Friday, December 09, 2005


Smashing the block with Robert Sheckley

According to a post on MetaxuCafe, Robert Sheckley has died at the age of 77. Having read only a sliver of the author's gigantic output, I'll leave it to the experts to assess his career and influence. I did, however, take a rather specialized workshop with him in 1995, which I described in the following VLS piece. At the very least it's a testament to his kindness and truly supernatural patience:
Technically speaking, I don't have a writer's block. In recent months, I've cranked out prose of every length and coloration, including a social studies textbook for fourth-graders, articles about a hardcore klezmer trio and a satanic conspiracy, and an interview with an aluminum-smelting magnate. I do, however, have what a clinician might describe as a partial sclerosis of the imaginative faculties. That is, I can't seem to make headway with more personal projects, such as stories or memoirs. So when I spied a newspaper advertisement for a workshop with the promising title "Smash Your Writer's Block," I was quick to sign up.

I'm usually wary of such events. But this one had two points in its favor. One was the location, in the city hall of a nearby town. This gilt-edged venue suggested a large crowd, and the idea of an auditorium crammed with writer's block victims had a perverse fascination. Also, there was the instructor, an eminent science-fiction writer with 50-odd books under his belt. Clearly he hadn't been at a loss for words since late infancy, and I wanted to hear what that was like.

I didn't get quite what I expected. First of all, only three people besides me had enrolled in the class; maybe the hundreds of other potential students were too blocked to sign a check. And instead of an auditorium, our cozy group was meeting in a small conference room.

Without bragging, the instructor confirmed that he was the man for the job. "In the 1950s," he confided, "I signed a contract to deliver 240 short stories for a radio program. Every day, Basil Rathbone read a new one on the air."

How did he do it? Before sharing his method, the instructor wanted to demo some software on his laptop. As we gathered around, he fiddled with the keyboard and a diagram appeared on the screen: a central idea surrounded by related concepts, each item connected by a line.

"That looks like a right-brain cluster!" said one of my companions.

"Sometimes I like clustering on a huge piece of butcher paper," said another.

Somebody else mentioned "scatter diagrams" and "idea tanks," and I began to realize that these people were more diligent students of writer's block than I was. It struck me that in some ways, having a block was the next best thing to being a writer. You still got credit for the creativity, the ambition. You also functioned as a kind of mental conservationist, holding onto your insights and experiences instead of dispersing them into the marketplace. Deep in their hearts, perhaps some writers would prefer to be blocked.

Not my classmates. These were sincere, intelligent people who just couldn't succeed in getting certain ideas down on paper. The woman to my left wanted to write an article about the fact that although she was 42, she had tried out for the cheerleading unit of a professional sports team. The woman next to her wanted to get at the feeling of the last day of summer. As for me, I wanted to write something about a visit I had made with my son to an exhibit of giant mechanical insects.

None of these ideas were especially language-resistant, were they? You could understand, say, Dante scratching his head over the Paradiso, since he was supposed to be describing things that were by definition too ethereal for the crude apparatus of human speech. But we were drawing a bead on the humdrum, and missing. Our difficulties, then, were connected to some inner resistance of our own--a perverse inability to say precisely those things that we most wanted to. No wonder the atmosphere resembled a specialized encounter group. Instead of beginning with a standard 12-step confessional, everybody prefaced their spiel with some variation on the phrase, The story I want to write is... And there was something poignant about that, too, suggesting not merely a literary problem but an existential one: you weren't quite real until you had written down your story, you were a kind of ghost in search of the mot juste.

And the method itself? The image of smashing the block had an appealing military ring--I expected something akin to breaching the Maginot Line. Instead the approach was strictly commonsensical. You made yourself write in 15-minute increments. During these periods you didn't waste time with stylistic nuance, you simply produced, free-associating if necessary: "Your fingers should never stop moving on the keyboard." They didn't. The instructor turned on his timer, left the smoke-free prose chamber to have a cigarette outside, and the four of us tapped away. When he returned, we read our work aloud--a feature that took me by surprise, since my first effort consisted of four pages of crazed Dostoyevskian rambling about my financial problems.

"How did that feel?" the instructor would ask each of us.

"Fine," was the invariable answer. Then we hunkered down for another session.

Deep inside I was hoping the method would fail. It seemed to me that writing involved some mysterious triangulation between the writer, the subject, and language itself, and that it would take something more sophisticated than dimwitted behavioralism to fix whatever was broken. However, eight cigarettes and two hours later, most of us had officially smashed the block. I had nailed that visit to the big bugs exhibit, with particular care paid to the 12-foot-high praying mantis. The aspiring cheerleader made major progress too, and even the last-day-of-the-summer lady felt she was o the right track. Whether the resulting prose was any good was beside the point. After all, you could always sign up for the one-day workshop on self-editing, which I noticed was scheduled to meet at the First Unitarian Church.

A scatter diagram in that context? Strange. It is a 2-dimensional graph which shows some points whose coordinates are given by the values of two quantitative variables observed at the same time.
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