The Third Third

A Loss of Words

I’ve never really had writers’ block.  Until now.  I have always — always —been able to put pencil to paper and fingers to keyboard to report what’s going on.  I won’t claim that it was always the best reporting or the greatest writing, but I proudly counted among my skill sets the ability to collect, assess and synthesize information to communicate in writing what I’d learned and experienced.  Cogently.  Sometimes lyrically.  Usually on deadline. To serve a lofty goal of understanding who we are and what we are doing in this world.  I never stared at a blank page and didn’t know what to write or how to begin.  That was in part because I did the work required — the research, the interviews, the thinking — before I ever sat down in front of a blank screen.  I couldn’t write fiction; I couldn’t create anything out of thin air.  But give me facts, let me develop perspective and tease out nuance, and I was never at a loss for words. And, as the author Andre Debus III once advised me while autographing one of his novels at an event I attended, we only get to our best writing when we dig deep inside ourselves, when we tap into not only our intellect and reason, but into our deepest emotions, our deepest knowledge.  So I might reasonably have expected the emotional upheaval of these past four or five years to have fueled my writing.  Instead, I find my inkwell is empty.

I knew I was having trouble even getting to my writing desk sometime in the middle of the Trump era, and I just sort of ignored it, filling my writing hours with bridge games and Spanish Lessons and, well, errands, and some political activism.  When the pandemic found me sheltered in our house with virtually no immediate distractions I thought, Aaah, well, now I can get back to work: I am living through this extraordinary crisis in real time.  I can research the science, study the politics, chart the emotions, and talk with friends and family across the country to try to make sense of what is going on. I have all this time now.  And a relatively new MacBook Pro. 

But I got totally bogged down in the research part, obsessing over all the increasingly tense political and pandemic reporting in the three newspapers delivered to our home, plus assorted digital subscriptions, NPR, four news shows every evening and occasional binge-washing of CNN or MSNBC.  I was in Intake mode and there was no output.  While I realized that the reporting I had been trained to do when “New Journalism” was new (circa 1970) wasn’t really suited to today’s media moment — so many more sources, so much more disinformation, so few agreed upon facts, the economics of news broadcasting and publishing — I believed I was capable of getting up to speed.  It wasn’t really that I didn’t know how to do it, but that I didn’t know what to say, how to write it anymore.  Not because journalism and politics had changed so much (though they had), but because it seemed that most of the words of my trade had been stripped of their meaning.  I was no longer sure how they worked, or if they would work at all.  

Think about these words, for example:  truth, facts, honor, unity, fair, law and order, equality, rights, news, friend, enemy, hero, science, public service, honesty, trust, beautiful, real, fake, loyalty, justice, power, fraud, common good, Christian, democracy, freedom, matter, count, mail, investigate, witness, security.  The list goes on.  And on.  And on. Using these words today in even the most appropriate of contexts can sound totally anachronistic, like quaint verbiage from another era. Worse, they have no power without meaning.  And neither do the concepts and ideals they represent, which I find deeply unsettling and yes, terrifying.  Even this week, the first in 2021, we can add insurrection, riot, treason, traitor, and sedition to the list as the President and  his henchmen attempt to gas light us with false-but-pious assurances that the violent attack on the Capitol and the Electoral College vote certification wasn’t incited.  As if the online chatter and videos don’t exist.

So it’s not that my muse has taken flight. It’s rather that I need — we need — to do a whole lot of work to reclaim these words and their meaning, to give voice to the ideas and ideals and possibilities they represent, and to write — and live and vote — as if they matter.  Because they do.  

I picture this writers’ block as a huge block of ice sitting on top of my desk messing with my computer and my papers and me.  Now that I know what’s keeping me from writing, though, I am as angry as I am despondent and scared about what’s been done to,  well, the meaning of almost everything these last five years, and my anger is hot.  The block is melting. . . .

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