I don’t write fiction, which means I’ve probably never had true writer’s block. But I have had writer’s blasé. It’s that feeling when you can’t muster the interest or energy to write an article, even with ample source material at hand.
As director of communications for a national nonpartisan education nonprofit, I write about a specific topic, news literacy. That means I produce a variety of things — op-eds, website content, e-newsletters and feature stories — all related to different aspects of this important work.
But sometimes I run out of stream. A couple of weeks ago my mind was wandering aimlessly while I stared at notes from an interview, wishing my fingers could dance across the keyboard and type out some preconceived story, like sitting down to a player piano. No such luck.
And then Ms. Freeman, my middle school art teacher, showed up to inspire me. She didn’t arrive in the flesh, of course. My monkey mind found her in our old art classroom, the one with grooves worn in the hardwood floor where generations of students had paraded to their seats at bolted-down desks.
I saw her handing out materials for an activity I loved. She would randomly pass each of us a piece of construction paper with only part of a photo or illustration from a magazine or newspaper pasted on it — sometimes smack in the middle, other times in a corner or along the bottom. One day she handed me a paper with a photo of purple grapes pasted about halfway down on the left. I looked at it for a couple of seconds, then went to work creating an entire grapevine — much like the one in my grandparents’ back yard — around that bunch of grapes.
Another time my paper came with the head and torso of former Vice President Spiro Agnew, clearly snipped from an editorial cartoon, glued to the bottom right corner. This time, I channeled all those “Laugh-In” episodes and R. Crumb cartoons I’d seen into a bizarre drawing involving talking frogs, swirls of color and a speech bubble over Agnew’s head that read, “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?”
My favorite, which I found along with the others when cleaning out my parents’ house in 2017, featured a cartoonish illustration of the lower part of two people’s legs and feet — one with orange and pink bell-bottoms and rococo platform sandals, the other in purple flared pants and men’s shoes. This looked like the bottom portion of a couple ready to step out for a big night. I grabbed crayons and drew a tall man with a purple jacket, white shirt, bowtie and blue cap atop the cut-off bell-bottoms and platform shoes. The purple pants and men’s shoes provided the foundation for a woman with a brown ponytail wearing a pink halter top that left her midriff bare. He towers over her, making an odd hand gesture. They stand next to a lamp post, although the sun is out. A green caterpillar and a pink bird appear puzzled by the couple.
When I looked at this drawing for the first time in more than 40 years, I laughed until I cried. I’m not sure what I had in mind when I created it, but to my adult eyes it clearly looked like a lady of the night and her pimp preparing for a busy evening.
You might be wondering what this has to do with writing? Well, it struck me that all Ms. Freeman had to do was give us a slice of an image, and we would create a full picture around it. This was exactly what I needed to do for the profile I was writing. I went back over my notes and latched onto the subject’s use of the word “seasoned” to describe herself and the cooking metaphor she used in her teaching approach: add some heat and different flavors to create something special.
What did I learn from this trippy trip down memory lane? It’s not only OK to let your mind wander aimlessly when you are stuck in your writing. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need to do.