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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Talking Shop


Op-ed • "Writer's Constipation: How To Make It Yield For Gentle, Predictable Overnight Relief," By Guy Stewart

                                                                                                                                                                               
In the early 2000s, I was working on my master’s degree. I was also working forty-plus hours a week as a ninth-grade science teacher. With my wife, and our fourteen-year-old daughter and seventeen-year-old son, we did, you know, family things.

The program was at a university in the neighboring state, which was an hour’s drive one way. Most people finished in two years, but I was taking two classes a week each semester. Doing it that way, it would take me five years to complete the degree – including 600 hours of “on-the-job” experience. I also took the summers off, not taking classes, but teaching five weeks of summer school for gifted and talented kids.

With all of that, something had to get cut out. Eventually, I stopped writing – and I hadn’t started my blog, yet, so my effective creative output dropped to zero.

For the first time in my life, I had no time for writing even though I’d come to believe that it was more than just a “hobby” or an avocation. I believed that it was something I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make it a career, maybe even support the aforementioned family with it someday.

But the five-year stint of taking classes, studying, and writing papers for the degree was NOTHING compared to the final push during the last semester. For six months, I didn’t turn on my computer for anything but grades and classwork. Neither one involved my imagination: work and rearranging and regurgitating data.

The flow of ideas slowed to a trickle and finally dried up. I know this now because there are virtually no scraps of paper and notes about ideas from that period of time. After Christmas, I realized that I wasn’t feeling well. I started to have regular bouts of heartburn. A “sour stomach” became commonplace. Aches, joint pains, and plantar fasciitis plagued me even though I hadn’t gained weight in some time.

A few visits to the doctor didn’t really solve anything, although they took care of my plantar fasciitis. My digestion was unimproved and (as my wife reports) I had gotten crankier (than usual!). I’d started feeling a tightness in my chest. While I wasn’t even fifty yet, I was somewhat concerned – I was biking some and walked a lot in my job. My family DID have a history of heart conditions, but I was sure enough that it wasn’t that because Dad, me, and my brothers were in the ARIC study (Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities). In addition to regular monitoring, all of us had CAT scans and MRIs of our hearts.

I’d stopped the whole “writing thing” by then – four stories published over the five year period from 2000 to 2005. I started to consider taking up normal hobbies like painting, singing in bands, camping, or WWF-TV-watching.

The semester before I was scheduled to graduate (my GPA was 3.89), I couldn’t take it anymore. The counseling program I was in was to be the first to create online portfolios. There were the usual glitches and hassles in both the system and myself that happen any time something new goes into effect. After a particularly frustrating attempt at uploading the requisite documents, I vented on a classroom of students who would have been challenging to me at the best of times. I lost my temper and shouted long and loud. A teacher I trusted came and talked to me later to find out what had happened, because, as he said, “I’ve NEVER heard you that mad!”

Early one morning, a few days later, I started writing again.

The dam broke. I started half-a-dozen stories, writing, writing, writing – and ignoring my “critical editor”. It didn’t matter right then how WELL I was writing, I was just getting words on paper. I’d write on my desktop, I’d write on my clipboard on the blank backs of unused worksheets. I’d add the files to my computer, then print and submit them with little real hope that they were good enough to publish.

Most of it was sheer…junk. My skills were so rusty, I could barely build a coherent scene let alone a click a gripping story. But something happened: while my feet still hurt (plantar fasciitis has little to do with putting my butt in a chair and more to do with years of walking on concrete floors in schools!), my joints stopped aching, I stopped having stomach aches and heartburn. It reminded me of the scene from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL:

The Dead Collector: 'Ere, he says he's not dead.
The Dead Collector: He isn't.
Large Man with Dead Body: Well, he will be soon, he's very ill.

I got better because I wrote my guts (and ideas) out, almost literally. My cure for writer’s constipation was to WRITE. Most of the writing and ideas of that time weren’t very good, and only one got published.

Ironically, it appeared in the February 2016 issue of THE WRITER (yeah, THAT one…), and was titled “A Matter Of Time”. The magazine hadn’t been online for long at that point and my article doesn’t exist in the archives anymore. You can read it here on an ancillary blog I keep for stories and articles that either never made it into print and I either think are still good, or ones that have disappeared from the world.

I learned that to keep my literary guts clear and healthy, I had to write. Just write. Quality didn’t matter. At that time of my life, I was physically sick. But I got words down on paper. Once I did, I was able to write the concluding sentence of THE WRITER article: “Keep in mind that it’s all a matter of time – how you use it, and how your persistence will eventually pay off!”

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Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife, a breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, teacher, and counselor who maintains a SF/YA/Children’s writing blog called POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS; and more seriously, the author of GUY’S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER AND ALZHEIMER’S. He has 66 publications to his credit, including a book that’s been available since 1997. In his spare time he keeps animals, a house, and loves to bike and camp. Guy has been a member of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning, and his Amazon page is here: https://www.amazon.com/Guy-Stewart/e/B001KHE6U2.

If you enjoyed this column, you might also want to read his short story, “Bogfather,” which we published on this site back in December.

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