Like most writers I’ve gone through periods when I haven’t written much of anything at all. Long periods, I mean, weeks to months of a total lack of output. Not writer’s block (that suggests straining to write, the crumpled notebook pages and relentless use of the backspace button), but instead a stupid mental block in which I stood squarely in my own way and said, “You…shall not…pass!”
But I always pick up writing even when I swear I’m going to give up. Maybe giving up is an option before you make that invisible transition from one who writes on occasion to an out-and-out writer, but once you cross that line there’s no going back.
I realized a long time ago that I don’t know how not to be a writer.
Even during those blank periods I still rewrote my own life in my head, still transcribed events while they happened. I still took those events and pushed them to a farther limit, creating a story where only an event stood before. I still analyzed every little sensation and experience for its story-worthy potential, looking for a moment of verisimilitude for that story I wasn’t even writing.
In other words, I was still completely insane, even though I wasn’t writing anything.
Weird things happen when you throw yourself into something creative and consuming like writing. The whole world becomes your palette, each unique experience a new shade to add to a growing collection of colors. Writers (all artists, I’m sure) steal from everything around us. A little bit of this song, a bit of this person, a bit from this book and that article and this painting. Like kleptos we take and take and take, hardly realizing what we’re doing, and with luck we turn the things we’ve taken back around into something new and vibrant.
But only if we let ourselves reach for the colors we don’t already have. These are the books we’ve never touched, the places we’ve never been, the experiences we’ve never had and might never have if we don’t literally force ourselves to go out and have them. It’s easy — whether you work a regular 9 to 5 or not — to do the same things day in and day out, to read the same authors or genres, to see the same sorts of movies, to become little hermits frantically typing away from our limited experiences. We owe it to ourselves to reach for the new things, and push ourselves to take risks with our writing. No matter what genre, the honored writers are the ones who do something new, and how can any of us do anything new if we’re tying ourselves down to the same things over and over again?
So read across genres. Laugh with Christopher Moore and then move on to James Agee. Follow the Smashing Pumpkins with some Vivaldi. Go out on a whim, or plan a trip to some new part of the world or country or state. Figure out where the thieving is good and get yourself there, and snatch it all up. Mix it with the stuff you’ve already got that you stole a long time ago, until the individual parts are no longer recognizable and you have something new. That’s your story there, painted with all the colors you have.
If you’re lucky, someone will stop by to steal it from you.