In the July morning of this year in my life they have found something cool and refreshing in the metal case of my laptop computer, marching with purpose up the legs of the wooden table, across the unfinished birch grain and up, up, onto the black metal case, marching across the control key, the caps lock, the A and Q keys, strumming their own stories by the dozens.
I know how they feel. Last week I drove to the coast near Fort Bragg to escape the relentless, pounding three-digit heat, lazing in the 60-degree ocean breeze, stumbling quite by accident into a sleepy tribe of sea lionesses and their cubs who blended gray and mottled across the rocks and seaweed. Driving home again on roads choked by July Fourth traffic, the temperature gauge in the car rocking upward again into the 90s, I bit my tongue against declarations of rage against the sun, society, so many oversized and gluttonous trucks and campers trailing their appended smaller cars, migrating into volleys of shimmering air. And today, hot and parched, the ants are writing their own story.
To say they have nothing to share is nonsense. My first and best writing mentor, James Hall, would have us pack up our notebooks and drive off the campus in the hills of Santa Cruz into town to find stories. He told me to take a basket of dirty clothes to the laundromat on Mission Street. The assignment: watch someone schlepping their dirties in and out of the machines and create a line of dialogue that told their story. Then, we had to return home and write a short fiction that deserved the nugget of dialogue. The only rule: we were not to mention the laundromat.
There are few gems in the hundreds of books on writing, but they are precious and include John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, Henry James' The Art of the Novel, Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, Rust Hill's Writing in General and The Short Story in Particular, and Leon Surmelian's Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness. Of the last, I have James Hall's personal copy, bequeathed to me when I graduated the writing program.
None of these tells you what to do when you experience writer's block because, if you're a writer, there is no such thing. There are days when the prose comes easily. And there are the others when it feels like hell to lay down a poorly made phrase. Writing takes a lot of writing, and writers are self-limiting by a lack of imagination, by sloth, by immersion in crippling pop culture and the deluge of distractions and poor taste. Mostly sloth.
Here's the only trick that has worked every time I feel disconnected from the page: I read. I read it all and it tickles the crevice in the brain dedicated to calling out rhythms of language. James Hall had us read across the genres. We'd read a pop novel like Hotel, or a crime piece from Elmore Leonard, a Zane Grey western--all along with the customary Joyce, Melville, and Crane.
When I taught fiction at the University of Illinois, my upscale Chicagoan students resented having to read outside of contemporary short stories. Some hated reading entirely, which was surprising for a classroom of students who elected to enroll in fiction writing classes. Some saw the class as a pottery workshop or some other "quick-A" experience they could complete without compromising their frat parties, akin to a classroom version of the window of a bank or credit union where you'd drive through, swipe a credit card, and drove off with cash--or caché.
And in this first week of July, having taken a month off from my daily writing, it felt like begging for my life to lay out a few lines of prose. So I picked up Willa Cather's My Antonia last night and fell into the comfort of honest language.
The ants, you know, produce music as they walk--an effect created by rubbing of thorax parts to their rhythm of march. It's called stridulation.
One of my teachers, novelist Wright Morris once wrote:
"In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow. West of the 98th Meridian–where it sometimes rains and it sometimes doesn’t–towns, like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops. But in a dry climate the husk of the plant remains. The stranger might find, as if preserved in amber, something of the green life that was once lived there, and the ghosts of men who have gone on to a better place. The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited. Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place–now that it is dead–has come to life. As if empty it is forever occupied."
And so, like those tireless ants, I have begun again to march across the keys if only to breathe life into my life, to open out the broken windows and sing my dreams.