The block usually comes about this point. Though I’ve never had full-on writer’s block – a complete inability to produce anything – the jagged little splinters of this mythic problem do sometimes plague my process. What do I write next? Since the beginning of October, I’ve written six installments of this column, enough that the initial new-ness has worn off— and here it comes: What do I write next?
The German writer Thomas Mann is often-quoted as having said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That’s because of something that William Zinsser wrote about the realities of our work in On Writing Well, a book I teach and re-teach every year: “. . . writing wasn’t easy and wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.” A writer has to work hard to make it look easy, and in declaring this to be one’s vocation, a significant quandary arises: you’ve got the mic, now what are you going to say?
It would be too easy to write something like a perspective piece about politics – on Donald Trump or some liberal-conservative squabble – because, to borrow from the Cracker song, “What the world needs now is another [political opinion piece] like I need a hole in my head!” The last couple of years have largely soured me on politics, and the last election reinforced my belief that social change will have to come before political change. (I’m a fierce independent and a devotee of columnist David Brooks on this one.) Neither our deliverance nor our redemption will come from the top-down. So there’s no sense in me claiming that I have something say, or even share about that.
I could also write about Alabama politics . . . There’s no shortage of material there either. Most of the same people got re-elected in November 2018, so there will no doubt be little change. What should I say about that now, two weeks after the election, before anyone has had time to not-change?
As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to give readers everything they need and nothing they don’t. This is one of the main conundrums in a writer’s craft, how to convey a sentiment or idea or story to reader without superfluity. What we writers don’t ever want to our readers to feel about us is what country singer Sturgill Simpson says in his song “Voices”:
How I wish somebody’d make them voices go away,
seems they’re always talkin’, ain’t got much to say.
As a writer, it’s important not only to know when not to embellish or overwrite, but also when to just shut up altogether.
The simple fact is: this week, I “ain’t got much to say.” Notwithstanding our unsurprising and un-civil politics, I’m on Thanksgiving break from school, taking a little breather “between the heaves of storm” (to quote Emily Dickinson). Sometimes, it’s OK to shut up when you have nothing to say. Perhaps more writers (and our kindred spirits in all branches of media) might consider the verity in that idea.
“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige” posts will be published regularly on Tuesday afternoons.
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