Editor's Note: I met Dan Libman at the Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago in 2009, where he co-paneled the discussion, "There *Is* a There Out Here: The Midwestern Xurban Writing Group" with Cris Mazza, Molly McNett and Chris Fink. Libman's writing is extremely smart and funny and his presentation was equally engaging. I highly recommend reading his writing wherever you can encounter it and hope that over his lifetime, his publications ultimately outnumber his writing distractions.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing
by Dan Libman
What we mostly talk about when we talk about writing is what we’re doing when we’re not writing, and the anxiety not writing causes. I’ve lucked on to a formula about managing those anxieties. In the past year, I interviewed two well known novelists about their careers for Fifth Wednesday Journal, eventually getting around to methods of overcoming writer’s block as nervously as a pre-adolescent might inquire of a Sex Ed teacher how one gets a girl to like you. One writer told me he simply stays put until he gets an idea, the other tried stand up comedy. As it happens, I’ve done both and neither made me less anxious about not writing when I wasn’t writing.
“You need to plan your distractions the way a binge eater plans a pig-out.” My therapist specializes in eating disorders and, though I’ve never had much trouble with food, due to a combination of living in a rural community and issues regarding my insurance, I’ve been seeing her for years. Actually I get a lot out of it, but we spend a lot of time translating my feelings of anxiousness and inadequacy into tortured metaphors involving eating and starvation. “What you want to do is say you are only going to spend X amount of time wool-gathering so you can focus on your nutritional needs. That’s your writing time,” she’ll add.
When I was in grad school—serving my time as a conscript in the workshop army—our professor lobbed a softball for discussion: What are some of the reasons we are unable to write when we are unable to write? Around the semi-circle it went until it was my turn.
“Sometimes there are just other things I’d rather be doing.”
What? Our normally affable, friendly-to-a-fault instructor turned suddenly rabid. What things specifically? he wanted to know. What things could you possibly want to do other than write? Unprepared for a follow up, I stammered a bit and finally came up with, “Going to the movies?”
I’ll spare you his response, but the truth is I do like going to the movies. I like reading books written by other people and I like an awful lot of the stuff on television. This was before I had acquired the ultimate distraction: kids. One of my standard distractional tactics (or as my therapist calls it, “attempts to sate my sweet tooth for diversion”) is to read to the kids.
My daughter and I just finished Tales from the Arabian Nights, an exquisitely illustrated, child friendly version of the original classic. She was particularly taken with the exploits of Morgiana, a kitchen slave who wins her freedom by pouring hot oil on the 40 thieves who have come to rob Ali Baba, basically sautéing them to death.
Across our yard is a coop containing a flock of chickens from which we get eggs and a satisfying stream of distraction. One of the roosters is a bulbous, Buff Orpington we’ve dubbed the Blues Rooster because his cock-a-doodle-doo is exactly like the riff in that old Robert Johnson tune: Buh-ba, buh-bump! Aside from squiring the hens, “Bluester” (natch) has taken a fancy, much to the irritation of my daughter, to pecking at the legs of children. Yesterday I lost quite a bit of writing time keeping my Morgiana-influenced daughter from beheading Bluester with her aluminum Girls Rule baseball bat.
But never mind that. We were talking about writing. And distraction. Any therapist will tell you the key is to feel good about yourself, and that has to come from something other than eating. And by eating, I mean writing.
The secret isn’t to get a good day’s writing in, but instead to get to where you feel like you’re about to be productive, then find something else to do. Instead of feeling worthless because you didn’t write, you feel irritated that you could have written, if only you didn’t need to keep your kid from killing your rooster or if only the raccoon hadn’t chewed through the coop’s roof and now you have to go get some wire mesh and a staple gun. Feeling put-upon and over-burdened is way better than feeling useless.
I could explain this better, but I think I can hear the garden hose being unwound and Bluester’s riff has a strange note of concern to it.
Daniel S. Libman is the winner of a Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Paris Review Discovery Prize. His debut collection, Married But Looking, drops in December. He's reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Dan's brand-new interview of author Stephen Dixon at Fifth Wednesday Journal here.