The Lives Around Our Writing

By

It’s been months, maybe even a year or more since I’ve written anything of substance. I sit down at the computer and I stare at the screen. I’ll be at a coffee shop with my notebook, pen in hand, and stare at the page. I might scribble a sentence down, maybe two before shutting the cover and diverting my attention to my latte instead. My journaling is sporadic. A paragraph here and there over the last two or three years. 

The last entry in it is from July 22: Oh Great Mystery – help me pay attention to the rhythms inside me and the rhythms around me.

May 12 before that: In Portland. Feels ghostly. Both the city itself and my memories of it.

A bullet list from a year ago October:

  • You don’t seem like you’re stuck. I don’t think you’re stuck
  • Sometimes you need a mirror and a dolphin.
  • Once you leaned back and crossed your legs
  • Exhale.

In the 30 or more years I’ve been writing for fun, and the more than a decade or so that I’ve been writing professionally, it’s the worst writer’s block that I’ve ever experienced. A few years back, I started writing a project of my own: a collection of essays centered around a year of travel I did around the U.S. with my dog Lucy in a camping trailer. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to finishing a book. About a year ago, I told my friend Casey, a writer buddy of mine, “I think I’m two or three months away from being done.”

“That’s awesome,” he replied. 

“Yeah, but I don’t wanna jinx it. So I’m just taking it slow. It’s not about getting it done. I don’t want to force myself to do it. It’s about the writing. I still have to like the writing,” I said. 

A year later, and I’m still 2 or 3 months away from being done. 

When the world started to change in the early part of 2020 more rapidly than I recall experiencing in my lifetime, something in me clicked into survival mode. I remember packing up a friend’s car with his computer and boxes of office supplies from work late one night because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to go back to the office the following day. 

“Should I get the plants?” he asked. 

“Yeah,” I said, “this could be months.”

At home, I took inventory of the applesauce I had canned the summer before. “20 quarts left,” I remember counting. “This’ll last two-and-a-half months if we ration it to two jars a week,” I thought, and while it hasn’t quite been the post-apocalyptic world from a book by P.D. James or Cormac McCarthy, it has been hard and different. 

I stopped running, or exercising altogether, really. I gained 50 lbs. As a person of color, I began to tense up when a police car passed me on the road. I avoided walking my dog past the house on my block that had a huge political sign for the candidate I didn’t vote for. I got let go from my job for lack of work, and subsequently rehired after business picked up again, then agreed to work overtime for weeks and months in a row, so afraid it would all go away again without notice. I jiggled windows at night to make sure they were locked. I kept recounting the jars of apple sauce. 

I know this wasn’t everyone’s experience. 

Some people baked more bread. Some people adopted a dog. “I’m reading more,” my friend Scott told me, “more than ever before.” I, on the other hand, haven’t finished a book for the last two and a half years. Some people believed that so many of the changes weren’t real or that we were all overreacting, and maybe we were—maybe I still am overreacting. But with whatever did or didn’t change, it’s very palpably true to me that when I pick up a pen or turn on my computer, something in me is different. Something in me has changed. 

Last spring I started seeing a therapist with the express goal of working through my writer’s block. “What do you do for fun?” she asked during our first appointment. “What brings you joy?” I shared with her that I’ve always been so skeptical of fun, or joy, unsure of their purpose, unsure of their importance. “I just want to work through whatever I need to work through to get me writing again,” I told her. 

Often the art, the creating, is so intangible, so wily. You can’t do much to control how it manifests, but you can, with some practice, control the life around your writing.

John Cal

“There’ll be lots of time to talk about that,” she said. “And it’s going to be really hard, and we’re going to have to process some things, and it’s going to be a lot of work. So I want to talk about fun and joy first to make sure that when you go home after we do our work here, after you’re emotionally exhausted, you have a way to regain your strength.”

We’ve been seeing one another every other Wednesday since March, and I’m still not sure if I believe her, but I want to. I’m trying to believe that joy could help me write again. 

I borrowed a bird-watching book from the library. I sat on a bench down the street and identified the juvenile robins as they imitated their parents flying to and from their nest.

I learned new music on my ukulele: “The Pretender” by Jackson Browne and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

I went to the garden store. I bought seeds. 

Casey, that writer buddy of mine, calls it “the life around your writing.” Often the art, the creating, is so intangible, so wily. You can’t do much to control how it manifests, but you can, with some practice, control the life around your writing. Casey’s writing life often includes making dinner for his wife—burritos or veggie bowls—or walking their dog Finnick. He likes the challenge of a good escape room and is possibly the most prolific podcast listener I know. 

