“Once upon a time, there was a man whose therapist thought it would be a good idea for the man to work through stuff by telling a story about that stuff.”
-Charles Yu, “Fable”
“I was plagued then, as now, with a tendency to edit my thoughts before they even took shape.”
-Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?
Sometimes stories help me ground into here, so that my thoughts and my feelings can happen. They help me be. Sometimes stories help me direct my thoughts and feelings, channeling them in a direction I choose. They help me become. Sometimes they help me imagine a different possibility, a different future, that I could move toward instead. They help me turn. Yu and Bechdel help me see how different those three steps are, and how well they can work together.
I can get stuck at any one of those steps. For the last few weeks I haven’t wanted to write. Or work in general, really. I kept putting myself in front of my computer, kept coming up with reasons or explanations as to why every task I picked up felt dead. A few years ago, when a friend told me she wasn’t “feeling motivated,” we ended up talking about what she was (un)motivated toward. What direction was she going in? How had she chosen that? Was she sure she wanted to go that way? We talk a lot about remembering to do something valuable, but I think it’s just as important to remember that some of what we’re tasked with isn’t valuable. Not everything our systems say we “have to do” or “should do” makes sense. Rejecting one path makes room for others. My friend suggested that might be where she was actually stuck: it’s not that she didn’t care, it’s that she was trying to make herself care about something she didn’t believe in. Her struggle was with the third of these story-steps. She believed in other things, and once she noticed that, she could turn. I’ve had a lot of trouble realizing I’m in the same place: I kept picking up the same tasks, kept trying to do the same way, and I thought my stuckness was the problem. I thought I was in the second step, trying to get myself to move, but looking back it seems like I was in the third—I needed to turn, and I didn’t see that. To put it another way, one of my friends insists that “writer’s block” is usually just trying to write the wrong thing.
In the last few years, I think I’ve ignored the first step the most. It’s the step Yu and Bechdel both emphasize: the outpouring of words, the letting yourself take shape. I get caught up in directing the outpouring into the channels I’ve chosen. I get caught up with wondering what channels to choose. When I’m caught up in those and can’t figure out what’s happening, different things seem to help me happen. I can go for a walk. I can talk to someone, honestly and deeply. I can sit quietly. I can write a poem, letting word give way to word, letting moments drift into an unfolding now.
I can be. Then become. Then, sometimes, turn. I get stuck in plenty of ways, and different kinds of stuck open up to a different kind of step, but stories give me three different steps to try.