Around The Block With Writer’s Block

do-not-write-in-this-spaceSome people say that writer’s block is what gets the housework done, but if that were true, my house would sparkle and shine.

My vitamins would be alphabetized from A to Zinc, my nightstand drawer would contain no crumpled tissues of questionable provenance, and the frisky lint bunnies behind the dryer would now be reproducing in the rubbish bin.

For me, writer’s block doesn’t get the housework done, but it is what keeps the Internet humming along. And I don’t only turn to the Internet as a writer’s avoidance behavior, either. Hanging out online may prolong the blocked condition somewhat, but if I give the Web even half a chance, it eventually provides the cure I so desperately crave.

First, of course, there’s Facebook. Like other writers, I’m lonely. Ye Olde Writer’s Cave is dank and dreary and its stalagmites stab at my soul. But scrolling through my news feed–replete with photos of gregarious dogs who say funny stuff, sullen cats pictured splayed across Other Writers’ Keyboards, and videos of friends’ new grandbabies–brings me to my senses fast. There are worse things than loneliness.

Like wordlessness. And booklessness. And publisherlessness. Oh, my.

If Facebook somehow fails to snap me out of writer’s block, I click over to Pinterest. Within seconds, I’m immersed in a fantasy world of exotic locations, bohemian wardrobes, hunky men (some of my Pinterest friends are edgy with their pinning!), gorgeous homes, and just desserts.

It’s the desserts that get to me, if anything on Pinterest can. I’ve read that even viewing a luscious treat can cause–in some susceptible individuals–an insulin response with corresponding weight gain.

Let’s just say I’m highly susceptible.

When I literally feel my bottom-in-chair growing larger while innocently viewing the ingredients list for yet another bacon-intensive appetizer, I know I’m a site closer to loosening the block’s grip on me. One more stop on the Internet and I’ll be home free and back to cranking out another chapter.

I know exactly where to go, too.

If I truly can’t find two words to put together, my fingers click over to Craigslist, the piece de resistance in breaking the back of writer’s block.

Now, not just any category on Craigslist will do. I skip the ads for RVs and energy-deficient major appliances and ancient treadle sewing machines. I have no use for the personal ads, and discussion forums about dying and haiku aren’t really my thing.

Instead, I wallow in the hundreds of jobs on offer, immerse myself in the positions I could be applying for that might surreptitiously scratch my writer’s itch, that might anesthetize the pain I experience when I’m not doing my real job. The job I’m meant to do. Putting down glorious words, one after the other, preferably in the best possible order.

Can I hope to find employment as satisfying as writing is on a bad day, a job that could truly replace my need to write?

I pass over the ad for an exotic dancer for bachelor parties, but not without thinking of that Facebook poster that shows two gals dancing—one young and agile and the other old and clumsy. The captions read, “How You Think You Look” and “How You REALLY Look.”

Then I skim this heading: “Bilingual Interpreters Wanted! Spanish and Many Other Languages!” But somehow “many other languages” seems like Triglingual Interpreters Wanted. Or perhaps Quadlingual or Quintlingual, not that it matters. I only speak English with a smattering of adorable French phrases thrown in, mostly on the topic of finding the salle de bain closest to my train’s platform.

Being reminded of my obsession with locating the bathroom (in as many languages as necessary) draws me to another ad, this time seeking a participant in a medical study about urinary incontinence. It offerers $1200 compensation for time and travel expenses, plus a generous Depends allowance. I shake my head in dismay.

“You’re all wet,” I say to myself, a victim of my own dry wit. “These jobs aren’t for you. Maybe you should start with finishing this blog post, and then see what happens next?”

Before I shut down Craigslist, my eyes fall on one last ad.

“Surrogate Mothers Needed! Earn $28,000 and Up!!!!!” I feel a visceral (if latent) nurturing instinct flow through me while reading the job description. The money is certainly tempting, but then it hits me. They’re probably looking for someone with a uterus. There’s always a catch.

So that settles it. I’m a writer, and getting caught in a bad job won’t fix that. Only writing will. Once again, the Internet’s cured me of a vicious case of writer’s block.

This time, I hope, for good.

