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When the Muse Messes With Your Head: A Case Study

Sunday morning: I’ve been slacking long enough. Time to finish the story I began with such enthusiasm ten just a few brief months ago. I need inspiration, so I turn to where all the muses have fled: The Internet. I resolve to begin each day with an*!Inspirational! * quote from a famous writer. (Starting tomorrow.)

Monday: I decide Dedication is lacking. My Google search provides the example of someone whose wild words apparently sprang from the chaos of his personal life: I will follow one of Henry Miller’s “commandments”: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

The problem is, I want people to like me. But the muse has spoken. I sit down to the computer, coffee on the left, a bottle of Heineken at my right. Never mind that it’s 9 in the morning. I take a large, nauseating slug of beer and stare at my latest draft. Who wrote this garbage? Don’t be nervous. Work calmly and recklessly! Calm and reckless? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I pull the blind in case the mail carrier should spy the Demon Alcohol.

 I start on the coffee and start banging out words. Are they any good? How the hell would I know? I force the story for an hour, at which point I succumb to the relief of calling the dentist to schedule a long-overdue root canal.

hand-hazard-symbols1Tuesday afternoon: I’ve been too hard on myself. Maybe. Apparently I’m not a Henry Miller type. I have an artist’s guilty need for reassurance. Voila! EB White pops up in today’s search. A wholesome family man. Recalling how I fell asleep as a kid, Charlotte’s Web clutched to my chest, I am already heartened.

My house, he told the Paris Review, has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on…There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

 Yes! I flip open the laptop, still in my footie pajamas. Surely the carnival of daily life harbors the safer sort of Muse. The problem is, I currently live alone, and the place is as quiet as King Tut’s tomb. I call my cat, JP, who trots in, hoping for a handout. “C’mon,” I tell him. “Make all the noise and fuss you want to.” He jumps up on the desk and settles down to stare at me. I grit my teeth and revise yesterday’s work, trying to gain momentum to move forward.

My phone is turned off, but I see an incoming text. It’s my recently-fledged daughter. Can we talk? NOW? it says. Oh, dear. It occurs to me that had EB White access to text messages, he would have kept right on going at the typewriter. Any cries for help from children would have gone straight to the Mrs.

I make the call. It turns out the quarter-life crisis I fear amounts to nothing more than a thick trail of ants assaulting her trashcan. After making several dozen suggestions, I am so relieved I have to nap for an hour.

Wednesday: I am disgusted with my lack of progress. I am a complete failure as a human being. I bag my plan and go to the mall.

Thursday: Guilt. Anger. Ben & Jerry’s. Why should take my writing advice from men? Back to the Magic 8 Ball. Ah, Jodi Picoult. She’s a mom. She has pets!

She says, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

 All true, all true. I feel so bad about myself that I spend two hours at the computer, doing God knows what to the current story. Every word feels forced. I go to bed with a pounding headache.

Friday morning: I decide that the writing advice spattered across cyberspace is covertly chosen to make “unsuccessful” writers feel like morons. I’m done with writing. Screw it! The last three stories I got published elicited exactly zero comments from anyone. Not that I resent this. I get it. There are just too many damn words out there. I probably wouldn’t read me, either.

I go for a long walk, contemplating my feet. When I come back, my computer screen is feebly blinking off and on. Panic. My story! I reboot. Laptop pulses back to life. No work is lost. I fall to my knees in praise of the muse: “Tech worketh in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.”

I’m so grateful I actually write for a while. By afternoon the story seems to be finished. So I tell myself, knowing that only continued meditation on my own demise will keep me from endless revision.

I close the computer. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks, I chant. I don’t want to anger the muse with hubris.

Saturday: I print out my story, ordering myself only to revise for grammar and typos. I am rewriting the 91st draft when my writer friend Ginny calls. “How’s your latest story going?” she asks.

“What story?” I ask.

“Come on,” she says. “Would you like me to read it?”

“Really?” Ginny is a very busy woman. Her writing is much better than mine.

“I’m happy to do it. It’s not a big deal.”

“Oh, my God!” I stop crying and email her the story.

Sunday: I catch up on all the things I didn’t get done during the week, such as feeding the cat.

Monday morning: Ginny sends an email. She loves the story, but suggests that a talking pterodactyl who is an icon of New York street fashion isn’t (perhaps) the most convincing protagonist in a work of realistic fiction. Why not make Lola a person who feels like a pterodactyl—awkward and wild and socially inept? “And you might consider changing the ending,” she adds. “Having a piano fall randomly out of the sky to crush Lola’s ex-boyfriend is too deus ex machina. You need an ending that results from the actual conflict in the story.”

Ooh, I knew that. Or should have. Never mind. Ginny thought the piece was worth criticizing! Ginny cared! I dive in to the revisions. Never has writing felt so effortless. By the time my fingers fall off, I have turned my pterodactyl into a human being and written a new ending: Lola realizes that her ex-boyfriend actually is keeping dead animals in his walk-in freezer. Fearing she might be next, she quits her boring job and moves to New Orleans to sing in bars.

I write Ginny a long, ardent note of thanks. Then I send the story out to 879 magazines, knowing I may only receive actual rejections from one or two. The rest will be lost in some cyber version of the Bermuda Triangle. It’s all good. After all, I only need one magazine to say Yes.



Under Trump, Grammar Matters More Than Ever, Experts Say




LOVE TRUMPS HATE. Need I say more?


Why I’m glad I broke my shoulder

I have what a friend once called “clever feet.” I’ve always relied on them; they turn on a dime, and they’ve never let me down. I climb, I hop, I zip around; When I’m busy—I’m always busy—my feet ping from one task to another. Sometimes, I actually complete something before dashing on to the next.

