. He wrote my favorite memoir of ’09, “When Skateboards Will Be Free” and he had suggested we meet at McNally Jackson on Prince Street, a bookstore I had never heard of. Walking down from the Bleeker Street subway stop, I realized that it must have been a long time since I'd been down this way. I didn't recognize the blaze of new stores and all the pretty people filling the sidewalks. One place that claimed to be a “deli” had an open-air swath of tables, filled on this warm-enough day, and I swear we could have almost been on Rodeo Drivc.

I arrived at the bookstore first and went straight for “New Nonfiction” and within minutes had found a new Alice Miller, reason to celebrate.

Alice Miller first came to prominence in the eighties with her first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child. I wasn't in the States then and missed it, and missed all her books until just a few years ago when I discovered “The Body Never Lies” and “Pictures From a Childhood.” Now I think of her as someone doing absolutely individual work. I find her work immeasurably supportive and it is the only thing that makes any sense to me, that helps at all, when I find myself down in the depths of depression when nothing looks good or hopeful.

Someone asked me about writer's block yesterday. I think of writer's block as a form of depression, the form that hits writers when they want to write and can't. I advise anyone who wants to write real memoir, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred memoir to read Alice Miller if you want some support. And you're crazy if you don't want support.

Alice Miller is a true ally of a person's individuality. She doesn't give a flying fuck for your parents. And that's unique.

Everywhere I turn I see people doing more or less what they want, but reserving a corner of themselves for their family, especially for their parents. When it comes to family they give in and follow the rules. I see it all the time. People out there supposedly having their own lives, but as soon as a parent gets sick, or a parent has a birthday, or a child is coming home for Thanksgiving – everything is overturned. Real life is put on hold, because, after all, “it's family.”

You can't write memoir if you're going to hold onto that stuff. Or you can, but your writing will be compromised to the degree that you are willing to bend it to fit family values.

Okay, well a bunch of people have stopped reading by now, so now I'm just talking to my fellow hardcore writers. Here's Alice: “Many impressive rituals have been devised to make children ignore their true feelings and accept the cruelties of their parents without demur. They are forced to suppress their anger, their true feelings, and honor parents who do not deserve such reverential treatment, otherwise they will be doomed to intolerable feelings of guilt all their lives. Luckily, there are now individuals who are beginning to desist from such self-mutilation and to resist the attempt to instill guilt feelings into them. These people are standing up against a practice that its proponents have always considered ethical. In fact, however, it is profoundly unethical because it produces illness and hinders healing. It flies in the face of the laws of life.”

Strong stuff. I love it.

I didn't mention Alice when I answered the man yesterday about writer's block, though I could have. Instead, I talked about what works for me in the moment, and Alice has much to do with this. When I am not writing – when I am driving to work, or in a meeting, or out in the woods – when I am thinking about the writing I will do, and then when the moment comes – finally, I am in a workshop or here at the local coffee shop with my new laptop bought for a song – and instead of the release I’ve been looking forward to I feel resistance, suddenly there is nothing to write, no story to tell – in other words, when writer's block rises up, this is what I do.

I rebel. I fight back. I can't see my enemy. Can't see the force that does not want me to speak, that wants me to feel small and insignificant and ridiculous. I know that's what's at stake. It has nothing to do with my true value or abilities. It may take a moment or two of hesitation, of capitulation, but I pick up the pen, I will not be deterred or convinced that there is no point to writing. I know there is. Because I’ve been through this many times. I know I must overcome this. And I get the first sentence down and then the second and then the third. And I damn well keep going.


  1. Sounds like I need to pick up Alice! I wish I had more eyes and time! Ha! I've often stated, I'd like a clone. I guess that'd be cheating though. ;-)

    Your last paragraph brings to mind part of a poem, by yours truly ... :-D


    A rope begins to bind
    The expressions of my heart
    I grimace and I writhe
    Deny this bond its prize

    Who controls this cord
    Stealthily creeping in
    Invisible yet strong
    Strangling my passion

    Invisible to the eye
    I see it with my heart
    I feel its grip within
    Tightening the cinch

    Deny this girth its access!
    Cast it to the ground!
    Hurl this bit and rein!
    My heart will not be bound!

    I know 'twill be back
    Its tricks to try again
    One more time I'll cast it
    And make my soul my friend

  2. I just finished reading "Thou Shalt Not Be Aware" this weekend and then I found this blog about memoir writing. It really is liberating and in the Workshops there is true "authentic witnessing," by what Alice Miller calls a "sympathetic witness." Thanks, Marta.
    Liz Davies

  3. would you please tell us which alice miller book yoour quote is from? and would you consider writing a blog about not giving a flying fuck about your parents in order to write what you want/need to write in memoir? what sort of ethical or compassionate principles do you feel bound by if any?

  4. The quote is from From Rage to Courage, just published this year. I don't feel a need to create a new blog right now. I just created this one and have already begun to address these issues. They will certainly continue to be addressed. One's relationship to family is very relevant to writing memoir. I don't feel bound by ethics or principles as such. I support individuals in being true to themselves, unbound by blind obligation and false authority. Perhaps if I added a few words to the sentence that has caught your attention it would be more clear. Here goes: "She doesn't give a flying fuck for your parents, not at your expense at least." Thank you for reading.

  5. Great inspiration here. Last night, after months of crushing depression, I had the thought, 'what if if just wrote down all that happened, just as I experienced it, remembered it? Felt a door to freedom open. A sense of control over my own reality. Depression they say is caused by a loss of a sense of control. So this writing would be a way to gain some of that back. Thank you so much for this blog and all your writing and your courage to keep going. Feel not so alone, with you and all the commentors. All the best Marta.

  6. Thank you for contributing your experience, Anonymous. Interesting, your thoughts about control and getting a sense of control back through writing. Yes, I think that's true. Thank you for your good wishes, and I too wish you well with your continued writing. It sounds like you are creating real art. Marta