Do you suffer bouts of writer’s block? Any cures you’d like to share?

An Open Letter to All the Literary Agents I’ve Not Yet Contacted

I know that among the readers here are some who are actively seeking an agent, or who are anticipating doing so soon. You may find yourself having to create a separate file for agent rejections one day, and for that, I offer my sympathies in advance. Plus this tongue-in-cheek open letter, which I coincidentally penned immediately before signing with WordServe Literary. Please feel free to use it in the advancement of your own writing career.

Dear Literary Agent,

If you think I haven’t read your blog, you’re wrong. I thought I’d clear that up right away.

I am so diligent, I’ve even delved into your ambitious archives, perusing entries from as long ago as two weeks. At this point, I know what you’re looking for in a client even better than you do. In fact, because I am such a devoted student of your career, writings, and personal life (including that foxy photo of you on your Harley, va-voom!), I feel I can say without a doubt that I am your next dream author.

How can I be so sure? I am glad you asked!

For one thing, you’ve very clearly expressed your preference for having “good writing” sent your way. At first when I read this, I said “Doh!” but then I gave it some serious thought. I’m betting your definition of good writing is the same as my BFF’s, which means I’m in luck.

Attached is the only scene I’ve slapped together so far. After you read it (get a move on!) and I’ve agreed to be represented by you, I will gladly crank out the rest of the novel. It could take a while, though, so I’d advise you to keep your high hopes in check. I am currently in communication with many notable agents. I even know several of them by name and have called their assistants to verify whether or not “Ricky” is a Mr. or a Mrs. or a Miss. You’ll certainly realize that developing these relationships represents a considerable time commitment on my part.

In addition, submitting a proposal for a book I haven’t gotten around to writing would be a giant waste of my time and talents, as I am sure you will agree.

Second, you have indicated you don’t want to sign any high-maintenance, best-seller wannabes. I can assure you that I’ve never personally obtained a mani-pedi (photos availble upon request). Also, I can produce a matched set of yellowed postcards from my dentist verifying that I am nine years behind in my supposedly every-six-months (ha!) check-ups. No way am I high-maintenance! If you’ll either call me on my cell or email me within fourteen minutes of receiving this—as you should if you are truly the professional you profess yourself to be—we can discuss this point until I’m satisfied that you understand.

Third, you state that any client you take on must have a platform already in place. Bingo! We have a winner! I have been an active blogger for twelve plus years, during which time I have chronicled with sterling clarity my aging mother’s propensity for swearing like a drunken Marine (no worn-out cliches here, baby!) as well as her advancing incontinence.

Google my stats and you’ll see I now have six regular readers, half of whom have agreed to be sent free copies of my first book in exchange for 1-starred reviews on Amazon. You cannot buy (though I’m not against the idea, per se) that kind of fan loyalty.

Finally, you say you are seeking authors who seem unlikely to end up one-hit wonders. While I’d prefer not to promise you the moon until my staggering work of heartbreaking genius reaches the top of the NYT list, I think it’s pretty safe to say there’s PLENTY more wherever that first scene came from. Or I guess I should say, “from where that first scene came.”

In conclusion, I am absolutely brimming with potential, just the way you like ‘em.

I look forward to hearing from you soon. Very soon.

Best regards,
Katy McKenna

Keep Those Cards and Letters Going!

balloon bouquetImagine that you’ve just had your first book published, and the Amazon reviews are decidedly mixed. Maybe you’re even getting some downright negative comments about your work, and you just can’t help but take it personally.

Then, at the moment when you’re considering never subjecting yourself to such pain and anguish again, the doorbell rings.

“Somebody thinks you’re pretty special,” says the delivery guy, handing you a balloon bouquet tied together with five pieces of scrumptious Godiva chocolate. “I’ll bet this makes your day.”

It does because the sender isn’t your mom or your spouse (though you’d never turn down their gifts, either). It’s a reader you met first on Facebook and then in person at your book signing. Over time, your relationship has progressed from mere acquaintances to true bosom buddies. And today, no matter who else in the whole wide world she could be thinking of, she’s thinking of you.