I still haven’t written much (if anything) lately, and I don’t know how I’m doing with the fun or joy, but I do believe I am getting better at living the life around my writing. I finished a pint of ice cream the other day — rum raisin, my favorite flavor — with satisfied incredulity and with very little guilt. I read a chapter most mornings out of a book I have sitting on my nightstand in conviction and hope. And while I haven’t started running again, I did buy a new pair of socks for whenever I muster up the desire. 

Last night, I went across the street to spend some time with Jeff and Sharon, neighbors my roommate Arthur and I met when I first moved to Washington three years ago. “Come over for a glass of wine on the deck,” Sharon said one day while out walking her dog. We kept putting it off. The world was changing so fast. It was hard to keep up with it all. 

I don’t know what finally made us get around to it, three years later. Jeff and Arthur texted through the details. They’d get snacks. We’d bring something to drink. I bought a bottle of non-alcoholic grapefruit soda for those that needed to abstain. I, myself, don’t drink very much, maybe a glass or two of something a month, sometimes less, but since this meeting was three years in the making, I splurged on a bottle of my favorite red – a reserve Trivento Malbec from Argentina – and a bottle of my favorite white – a perfectly chilled Zaca Mesa Viognier. I brought a loaf of bread as a gift, and as soon as we crossed the street between our houses, walked the short path up to their front door, and knocked, we were welcomed in with as much boisterous enthusiasm as when we sporadically encounter them about the neighborhood either one or the both of us walking our dogs, and I got a huge hug from Sharon for the loaf of bread.

I still haven’t written much (if anything) lately, and I don’t know how I’m doing with the fun or joy, but I do believe I am getting better at living the life around my writing.

John Cal

In the house, Sharon sidled up next to a bowl of plums and sliced them onto some mixed greens for a salad. She fussed with a few errant vegetables on her counter and then invited me to walk out with her to the garden to pick more tomatoes. “They seem to be spoiling on the vine this year,” she said, indicating mysterious brown bottoms on most of the red fruit she was picking. “We better enjoy them while they last.”

When the food was ready and out on the deck table, we passed the garden salad, poached shrimp with cocktail sauce, bowls of toasted pistachios, glasses of wine, and dark chocolate truffles. I learned that Sharon was a writer, is a writer, and that she wrote a book called “Curse of the Seven 70’s,” a vampire comedy about falling in love. “It’s also about forgiveness,” she said, “like when Jesus says to forgive seventy times seven.” I’m not so good at forgiveness, especially when trying to forgive myself. 

In the last year or so, Sharon got cancer. I don’t know what kind. I didn’t ask. I just noticed her walking around the neighborhood in baseball caps and artfully tied scarves, and then over at her house, a bare head covered in soft peach fuzz. “I have such a hard time writing these days. The chemo makes me so foggy and tired,” she said. “Maybe, next year, I’ll get back to it.” She shared some about how much harder her life has been lately but had much more to say about how much she loves when her friends visit and how she and Jeff are wanting to remodel the kitchen, and how she can’t wait to get back to New York to wander around the Met. She kept pouring me much too full helpings of Viognier and beckoned us all to raise our glasses before toasting. “To neighbors,” she said. 

I often forget that I am not just a writer, or perhaps I should say, I am not only a writer. I am also a neighbor, a friend, a son, a musician, a chef, a baker, and someone who is doing his best to allow just a little more fun and joy through the cracks in his armor. 

We sat on their back deck for nearly four hours. Talking a little about how we were having such a hard time writing, yes, but even more, about how good the company was, how much fun we were having, and how the lives around our writing were just starting to get a little bit better. 


9 Comments

  1. Erling Rantrud

    @erling-rantrud

    Thank you, John Cal. I have been thinking about writing, and reading, for years. But I have also been dinging and tasted great wines with friends (one of them is a wine importer, specialising in Israeli wines). My therapist didn’t say much about fun og or joy, but I remember her saying something about meaning, and gardening for even just 1o minutes, and paying attention to the different sounds in all the noise.  I think I will stow away my phone with all my distractions for a little while and pick up my note book. But first I will garden for 10, or maybe 5, minutes.
    Thank you again. 

  2. gllen

    Thank you John!
    Like those essays you wrote & read before each supper-time meal  at Hutchmoot 2019, this piece had me shedding tears.
    Good tears.
    Yes.
    Thank you.
     

  3. Andrew Buckner

    Thank you for this, John. Life has been a challenge for years for so many who aspire to create, and it’s beautiful to hear that sorrow and incoming hope voiced so poignantly. 

  4. Brenna

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve had artist’s block for what’s felt like years now, and what you wrote resonated with me. 

  5. Linda Mae

    Jon, don’t be so hard on yourself. FWIW, I’ve always found you to be a compelling storyteller. Frankly, I even kind of find “sometimes you need a mirror and a dolphin” to be engaging (one wonders….would the dolphin use the mirror? What would he see?).

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