Are you writing?





Twirlers standing at attention for photograph. 1960s.



As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting to Bluebird Blvd. for nearly three whole months.

I’ve been having a problem. A writing problem.

Is it writer’s block?

No, it’s something worse than writer’s block if you can believe it.

 

Writer’s block is bad enough.  And it’s real—don’t give me any of your power right through nonsense, okay? I’ve done that.  You can do it, but it’s like dancing on a broken leg. Super painful.

If you write, you know what I’m talking about. You’re sitting in the chair with the paper and the pen and the clock going, and you wait.

For what?!? You ask.

Words. You’re waiting for words.

Well, there are words everywhere, you say. Just pick up a dictionary. Hell, turn on the television. People are speaking them things all the time.

Um. They’re not the right words. That’s the whole problem.


So there you sit. Or you used to—staring at the wall. Waiting for something to materialize. The more you sit and wait, the more you believe you’re going to be sitting and waiting forever. But of course you don’t.

The words come—terribly at first, then a little better, and if you’re lucky, pretty well, and then either you go for broke and it’s hours later and you look up and go whaaaa? —because you’ve totally lost track of time and it’s late and the dogs need their supper….

Again, this is how it used to be.


Now every writer I know has a completely different writing problem.

There are too many words now, dammit. Too many freaking words.

Every day, I wake up to a phone that insists on throwing words at me.   I sit up in bed and grab the glass of water I set on the nightstand every evening. I take my pills and pull a book onto my lap—I like to wake up slowly, you see. But there are all of these things that are asking for my attention.

There’s a television set in the other room blathering about the best way to sew a Hong Kong seam. (Yes, The Husband watches his sewing shows before school.)

And my phone beeyooops! because someone on Facebook “likes” the photograph I re-posted yesterday from Humans of New York. (Dude, I love HONY. Best thing on the internet.)

And then Twitbot 3 ker-bleeps! because the alert I set for our current Texas Guvi, Captain Hairdo is blowing up this morning because—oh, is it Christmas already?—he’s being indicted. (For something. Finally.)

Yeah, I know. You’re saying, “This is a problem? I should have such a problem.”

Oh, but it is. It is!


Do you realize that I haven’t even gotten out of bed and my ears are being crammed with words that aren’t my words? They’re not even the words in the lovely book that’s fallen open on my lap like a goofy disembodied grin. These words are semi-random things, mostly banalities, that I’ve personally selected to disrupt me throughout the day.

Yes, yes. You’re getting it now. I did this to myself. It’s a nightmare; it’s a terror. I gave my brain a raging case of writer’s block, but what’s going on isn’t actually anything like writer’s block at all.

Writer’s block is turning on the faucet and only getting a dribble of rusty words. Around here it’s a damn DELUGE. I’m being pelted with a stream of blah-blah-blah seam ripper, blah-blah-blah HONY should win a Nobel this yearii…blah-blah-blah GUESS WHAT CAPTAIN HAIRDO DID NOW!


It’s no wonder I started to have serious problems with writing. There are simply TOO MANY WORDS. And they’re also ALL THE WRONG WORDS.

Look at me. I’m so upset that I’m writing in italics for emphasis. And that’s really, really bad, y’all. It’s the cheapest writing trick in the book. The only thing worse than using italics to hit your paces is… JUST LOOK AT ME. —oh, there it is. The caps-lock gambit.

I’m a mess. But it’s not just me. This word problem is a worldwide emergency.

Some writers have gone as far as locking up their devices when they’re working on deadline. (Hint: If you’re a journalist, this idea may not work.) I know of two novelists (not personally) who disabled the internet capability on their computers.

One of them literally grabbed some glue and gummed up the works in his laptop. The other novelist pulled out the little bit that connects to the internet and put it in a vault and spun the lock.


And these are good writers. The Contemporary Lit kind with the sad smile and the little bald spot and the Ivy League education and the author’s photo on some street on the Eastern Seaboard and everything. If those guys can’t pull out of a writing nosedive caused by looking at crap on their phones, what the hell am I supposed to do?!? You know me—I am as ridiculous as I tell you I am. I may be even more ridiculous than I report to you—I don’t know.