How amazing, the way we live and breathe and move in each other’s hearts and minds and souls! And how lovely when we take the time to let each other know.

“I absolutely love your book!” your friend writes in her note. “The story about the mother and son forgiving each other touched a nerve with me—in a good way. You nailed it. Thank you.”

My opening example was necessarily extravagant, which you can blame on my fixation with Godiva. But if you’re wishing right about now that your own doorbell would ring, why not practice the Golden Rule? You, too, can develop the habit of blessing writers with emails, cards, and similar kind gestures.

You are likely already Facebook friends with your favorite authors. You may also follow them on Twitter and communicate via Goodreads. You’re networking with a wonderful group, some of the most generous and sensitive people anywhere. Plus, you’re positioned well to begin supporting, lifting up, and appreciating these folks in easy, tangible ways.

Keep a running list of writers you’d like to bless. When you have a spare minute, choose a name. Have fun putting together a couple of sweet paragraphs in an email, a link on your Facebook page to a blog post the author wrote, a photo of yourself reading the author’s book, or a care package.

Jot down notes as you read a new book, to remind yourself later precisely what you loved about it. Authors especially enjoy hearing from a reader whose life was touched by the work. Instead of saying, “I learned a lot from your book,” say, “I particularly loved your advice on how to romance my husband and am putting it into happy practice!” Specific always trumps general.

Most authors these days are overjoyed to get an enthusiastic Facebook message or email from a reader, but I don’t know a single one who wouldn’t adore a handwritten card or letter. A small gift of special meaning can be memorable, too. I recently found an inexpensive wall hanging with the quote a writer friend of mine had posted on Facebook. I packaged it up and sent it to her with a note of good cheer. She loved it!

Remember, authors aren’t book-cranking machines; they are real live people. Their feelings get bruised. They suffer fatigue, illness, loss, and relationship problems—not to mention suffocating deadlines.

Sometimes, the friendship extended to an author isn’t about a book. Sometimes, we reach out to others in our writing community because of good old-fashioned love. Not long ago, a fellow writer sent me a gift for no reason, except that she saw it and thought of me. I don’t know about you, but even to imagine that a treasured friend spots a plaque with a humorous saying and is reminded of me gives me goosebumps.

So tell me, have you received wonderfully thoughtful notes or gifts from your fellow writers? Any tips you’d like to offer to those who want to keep those cards and letters going?

Through A Curtain Darkly

“You should close your eyes and rest,” my husband said. “Doctor’s orders.”

He led me to our room, this kind man of mine, and started to pull the shades.

“Leave them open,” I said. “I need to see.”

I’d just lost our first son to miscarriage. I’d held his perfect body in my hands, his spirit by then already flown to Jesus. We baptized him ourselves with our tears, somehow finding the grace in that holy moment to accept the most solemn of truths:

The Lord both gives and takes away.

And so my love left me there upon our bed, a mother without a child, to focus through wispy curtains on the outdoor landscape. The land of the living, so far beyond my reach.

Out there, somewhere in the sky, was my baby, my heart. The trees bore only the merest buds of springtime that afternoon, little more than hopeful witness to the coming leaves of summer. But the frothy valances, stirred into sashaying billows by the open windows’ April breeze, slipped into ethereal life.

When I narrowed my eyes, the roses woven into the lace became buoyant blooms superimposed on the naked treetops like bouquets of pure white, their stems wrapped in brown satin ribbons.

I opened the drawer of my table, pulled out a paper and pencil, and began to write. The words flowed from my brokenness through my fingertips—a poem about how God counts the leaves on the trees, the grains of sand around the seas, and most of all, His children’s tears.

How He saves those tears in a bottle.

As I neared the end of the page, I squinted against the dimming of the day’s slanted light, unsure even then if the growing shadows were cast by the sun or by my soul. The lacy roses blowing through the treetops glistened like diamonds. I imagined our baby sprinkling fairy dust onto the blossoms, laughing with delight as he made each one twinkle.

For my eyes only.

The last lines of the poem came to me then, and I scribbled them beneath the others.

“There He’ll give us each a crown; Each tear will be a gem.                                            The bottles will be emptied, and we’ll never cry again.”

