Friday, November 05, 2010

Writing, Then & Now (Writer's Block Journal, 11-03-10)

I used to be able to write. I used to be able to really write. The desire to write would come over me, or I'd get an idea for a short story or an essay, I'd sit down, hoping to start it before I forgot the idea. Then, before I knew it, I'd have a finished first draft. And a lot of it was pretty solid writing, too. Stuff you could work on, could shape, could turn into something meaningful.

Hell, I used to be god-damned prolific.

Then, it stopped.

This happened sometime in 2006, shortly after two potentially life-changing events. The first was that I was accepted and began an MFA program I'd desperately wanted to attend for years.  The second was that I moved back into my father's house. 

It had become clear over the past year that he was becoming increasingly incapable of living alone and caring for himself.  At first, the diagnosis was a damaged spinal nerve. We were told the prognosis was not great, that he would not regain what he'd lost, but that he might stabilize at some point. He did not. Nine months after I moved in to care for him (and had moved out for fear I'd kill him, or myself, or both of us -- out of sheer frustration and desperation), we received a new diagnosis -- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig's Disease.  There would be no stabilizing, no recovery.  He'd already been symptomatic for nearly five years before the diagnosis and the average life expectancy of ALS patients is about five years following diagnosis.  

To this day, I still get pats on the back for moving in with my father. Those who have known me well, especially those who also know him, and know of our history, see the move as nothing short of heroic. To say that my father and I had a tumultuous relationship would be understating the case.  The reason I didn't see his illness for at least two years into it was that I rarely spent time in his company. It was easier that way, for both of us, I think.  Let's just say that, of the three daughters, I was not his favorite.  I'm not sure if he had a favorite, truthfully, but if he did, I wasn't it. 

There was nothing heroic in the move. It was a job that needed to be done. Yes, I could have said "no." Yes, I could have begged off. There were times -- still are times, in fact -- I think I probably should have, for a number of very sound reasons. But the truth is, I know me well enough to know that, with all the regrets I have over what I lost that year, I'd have much more not going. Of the three of us, at the time he first became unable to live alone, I happened to be in the best position to care for him. One sister lived out of state, the other had a small child. By contrast, I lived only a few miles from him, and my only child had already moved out of the house, for the most part.  So, I gave up my rent-controlled, two-bedroom, two bath apartment in Encino, where I had lived longer than in any home in my life, and moved into the one house on the planet where I did not want to go.  My father's diminishing health had caused him to neglect his home completely, and the room where I was expected to live was barely habitable.  Thanks to the efforts and contributions of a few very close friends, the room was spiffed up sufficiently that the years of cigarette smoke and the tiny specks of burgeoning black mold were bleached and scrubbed and painted over. I went from 930 square feet down to about 30, my stuff went into storage, I turned in the keys to my lovely patio apartment, and I went into the darkness of my father's making.

At the time I moved, I was already one semester in to the MFA program.  It was a low-residency program, where students spend ten days, deeply ensconced in workshops, seminars, and readings, writing, talking about writing, reading about writing and generally being writers, 24/7, then run off to write for several months, receiving feedback from mentors via post or e-mail. That first semester was heavenly.  I have never been so happy at school in my entire life.  That semester proved wildly productive and fruitful, writing-wise. I couldn't stop myself from writing.

But after the move, I felt each passing semester less prolific than the previous one. Every semester that went by, though I loved and was inspired by my mentors and my fellow students, I felt less and less creative -- less and less like a writer.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that my writer's block was all my father's fault.  

I'm kidding, of course. I would never say he "caused" the block. But the events that precipitated this long and continuing dry spell were triggered by him -- not only by his illness, but by his nature, and by the strange and unhealthy nature of our relationship, which had less to do with how he felt about me, then with how he felt about my long-dead mother.  

To be continued.....


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