Well, this is what I’ve come up with so far: WALLPAPER. Just hear me out. You know how the first thing you see when you turn on your computer in the morning after it warms up is your desktop wallpaper, right?

Why not write something to REMIND you to write and make it into DESKTOP WALLPAPER, so that EVERY TIME you look up from some bullhound conversation you’re having on Twitter instead of writing your novel, you’ll get the point.

It’s better than guilt or an alarm or an expensive POMODORO system or GET ‘R’ DONE or any of those marketing things that help you yell at yourself to get work finished.

 

Or so I thought at the beginning of this summer.

 

In June, I designed this desktop picture and put it on my Mac so that it was the first and last thing I ever see on my computer.

 

Twirlers - Are you writing?
 

Cute, right? Okay, well that was a novelty for about a week. Then I pretty much forgot it was there and still was struggling with writing.


As you can see with this next one, I ratcheted up the noise. I didn’t want to miss this when I looked up from my browser with three tabs open that have nothing to do with me writing at the moment: The Mary Sue, Pinterest, Facewitter. Something like that.

 

Marching band sitting on steps.  Writing cheer.  Turn off your phone.  Siss-boom-bah.
 

And so that wore off in a few weeks as well. Around the beginning of July, I started to panic. That’s when I created this beaut right here:

 

Drum majorette holding baton aloft.  Write like a frightened graduate student.
 

But you know what? I ran the first part of my writing career based on fear. I’m pretty immune to fear at this point.

Plus, I am a born existentialist.  You figured that out, right?

Also, I’ve been to graduate school.  I was already a professional writer when I entered graduate school at 25.  Graduate school is way more scary than the actual writing world.  I kid you not.

Finish an MFA and you’ll be hard-pressed to be afraid of anything ever again. Deadlines.  Coral snakes.  Mortgages.  I’m serious.


None of this mattered by early August. I guess I made this?  It’s all kind of a blank here on out:

 
High school drum major marching in the dark shouting about social media.
 

And, um, this.

 

Drum Major marching the other way shouting about Bebop and burning cellphones

Here’s the last thing I haven’t really tried lately—plumping up my ego.

You know that writers have notoriously fragile egos, right? Well, mine is not so fragile.   But as a writer, I am kind of like Peter Pan in that I like it when you look up to the sky and think of me from time to time.

Who doesn’t?

Geez, I’ve missed you all.

 
Majorette doing backbend while extolling the virtues of writing. - You need a world built? Call a writer.
 

Oh, just one more thing.  I know the social media stuff is just witchy for writers. Actually, it’s so bad that it’s made me nostalgic for  old-fashioned writer’s block.

Sweet cracker sandwich, has it come to this?



ENDNOTES

i  That spelling is intentional. In Texas, you have the Guv and you have the Lite Guv. The Lite Guv is the guy with the power. The Guv. is usually a figurehead. Usually. (Anne Richards was no figurehead, darlin’!)

ii (Brandon Stanton is hitting all the right marks with his ongoing Goodwill tour. If you’re not following him right now, you should go and do that immediately. Then come right back, okay?

 

When it rains in South Texas







The Husband: Is that real rain?

Bluebird: Yessir, it sure is. From last night’s thunderstorm.

The Husband: So you didn’t use any instant rain?

Bluebird: (Tilts eyebrow.) Instant rain?

The Husband: You know… (Waves hands carelessly.) …the kind you get from a mix. Like little Betty Crocker’s Instant Thunderstorm Mix.

Bluebird: (Stares at The Husband for a long moment.) You’re really, really weird.

The Husband: Yes’m, I sure am.


[Super-Secret Friday Night 5-Minute Dance Party] Am I Awake?







 

Is it that time again?

Wasn’t it already then?

So does it have to be

The time it was again?


I will only admit to this once: I’ve actually done a “This is Sparta” to The Husband…more than twice.

And we’re notorious for doing the “Two-Man Saw.”

Any funky sleeping going on at your house? Do you recognize any of these sleep moves? C’mon—I know you’ve at least seen, or participated in, at least one “Circle of Life.”

