Thursday, July 01, 2004

Writer's Blog

Nothing yesterday because my finances were too depressing. No food again this weekend, apparently. Out of coffee, too. There's a drug addiction I'll cop to: two cups of my special blend in the morning and I'm ready to write all day.

Which is why the article by Joan Accocella in the June 14-21 issue of the New Yorker (sorry, no link) about writer's block really got to me. In fact, after I read it, the depression that had stayed with me all day after waking me up at 5am for a couple of hours' worth of anxiety attack sort of melted away.

Yeah, I've had writer's block. Back in the '70s I had it from time to time. It was mostly the result of taking on an assignment I really wasn't suited for because I needed the money. And, back in the days before fax machines, e-mail, and FedEx, boy, if you didn't get in by deadline, you were screwed.

What cured me was taking a job at a daily paper. Really, no one there cared a bit how good it was, but they needed it now, if not sooner. My problem was, I'd spent a lot of time in the '70s learning how to write well from good editors (Bob Christgau in particular), and somehow the pressure to produce combined with the editing instincts these people had instilled in me meant that what came out was, as often as not, pretty good. Oh, there would be weeks, usually in the middle of August, when school was out, no one was touring, the local bands were all played out, and it was 126 degrees outside, when I couldn't come up with an idea for a column. That got me the rebuke from one of the airhead Lifestyle editors that "If you really wanted to do this, you could." Thanks.

But ever since working there, I've been able to do it. Just jam it out. Not to say that there haven't been scary times. My second assignment for the Wall St Journal was to cover an exhibition treating Breughel's sons' art. Breughel I just about knew. The boys I didn't know. And once I saw the show, I was convinced that it was important and I had absolutely nothing to say about it. But...I wanted desperately to hold on to this connection, so I plowed my way through the incomprehensible art-critic-ese of the catalogue, stared at the plates, and finally realized something was coming. It wasn't my best piece for them by a long shot, but I was able to do it.

More commonly, I'd be writing the lead on my way back here, be it on the local subway system or on one of Deutsche Bahn's sleek white ICE trains. The fact is, in distinction to the case studies Accocella presented, I seem to want to write more as I grow older. A day like yesterday or today, when I don't write anything except e-mails -- and not too many of them -- feels like a day completely wasted, tossed away, thrown in the garbage, when I could have spent it actually doing something I love to do and getting paid for it, too.

This is why losing the Wall St Journal gig was such a tragedy. Probably no other publication in the world would print a regular 1000-word piece on some European art exhibition, oddball musician, expo, concert, museum exhibition, or whatever. The Herald Tribune could use me, but they seem too damn conservative, and space is definitely at a premium there. (Although my subscription lapsed last month because they discovered some months from 2002 where apparently my bank had bounced their draft. Too late to deal with that.)

Failing that, I have other ideas I'd like to sell various magazines, but I'm having no luck whatsoever getting to them. There was the editor who was going to make the introductions, but he vanished. What I need, as the young editor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, is a London-based agent who's hungry enough to start with magazine sales and, when I'm back on my feet, work up to books. I wrote the only non-rock-critic friend I have in London (I do not want a rock critic agent) but he hasn't written back.

Hell, I've even got something to sell, all ready and sitting here: in November, W.W. Norton is going to be putting out The Rose and the Briar, a collection of original essays on American ballads, in which I share space with Luc Sante, Joyce Carol Oates, Stanley Crouch, and David Thomas of Pere Ubu fame, among many others. I've got the essay all ready to go...somewhere. And it may be vanity, but I think it's going to attract some attention. I just hope I live long enough to see it come out. But yesterday, contributing to my depression, we writers got an e-mail urging us to call our agents and get them to work selling these essays as a great pre-release publicity move. Agent? Ah, well...

I've got a couple of other things on the hard drive, too, but most importantly, I have fresh ideas in my head. They don't come as easily when my utmost concern is whether there will be food on the table this weekend (like I said, probably not), but when I can relax, when I feel like a human being (as I did when I spent ten days in Texas this spring), ideas come bounding.

This is probably the most fruitful, most creative time I've ever lived through, and, as I've said, a lot of the stuff I write -- for a dime a word -- amazes me with its quality.

There's more where that came from. Too bad no one wants it.

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