When The Words Are Hard To Find

I CAN'T WRITE. I’m stuck or confused or distracted or, God-forbid, the big “d” word (in hushed tones: depressed).

There’s this real thing called “writer’s block”. Not that I’m self-diagnosing, but I do feel sort of blocked. It has been weeks since I last wrote anything I would consider posting.

Here’s the sucky part about being blocked, I always tend to settle for the poorer path, worst choice, easy way out. Like those days when I forget to take my lunch to work. Noontime comes and I can’t decide what to do--what sounds good. Taco Bell is close and cheap. Five minutes later I hate myself.

Politics is the Taco Bell of writing for me right now, and I hate myself for it. But it’s cheap and close; and gross, and disgusting. I’m not going there (at least today). 

Writer’s block has probably existed since the invention of writing, but the term itself was first introduced into the academic literature in the nineteen-forties, by a psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler. For two decades, Bergler studied writers who suffered from “neurotic inhibitions of productivity,” in an attempt to determine why they were unable to create—and what, if anything, could be done about it. After conducting multiple interviews and spending years with writers suffering from creative problems, he discarded some of the theories that were popular at the time. Blocked writers didn’t “drain themselves dry” by exhausting their supply of inspiration. Nor did they suffer from a lack of external motivation (the “landlord” theory, according to which writing stops the moment the rent is paid). They didn’t lack talent, they weren’t “plain lazy,” and they weren’t simply bored. So what were they?  --The New Yorker

This article from The New Yorker goes on to present findings of several studies that “found, unsurprisingly, that blocked writers were unhappy. Symptoms of depression and anxiety, including increased self-criticism and reduced excitement and pride at work, were elevated in the blocked group; symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as repetition, self-doubt, procrastination, and perfectionism, also appeared, as did feelings of helplessness and ‘aversion to solitude’—a major problem, since writing usually requires time alone.”

The good news for me is that I don’t write for living. In fact, I only do it for my own amusement, so to be “blocked” is only a personal frustration. But, I like to write and I especially like the phenonemon that when I’m in writing mode, I pay more attention to life. I’m looking for ideas. My sense of wonder is much higher.

There’s a lot of advice written on how to end writer’s block (probably written by someone who was blocked and decided they could break the block by writing a book on how to breakthrough writer’s block).


One method I’ve used often is to type the words of a writer you highly respect; to get in a flow. So, I’m going to do that here in case you’re still reading this and thus deserve a reward for your diligence. This is an excerpt from the beautiful book “Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry.

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line - starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King's Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led - make of that what you will.

It is all a journey isn’t it?

There that's my one true sentence for the day.

The Canvas

Think broadly about the idea of a "canvas", something you would do art on. IT could be an actual canvas, a board, a piece of paper, the side of a building, a boxcar in a rail yard, any blank slate. I have this theory that sometimes the canvas matters more than others. For example, I was invited recently to contribute to a project--a creative collaboration. It is a book that will pass from artist to artist, creative to creative, and each person will make an entry of sorts. This canvas matters. I didn't want to make a mess of it. I thought about trying a sketch, or maybe a watercolor, but decided to write something. This is what I wrote:

DOES THE CANVAS MATTER? Maybe it shouldn't but it does. When I was handed this book, this "creative collaboration", I thought, "I'm not worthy", especially for page two, right behind one of Molly Hennesy's wonder-full drawings. This canvas matters; for some reason.

There was a day when we got our coffee at diners in heavy porcelain mugs. Maybe we would have a piece of pie from the lighted display case. We occupied our hands and minds (at some semi-conscious level) by doodling on a napkin. Now we get it at Starbucks® in a paper cup while diddling on a smart phone.

Photo by nano/iStock / Getty Images

Were those paper napkins potentially a valuable canvas: where dreams were sketched, where a poem was written, where a song lyric was begun, where a young girl tried out the surname of her current boyfriend paired with her first name?

Not long ago, my Amazing-Missus was visiting with a sister-in-law of Woody Guthrie. YES, that Woody Guthrie. We were in Tulsa for the grand opening of the Woody Guthrie Center. Woody's sister-in-law was telling how Woody would come to visit and was constantly writing on little scraps of paper, like the backs of envelopes. She said that when he would leave, she would gather them all up and throw them in the trash. She had no idea that at some time people would buy tickets to come to a museum to see scraps of paper like the one where he wrote the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land."

Writing in my own journals can be cathartic for me, but the paper in that journal, the pen and ink used to write the entry, and even the words themselves don't have much value to anyone else. But sometimes, if I'm writing for something like this book, I'm more careful of the choice of words, my penmanship, and the message. It's because, to me at least, the canvas matters; sometimes.

Think about this: if I asked you to write a word on a napkin while we were sitting in a diner having coffee and pie, what word would you write? Now if I said, if you'll choose a word to have tattooed on your body, I'll pay for the tattoo. What word would you choose.

Diner napkin. Your own human flesh. Does the canvas matter?

If you would like to keep up with this project, there is a page on Facebook® SKETCHBOOK CREATIVE COLLAB.

You Win Some

If you’ve been a loving parent of a young child just learning to play Candy Land, you know the quandary: do I let them win, do I stack the deck so that they will draw the double purple card, or do I teach them to lose well, you know in case they grow up to be a Dallas Cowboys fan or something.