It happened many years ago, this otherworldly vision, almost another lifetime ago. But I still recall feeling suspended between heaven and earth as I captured my fleeting feelings, and I’ve never forgotten the magic of the rose trees swaying in the breeze.

Whenever I lay my head upon my pillow, from then until now, a journal and pen rest nearby. Of the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve composed since that tear-stained afternoon, many have been written between dusk and dark.

Who knows? Perhaps in the filtered light at sunset on an evening yet to come, roses may once again take flight.

And my words will reach God’s heart on petals of shimmering lace.

The Story Of Her Life

Have you ever read a book that caused you to take a risk, accept a challenge, or—as in my case—plan a parade? Donald Miller and his book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, inspired me to help my dying mother accept her story’s starring role.

“Look what I’ve got for you, Mom,” I say, not knowing if she’ll like the Happy Birthday banner, replete with pink and purple butterflies, that I hope to hang at ceiling level in her nursing home room.

I have no idea whether my siblings and I will be able to give Mom a wonderful celebration or not. So much depends on her, and the truth is that for the past few years, she often doesn’t want to be the main character in her own narrative.

But this is her life, her one true story. These are the only memories she gets to make with her family. The only memories we have a chance, at this late date, to make with her.

“I love it,” she says.

I am more than surprised. I climb onto her desk, then step even higher onto her dresser to thumbtack the banner across the top of the wall. She smiles and I think This day could turn out to be amazing.

We plan to scoot Mom in her wheelchair across the busy road to the Mexican restaurant. She’s been looking forward to the guacamole and the Margarita for weeks. What she doesn’t know is that we’re going to make a grand parade out of it. We’ll stop traffic if it’s the last thing we do, and she is going to be the center of attention, the starring attraction in her life.

When she’s dressed, make-up on and hair curled, we head to the lobby, where my siblings are meeting us. I spin Mom around the corner and there they are, bearing the rest of the party paraphernalia: cameras, cake, and huge grins.

Mary McKennaOne places a child’s dress-up pendant around Mom’s neck, a gaudy piece of bling on her finger, and a glitzy tiara on her head. Mom beams! Another ties helium balloons to Mom’s wheelchair, passes out the horns, and gives Mom a big kiss. I distribute bottles of bubbles.

“What on earth is happening?” Mom asks.

“A parade,” I say. “And it’s all about you.”

For once, she does not object. She does not tell us it’s too much for her to be the heroine, for us to make over her and act goofy and pretend together that we’re a bunch of little kids who don’t intend to grow up until far into the evening. We open the door of the facility and are greeted by the bright sunshine of a fantastic April day.

McKenna ParadeWe start waving our bubble wands and blowing our horns and shouting, “Happy Birthday, Mom!” Dozens of cars slow down, pull over, open their windows, and call out their own birthday wishes for our mother. They honk, give thumbs up, and blow kisses as they pass by, all to Mom’s delight.

By the time the party’s over, she is tired, but not so much that she doesn’t get a huge kick out of it when a young mom (followed by her husband and awe-struck children) stops, points to Mom’s tiara, and says, “We didn’t know we’d be in the presence of royalty!”

We wheel her back across the road, still blowing bubbles and tooting our horns, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than we had on the way there.

Because stories end, and this one was reaching its curtain call.

Out of nowhere, I hear my long-dead father’s voice singing, for old times’ sake, a 1950s-era Nat King Cole song. One he’d sung hundreds of times when he and Mom were young and I was younger still, one that always seemed so sad to me, because even a child knows what’s eventually coming.

The party’s over
It’s time to call it a day.
They’ve burst your pretty balloon
And taken the moon away…

“Do you want me to take your Happy Birthday banner down now, Mom?” I ask, when we arrive in her room. She never did like fanfare.

“No! I don’t want you to take it down, ever.”

The party’s over
The candles flicker and dim…
Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.

McKenna FamilyMom didn’t live to celebrate another birthday. But this my mother did: She grabbed hold of that final party, wringing every ounce of joy from it, composing the perfect ending in our hearts—and in her own.

And she gave me the courage to keep writing my story, too.

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