I want to meditate more consistently, but I avoid the unsettling quiet. Most evenings, I experience an edgy, uncomfortable feeling in my body. It’s a bone-deep dissatisfaction with nothing I can name. I am (in theory) committed to exploring it in meditation. But that would mean I’d have to feel it. It’s much easier to distract myself, and often, that’s what I choose to do.

Daily walking in the woods is a compromise. In the surrounding presence of the forest, my mind tends toward quiet. I admire people who can lose themselves in the passage of light among trees, but I have to keep moving. In many ways this is a blessing, and I’m very grateful for a strong body. Still, exercise plays into my busy-addiction. When that edginess overtakes me, it’s much easier to hit the trail than to sit in silence for even ten minutes.

And the compromise has an uneasy quality. The promise of stillness shimmers in the green forest, but I habitually pass it by. A few weeks ago, I hit on a solution: What if I start running a few times a week? If I work the edginess out of my system, I’d give myself full permission for sit in silence. Right?

Armed with this logic, on April 25 I was trotting through the woods, keeping to clear, flat stretches, careful of my 59-year-old knees. I was meditating on the cleverness of my feet. Not five minutes before it happened, I actually remembered a friend who’d had a nasty fall that required a shoulder replacement, but I thought in response: “I don’t fall. That’s not me.” I remembered several times when I stumbled, always with a graceful finish. Yep. I was good. Confident in my self-view, I revised my plan to avoid hills. The incline I started down was clear, open and inviting.

Well. If I was writing fiction, here an editor would complain, “set up far too obvious.” Do I need to mention the rock? I barely felt it. I went flying, my arm braced. A crunching pain in my shoulder, a crazy roll, and I landed on my back at the crossroads of three paths, arms flung up in surrender. I blinked up at the watchful trees. “Okay,” I thought. “I get the message.”

Long story short—a man who happened by with his daughter offered me a ride (but his car was farther away than my house) and his cell phone (but I had no numbers memorized). A mountain bike guy had found an old inner tube in the woods, and wearing it as an improvised sling, I walked home. One foot in front of the other, after which my sister-in-law drove me to the ER, where I discovered that lively conversation with someone for whom you are extremely grateful is a fabulous painkiller.

I knew I was lucky the day of the accident, and now that I’m healing with ten screws and a steel plate in my upper arm, I know it still. Not just because my arm is recovering; not just because my social life has new dazzle due to the wonderful, helpful people in my life who can perform feats like opening jars and chopping vegetables. I’m incredibly lucky, because with a setup like the one I had, it’s been impossible to miss the point.

There was no way in hell I was going to jump off the hamster wheel without being pushed.

And here’s the thing. We all say, “I’m too hard on myself.” Or “I should relax more.” But there’s a reason why we manipulate our lives to avoid the very quiet that we long for! Being confronted with my own mind during the enforced stillness of healing has been intense…imagine a manic monkey, high on painkillers, with a talent for scripting horror shows. Over the past two weeks, I have: Diagnosed myself as mentally ill; been convinced I’m addicted to opiods; consigned myself to “failed writer;” and spiraled into 3 a.m. panics, completely out of control. 


Did I mention I’ve been wanting to meditate more? Truth is, I’d been waiting for  optimal conditions. But there are no optimal conditions. There is only now. When “now” is pretty damn difficult, what do you have to lose? So I began to meditate—knowing my life depended on it—in the middle of a mental hurricane.


Every hurricane has an eye, a center of poise and calm. And there’s only one way to get there. In order to travel to the quiet center, I had to experience the wild mind…allowing it to scream, accuse me, shame me, and predict doom, without shutting down, numbing, or running away.

Running away was what I’d been doing all along. But somehow I knew that falling into silence would not destroy me. So I stayed with it, stayed with the pain and the fear and the inability to sleep in more than one position, knowing that the world was not against me. I already knew I needed to stop. On the day I broke my shoulder, the world simply rose up to meet me there.

There’s nothing heroic about it. My adjustment to stillness is all about plodding. It’s seeing my cat at the window, silhouetted against the flowers, and loving what I see, rather than rushing on to the next five urgencies.

It’s about placing the attention, however tentative, on a single breath. One inhale. One exhale. Then another, then a few more. Then I feel tension in my chest. Crap, it means I’m not relaxed. I can’t do this; maybe I need more drugs. Maybe the drugs are the problem. Wait, I stopped taking them…When was that? Was it Tuesday? Thursday? Maybe meditation has nothing to do with it. Maybe I’m not meditating at all. Maybe I’m just high.

Then mindfulness spontaneously ‘wakes me up.’ I didn’t make it happen, but suddenly I’m experiencing the breath. Inhale, exhale. The chest softens. The thoughts fade. Something shifts inside. I’m shaky, vulnerable, but all I am now is breathing. I’m in this moment. Am I okay? Just breathing. Not adding anything.

I see it: I am not those thoughts. Rather, from a larger place in my mind, I experience the scenario-spinning part of my mind as a windup toy that’s trying desperately to manage the outcome of future events.

That’s all. In that half hour of meditation, this is my big revelation: the suffering mind is a windup toy, and I don’t have to buy into it. In that difficult stillness, I have touched something real. I creep downstairs to find something to eat. I still feel crappy. My arm hurts. I may not sleep tonight.

But I am happy. It’s small, but it’s huge: I can experience the workings of the mind without getting sucked into its game.

It’s a relief to know that in the same world where terrible things can hit at any moment, a mysterious grace rises up to catch us when we shatter.

It’s about taking the risk to place one foot after another without focusing on the outcome. It’s about taking one breath, then the next. It’s about accepting vulnerability… And finding great joy below the surface of things.

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