 

[5-Minute Dance Party] Suor Cristina Scuccia







Everyone on this earth has a secret dream, right?


Well Sister Cristina Succcia’s secret dream was to sing on Italy’s “The Voice.” It turns out her dream and her talents are well-matched.

Do you have a secret dream? Don’t worry—I won’t ask you what your secret dream happens to be. But I would like to know what you think of secret dreams in general.

For instance, when is okay for a person to allow a dream remain a dream? When do you think a person should pursue a secret dream? When is a secret dream truly unfeasible? Are there cultural norms for how we view personal dreams? Gender norms? And just what is a secret dream anyway?

No, really, I’m asking!




(Click CC for captions in various languages to hear the judges talk about this nun’s amazing talent.)

Names: Some secret, some not




The foster dog looks at The Husband



1.

I have been caring for a foster dog for five weeks and I have not given him any name, even a temporary one on which we all can hang our future hopes for him. Instead, I have called him “Bub” and “Junior” and “the baby” and “darling” and “you.” When I croon to him, the foster dog has heard himself named “sweetie” and “good boy” and “good dog” in the dulcet sing-song I use with babies and young dogs. And when the foster dog requires correction, my stentorian tones linger on “mister” and “sir” and “buddy” — as in “Buddy, you had better leave that power strip alone or we’ll all get a shock today.” and “Sir! Compose yourself.”

In these five weeks, I have called the foster dog so many random things that he does not know when he is being called except that I routinely clap my hand twice across my breastbone and whistle to bring him in from the darkness at the edges of the yard. When he races on three legs from out of the shadows of the loquat trees, I drop to my heels to catch him in my arms and call him “good dog” and “sweet baby” and “love.” While he sighs and presses into my shoulder, I massage his cheeks with the palms of my hands in the circle of brightness from the security light by the back door. And there it is: I regret another day in which I have not named him.


2.

I myself have two first names—a public name and a private name. Nearly four decades ago, my mother asked her mother to drive her to municipal libraries in three cities to look for names for the spark she carried between her small hips. It was my grandmother who told me this story first—with an equal amount of amusement and wonder and respect—because she, herself, would not have gone to any wild trouble over a name—names came to you, she believed, not you to them. You did not, as my grandmother put it “hunt them down” or “track a name to the near-ends of the earth.” But this is exactly what my mother did when she was six months pregnant and beginning to show a little, even when she wore her car coat.

Put another way, my mother didn’t require someone else to climb over the fence of the witch’s garden patch next door to settle her craving for green spring peas like the pregnant woman in the fairy tale. She herself launched over that garden wall with a leg up from my grandmother. Only my mother knew what she was craving, and only she could find it. And woe be to any witch who threatened my mother —she was the hero on a quest. Everybody knows you don’t mess with the hero of the story. You drive them to the library to hunt for names, or you get out of the way.

My mother, the hunter. My mother, the hero. My mother, the sorceress. My mother, who gave me two first names, one secret, one not.

To know my true name is to conjure me on the spot.


3.

In fairy tales, one’s name is the source of great power. Think of the hapless promise the terrified miller’s daughter makes to an opportunistic imp when she must spin straw into gold, or die. The imp can fix these matters if the miller’s daughter will promise him her future first child. She agrees, tout suite. True to all fairy tales, there is a twist to the promise: Should she can somehow discover the imp’s true name before he claims the child, he must forfeit her firstborn. Straw becomes gold; she lives to marry the king. When the imp arrives a year later to take her newborn child, it is the wind that finally saves the queen by carrying the imp’s name across the mountains. At the last minute, when the imp is about to lay hands on the infant, the former miller’s daughter calls him by name—Rumpelstiltskin!

Shocked, he blips out of existence. End of story.

Or is it? What has history taught us about names and naming that’s any different than the terror experienced by Rumpelstiltskin when the miller’s daughter speaks his true name? It’s the same old story, rewritten so the broken promise of the queen in the third act will appear gilded and heroic. But still: A broken promise is a broken promise. But still: The queen named names. But still: There is no Rumplestiltskin.


4.

