Abrupt Edge Diary - 17

This is the sixteenth in a series about the construction of the novel-in-progress, Abrupt Edge

16.  That old dodge, writer’s block

Whoever thought up that idea?  In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes reports that Robert Cohn, after his successful first novel, is suffering from writer’s block.  Jake really believes Robert’s a flash in the pan, who wrote his one autobiographical novel and can’t produce a second because he isn’t really a writer.   It’s a rather brutal portrait of a literary poseur who otherwise behaves badly, such as crying at the wrong time (which, for Hemingway, seemed to be any time a man cries), and not taking it well on learning he was just the current boy toy of the beautiful but neurotic Brett Ashley.  In other words, he takes himself too seriously, which isn’t in Hemingway’s code of manliness, writer or no.

Listen; there’s no psychiatric diagnosis called Writers Block.  It doesn’t appear in the latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases.  It’s simply shorthand for what a particular writer is experiencing as difficulty in getting the words out.

The reasons can be manifold, but they aren’t peculiar to writing.  The best place to start, wanting to discover why the stoppage, is the work itself.  Among organizations that give away money for social endeavors, “sustainability” is a big buzzword these days.  You want to open a shelter for battered women?  It needs to sustain itself by the end of the grant period-a neat trick, given how coveted black and blue women are.

In a more straightforward way, a long work of fiction needs to be sustainable.  Consider Abrupt Edge:  It’s one thing to conceive of a brothel deluxe in the middle of a wilderness, it’s another to make a novel populated with harlots, their highbrow johns, and all the support staff such an establishment would require.  If the dictum, “write what you know” is in any way valid, who would know the insides of a courtesan, a CEO, a madam and a bidet polisher equally well?

Truth is, no one knows anyone else’s insides.  If Abrupt Edge were being written by a committee of courtesans, CEOs and bidet cleaners, they wouldn’t know much more than I do about the characters in Abrupt Edge.  For they are characters, phantasms that come out of the writer’s head.  They must be plausible, they must be what most readers might imagine them to be, but to make, say, Gloria, the young woman who’s been assigned as guide to Jacob Gleason, the narrator, to resemble a Tenderloin hooker would be as bad as making her into an Orange County housewife.

I had a secretary once who’d been a prostitute.  She referred to herself as a former call girl.  As secretary she was efficient, loyal, intelligent, hard working and insightful.  She saved my bacon more than once.  She wasn’t pretty.  I didn’t find her at all alluring.  She was frank to a fault, unabashed about liking sex and seeking it as often as she could.  She is the only person of either sex I’ve known who regularly saw a doctor to be checked for STDs (VD we called it back then).

Same workplace, interestingly enough, I watched another female employee being turned out.  When she was nodding off at her typewriter, showing up for work late and otherwise being less than useful in her job, we knew something was wrong.  She was a natural platinum blond with true peaches and cream skin, all sorts of curves, an easy laugh.  She had let herself get led into drugs and prostitution by a small-time punk hustler (I met them on the street one day after she was let go; he offered me a professional discount on a piece of her ass) and it was sad.  She didn’t have my secretary’s self-confidence, she didn’t know how to say no to a hustler, she was a miserable human being.

That’s all I need to know about prostitutes to write Abrupt Edge.  But I only know the insides of any character by plumbing myself.  I’ve been the whore, the CEO, the champ, the chump, even the madam.  Its when that well is polluted, when I am having a hard time accepting the limits of my own soul, that the words have to be squeezed out like the last dollop of toothpaste from a tube.

In dry spells I drink a lot-used to, I’ve actually almost stopped-I watch a lot of TV movies, which actually can never hurt a writer except for taking him away from the keyboard, and I play a lot of solitaire.  Slowly my soul forms a pearl around the irritants that plague me (it’s what some call inspiration) and I push on.

Why?

That’s a topic for another post other than to say I must.  It’s my categorical imperative, my salvation.

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