November 27, 2012

Finding the Words.

photo by Jill Shropshire

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself increasingly silent.

Not verbally—I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking to friends and family over the phone and over drinks. I’ve talked until my throat protested with a strained whisper. It’s not that I have nothing to say. It’s that I have nothing to write.

I’m as impotent as an old man when it comes to putting my words to paper. How I wish there was a Viagra for flaccid fingers and limp language. How I wish I could write hard and long.

Take this blog, for instance. I began writing it three days ago. On the first day I was well-intentioned and hopeful. I did a little Kundalini yoga to get myself and my chakras loosened up. I cleared the space around my computer and burned some incense. I listened to most of the Marianne Faithful catalogue. I cruised pictures of a young Marianne under Mick Jagger’s thumb in the mid ’60s. I wondered if I should grow out my hair and get bangs like her. I listened to The Ballad of Lucy Jordan and cried. Then I looked at the clock and realized I had to teach a yoga class in an hour. I told myself I would get back to it tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and went. Which led to another tomorrow—meaning today. Yesterday I sat down with a cup of coffee and the new Mary Oliver book and hoped for the best. Maybe Mary would inspire me. I ended up reading half the poems in the book and getting into a dark, blue funk. I called a friend and got her into a dark, blue funk, which pissed her off a little.

“I’m just a bad writer,” I told her. “I’m not fit to wipe the dust off Mary Oliver’s writing desk.”

“Mary Oliver’s writing desk doesn’t have any dust on it,” she said. “She writes so much that there isn’t any time for it to collect. Just get off the phone and start writing.”

by Jill Shropshire

There are books, thousands of them, that claim to have the answer to writer’s block. There are millions of words to soothe the wordless. I’ve read a fair amount of them. I take Omega 3’s to prevent heart disease, and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write to ward off the block. Somebody recently told me that new studies show that taking Omega 3 supplements does nothing to lower your risk of heart disease, but I take them anyway. I sit down at my desk again and read a little Ueland, believing that this will do the trick and get the blog written.

“Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first—at least for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous to everybody else. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom. ~ Brenda Ueland

Ueland only makes me think of all the false promises from all the supplements I’m spending a fortune on. Happier? More light-hearted? I can think of a dozen things that make me happier—make me trip the light fantastic. Writing is not one of them at the moment. On the happiness-producing scale it ranks below scrubbing the mildew out of the toilet with my ex-boyfriend’s old t-shirt. At least that tiny act of revenge makes me feel powerful. My heart is lighter instantly and I get to reap the rewards several times a day.

I will now pause this blog to clean out my toilet. Maybe that’s where the muse is. Be back in a few minutes.

Nope. No muse in the toilet bowl, but now my fingers reek of bleach and I’m considering taking that much-needed shower and getting back to this later. Or, perhaps a bubble bath is in order. A little Native American flute music or some Nick Cave. Something to get me in that creative space that I used to be able to find so easily. Just weeks ago I felt like I had a permanent residence there. What happened?

I ponder this for far too long and realize that I have to go and teach another yoga class—a weekly session for autistic adolescents. I started teaching it a few months ago, and it’s by far the best teaching experience I’ve ever had. I expected it to be hard, and I was ready for the challenge. But somehow, teaching these kids has become the easiest 30 minutes of my week.

Autism is a disorder that’s characterized by a lack of ability to communicate. It’s a diagnosis that encompasses a massive range of attributes. Some autistic people are highly verbal and socially aware. Others can barely speak a word. Some are highly resourceful and self-sufficient. Some need round the clock care. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that there are vast range of expressions it can take. The one thing, however, that links most of those with the disorder is an inability to understand and initiate communication.

It’s sort of like being plopped down in a country where you don’t know the language or customs. When you ask for help, nobody understands your gibberish. When people try to help you find your way, you can’t understand their gibberish. They are making signals with their hands that seem foreign to you. Is that a Vulcan salute they are offering you, or does that mean the embassy is four blocks that way? Or is there some native meaning that you can’t decipher. Or maybe they have arthritis?

You finally reach your frustration threshold and start banging your head against what you think could be a stop sign. You scream and scream, hoping somebody will understand.

I’m massively over-simplifying, but in my past experience working as an aid for autistic children, I found that this stranger in a strange land metaphor helped. Many people may meet a person who is severely autistic and assume there is no one in there. That those who are non-verbal, have very limited speech, or have nothing to say. That is, given what I’ve seen, absolutely untrue. The same way that I had a nervous breakdown on a Russian street because I was lost and language-less, these kids struggle with an inability to be understood.

This is why I can relate to them and learn from them. I think most creative people (meaning most human beings on earth) can relate to them. The creative fire is, after all, a need to express our deepest thoughts and feelings. Literature, painting, music—all of it’s an attempt to take the interior mind-stuff and make it concrete for others. Whether it’s an autobiographical work or not, the origin of art resides in the artist’s brain. It takes some work to excavate it, translate it, and make it understood by others.

Autistic people and creative people—we just want to get that shit out and have somebody say, yes, I get it!

The students I see each week are working on their communication skills with ferocity. They practice saying hello and thank you. They practice saying what they need and when. They practice looking at another person’s face when they are speaking to them. They are practicing their way out of silence and frustration hundreds of times a day, sometimes with no improvement. All for the chance to connect with those around them. To be heard and to hear. To speak and be spoken to. The things we take for granted.

I suppose if these kids can dedicate their every waking hour to practicing communication, I can dedicate at least a couple to it, as well. For all my frustration and toilet cleaning, all I’ve got are blank pages. I think the best way to deal with this block is to practice my way out of it. To take a cue from the kids and try, try again. And again. And again.

See, even as a blocked writer, I’ve managed to be long-winded. And I’m grateful for the words. Namaste.


Ed: Brianna B.


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