We don’t speak our names to strangers: We give them our names. Our names are also our surest currency: We can put our name behind a venture; we can let someone work under our name to get ahead in business. That’s assuming we have a good name to start with—meaning an acquired set of respected traits that people imagine when one’s name is conjured in conversation. For bad or for good, someone can act in your name because that’s the name of the game, but if your name is mud you may have to clear your name. Even so, your name may remain tarnished beyond recognition.

Regardless, I answer to the name Courtenay. But I am also called ________, which means almost no one is on a first-name basis with me.

Besides, I will probably not catch your name for the first six times I hear it. It’s not that I’m rude—I’m just terrible at names.


5.

Names are the architecture on which we build the self. Names are the conqueror’s last word on an occupied space. Names lift and fall and bury and rise at an equal rate at which we speak those names aloud. Some names are magic. Some names are mysteries. Some names are crystalline structures that blow down at the first breath. Some things are felt to be so terrible are named ‘unnameable.’ Some names can never tbe spoken aloud or one will be seen as using that name in vain—or worse.

A name is a tailor-made burden. A name is the bright electric torch that illumines our way through everyday darkness. A name is a stamp and a trademark and a wish. A name is what we use to recall ourselves to ourselves long after the ones who named us have left the room. Sometimes we are named after someone and must live up to that name. Sometimes our names are our own to make or to destroy.

When we marry and take someone else’s name, we can even disappear.

There is no greater sleight-of-hand than a name.


6.

I am standing in darkness; the foster dog hops along the fence line, bending the branches of the loquat trees as he goes. His paralyzed foot drags across the dead leaves, which then crackle and pop. In a few weeks, the cicadas will wake from their seven-year sleep and rise from the ground to sing in chorus during the watches of the night. It’s time to go inside. I thump my breastbone and whistle out to the dog. I can hear him turning around beneath the trees, considering my call. I thump my breastbone again and whistle twice: I am the only one outside tonight.

He turns to run to me; my hands are open. He runs; I will catch him in my arms.

Every dog deserves a name.




HEY! Want to help me name a foster dog? Leave your suggestions in the comments!

[5-Minute Dance Party] That’s Not My Name










They call me ‘hell’
They call me ‘Stacey’
They call me ‘her’
They call me ‘Jane’
That’s not my name



Has anyone ever gotten your name wrong? I mean, really, really wrong?


Listen, I once allowed a woman to call me “Whitney” for eight years. It wasn’t a big deal, really—I didn’t see her often, and she was awfully nice, and Whitney was close enough that the only bother was remembering to answer her when she called me by name. I mean, her version of my name.

The longer this farce went on, the more weird it would seem if I turned around to this woman and suddenly said, “You know what? My name is actually Courtenay.”

I needn’t have worried. Eight years later, I was sitting in an airport bus headed for an Irish stepdance and music thing with ten other people from my dance school. While we were bouncing around the back on bad shocks, that lovely woman leaned forward and put her hand on my shoulder—”Whitney, here—”

“WHITney?” Someone roared from the very back. “Her name is COURTenay.”

“Oh. OH! Is this true, Whitney?” She emitted a small embarrassed laugh. “—Courtenay.”

The lights from the street lamps crisscrossed my knees as we drove into the city. “You were just so nice.” I worked my hands in the air, trying to conjure an exact explanation. “I just didn’t know how to tell you.”

I was a month shy of 18 when I had that conversation in an airport van with a woman who accidentally called me Whitney for eight years. My life lay before me in so many strange trips to so many cities with so many people who didn’t know my name, that this moment seemed like a blip. And who can call someone to fault for misnaming you when it was your own correction to make?


And besides, Courtenay is not actually my “real” name.

Courtenay is my nickname. Almost nobody knows this. In essence, my mother gave me two first names to do with as I wished. And my wish has been to keep one of my names somewhat secret.

Why am I bringing this up now? Today’s upcoming story is all about names!


STAY TUNED FOR TODAY’S ESSAY! In the meantime, please enjoy this rather apt pop song by The Ting Tings.

That’s Not My Name hit the top of the British charts in 2008. Note the intentional visual references in this music video to Toni Basil’s early ’80s hit music video for “Mickey.” Fun, right?