That quagmire is even deeper and more daunting when you’re a grandparent and your mission in life is for your beautiful grandchildren to never, ever know loss, disappointment, heartache or failure of any kind.

Harper & Pops & Checkers

Harper & Pops & Checkers

My grandfathers were real men, not weepy, whiny, bleeding-heart liberals like me. I played checkers with my maternal grandfather. He was a well digger and used cuss words in normal conversation. I know he never intentionally, out of pity, sympathy or compassion or anything else, ever LET me win a game. I know this because I never won a single game of checkers against him.

The game of choice of my paternal grandfather was dominoes. The occasion of letting me win or not never arose because I was never allowed to play. Seats at the domino table was reserved for serious players who could count their own points, not put their partner in jeopardy and pretty well knew the dominoes in every players hand half way through the round.

Sometimes you wonder if maybe sometimes some Adults out there, including me, had too many people in our lives who LET them win a few times too many.

What about this? Wouldn’t it be nice if KD would come back “home” Saturday night and do something to sort of help his old team win one. I’m referring of course to the game this Saturday, between the OKC Thunder and the GS Warriors, and the first time Kevin Durant will return to OKC for a game since his midnight abandonment of us a few months back. I guess that would be a hollow win wouldn’t it. I tell you what I would really like to see, not that I’m a sore loser or anything, but I would love to see KD hold Draymond Green down while Steven Adams kicks him in that place where no man likes to be kicked. Of course the sweetest victory of all would be one where the Warriors (with the exception Green, of course) play one of their best games and still lose to our Thunder.

When it comes to playing checkers with Harper, I don’t actually LET her win, but I also don’t stand in the way of her being a bit creative with the game. For example, apparently in Harper’s version of the game, she can earn a third checker on her “kinged” pair. That makes for an omnipotent King that can pretty much move anywhere at anytime. You have to watch out for those omnipotent rulers. It’s hard to beat them no matter how well youplay.

Some wise person said, “When the game is over, all the pieces go back in the box.”

Or as my mother and the mothers of other frequent losers used to say: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game that counts.”


We have a “comforter” at our house. Although I have watched copious amounts of HGTV and have logged several hours in a Pottery Barn or two, I don’t claim to know my comforters from my quilts from my duvets.

To further clarify, I’m not necessarily speaking of this type of “comforter”:

“So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” —Ecclesiastes 4:1

That’s for another day perhaps.

So here is a photo of our comforter. It is from IKEA®, so I guess it’s an immigrant comforter—Scandinavian, I believe. (I’ve also spent a few hours in IKEA®. It’s by design that you go there and stay awhile. If you’ve ever been in one you know you can’t get out until you reach the end—sort of like when we elect politicians to a four-year term. I can’t be certain of the comforter’s origin. It may actually be from Bangladesh. I cut the label off even though it warned that I was doing so at the risk of severe penalty. I can be anarchistic like that.

The comforter delivers on its promise. It is comforting; and warm, and utilitarian. Not once though, has anyone ever come to our house and said, “What a beautiful comforter, who made it?!”

However there is another covering in our home. Every time someone sees it they comment on its beauty.

While being mass-produced by the thousands and shipped from Sweden or Bangladesh is a story, this other covering has a real story. It was lovingly made by hand, by my daughter-in-law’s great aunt, Elda, who had curated the fabrics over time, selected the pieces with some kind of theme in mind, and then stiched them together just so. It was given to us as a gift.

It is comforting, warm and artful.

It is called a “crazy quilt” by people who know their coverings.

Now to the metaphor:

What if we could imagine our earthly collection of humanity as a jointed fabric of sorts—woven together by the things we share: hopes, dreams, water, air, sun, moon, food, beauty, strife, illness, hunger, love, hate, compassion, spite, courage, fear, selfishness and selflessness?

I really do understand the worldview that somehow it is more comforting to hunker down in perceived safety under a protective, homogeneous blanket, secured tight around it’s edges. I get that. But is it realistic? Is it beautiful? What about the stories that will never be written or told.

I am not bragging, but rather celebrating when I say that I have close friends who are young and who are old, who have a wide mix of religious views and thankfully are passionate about their beliefs. Friends who are of varied races, who are of varied sexual orientations. I have dear, dear friends who hold Donald Trump in the highest regard. And I have friends whose skin crawls at the mention of his name. I love them all. I’m grateful that my life is somehow stitched to theirs. I’m glad my quilt is crazy.

Is a “crazy quilt” crazy? Is it risky? Yes, that’s life. Do I believe in providence? Yes, in a weird sort of way that likely defies all logic but my own. Would I prefer the snowy white comfort of a utilitarian blanket over the crazy, wildly colored haphazardly stitched-together stories of flawed humans? Absolutely not.

Franklin Graham recently said, “Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized—and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

It is also true that every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be a neighbor who contributes beautifully to the artful craziness of our American quilt, just as all who have formed this immigrant nation have.

I prefer the hope-fullness of this passage over the hopelessness of Graham’s words:

“Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before GOD, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation.
And do this so that their children, who don’t yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before GOD, your God, for as long as you live on the land that you are crossing over [emigrate] the Jordan to possess.” —Deuteronomy 31:12-13