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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 5 > Writer’s block, narrative therapeutic techniques and becoming lost in Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever
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Writer’s block, narrative therapeutic techniques and becoming lost in Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever
Author: Laura Tansley
Laura Tansley investigates a Mary Robison novel, linking it to Deleuzian theory and routes through the psychology of writer’s block.

Abstract

Recent research in to the psychological impact of the experience of writer’s block confirms its complexity, undermining the romantic notion of suffering for one’s art and highlighting the mental health issues that can often accompany a serious bout. Testimony establishes writer’s block as something that can deeply disturb an author’s sense of identity, disrupting not only a person’s profession but an understanding of a particular sense of self. With this in mind, narrative therapeutic techniques which focus on identity formation and life stories can become a potential source to understand and seek relief from writer’s block. Focusing on Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever (2001), a text born of Robison’s own block and illustrative in both form and content of the experience of creative and personal blocks, this essay looks to notions of “lost” as a means to connect experiences of writer’s block with narrative therapeutic techniques such as “alternative stories” sought out through Deleuzian “lines of flight” (Walther and Carey 2009). As a mode of disrupting established and unhelpful narrative pathways, ‘lines of flight’ can be understood as a means of straying or seeking out, beyond that which has been prescribed, with identities and selves always becoming as opposed to static or permanent. This, alongside other notions of becoming lost in order to find, begin to formulate ideas for tackling periods of writing inactivity.

 

Keywords: Writer’s block; Narrative therapy; Creative practice; Creative process; Identity; Mapping; Lines of flight

 

“I just press down hard with my pen and write over top of what I’ve already written”

 

Describing her experience of a period of writer’s block, Mary Robison reveals the stark and unavoidable reality of being unable to write:

You’re balling it up 26 times, and just weeping. It’s about pride, really; feeling the words on the page can never represent you...It’s a paralysis that I pray on my knees never visits me again. (Ihara 2002)

For Robison, writer’s block prevents her from producing something which fits with who she feels she is as a writer. It is beyond a professional concern; for her, block threatens a sense of self, her substance even, because she is unable to recognize herself in the words she produces. The inability to create becomes an inability to understand an aspect of herself because she is unable to represent herself through her creative practice, and a stalling of momentum, both practical and personal, occurs. For Money Breton, Robison’s protagonist in Why Did I Ever (the text Robison produced following the period of block described previously), writer’s block manifests itself in an eerily similar number of attempts as she works on a description in a script she’s been tasked with doctoring:

She lugs herself. Drags herself. Kicks through. Pounds. Tramps. Traverses. Treks? She journeys. Advances through. Treads. Marches. No, hikes. She pushes her way. Shoves. Rambles. Roams. Wanders through. Backpacks? Ranges? Strides! Paces! Stomps! Walks! On her fucking feet! Through the fucking snow! (Robison 2001: 73)

Money isn’t struggling to find the right word; the right word can never quite be reached because all words have become inadequate at representing a strived for meaning, leaving the writer increasingly frustrated and despairing at language and her own limitations. The task becomes impossible because it seems endless. Looking to narrative psychology, where the ability to construct a self-narrative is a way to make sense of changing and developing life experiences in order to inform and build identities, when an incident disrupts the logic of any of our self-narratives, the consequences can be deeply problematic:

If...we cannot make sense of our lives and do not know why we have become the way we are, then we will feel ill, out of sorts, anxious, easily knocked sideways by the vicissitudes of life; and prey to depression, panic attacks, psychosomatic disorders and so on. (Marriott 2010)

Our ability to narrativize our lives becomes significant because the stories we tell about our lives are not simply illustrations of who we are, they help to create who we are by forming our own narrative identities. As McAdams and Manczak describe, life stories are an “integrative story about who I am, how I came to be, and where my life may be going.” (2015: 425). As we move through our lives, experiences are either shaped in order to be incorporated in existing narratives, or existing narratives must change to accommodate experiences. So for writers like Robison, where creative practice can also be entwined with one particular sense of self whose life narrative might include the story of that creative practice, charting developments and achievements via a structure that connects a writing past, present and future, being blocked may do more than threaten livelihood. This essay, then, will consider how narrative therapeutic techniques seek to assist the search for pathways through our experiences, and how this can inform our understanding of writer’s block. In particular, Mary Robison’s descriptions of her experience of block, alongside the exploration, illustration and performance of block in Why Did I Ever, a text which in both form and content alludes to and explores the links between writing, selfhood and life narratives, will become a focal point as part of the attempt to understand the following: when established writing pathways no longer lead to desired destinations, how can writers continue to find their way?

Of all the possible aspects of a writer’s creative processes, writer’s block would seem to be a particularly familiar cultural trope perhaps because it is very often entwined with what we imagine the experience of writers to be. In film for example, we see writer’s block employed time and again as a plot device for stories involving authors, it being a reliable source of drama and conflict. A compelling illustration of these representations is “Writer’s Block – A Supercut” by Ivan Kander and Ben Watts (2016). Bringing together scenes from fifty-three films, several themes become apparent across this range of depictions. Procrastination, lack of progress, the intimidating blank page, hypergraphia, and the frustrating negotiation of details builds and builds without relief until writers reach a breaking point and only then, helpfully for the progress of the film, does a breakthrough come and fingers fly. This struggle seems to be what we expect a writer to experience; that pain is part and parcel of the narrative of a creative process (as is drinking and smoking heavily according to a great many of these films). We see writers foiled, flummoxed and very much on the edge of a precipice which we fear they might not find their way back from. These tropes suggest that we expect a certain amount of suffering on the way to producing, in many of these films at least, something worthwhile. For audiences it seems writer’s block isn’t a paradox; it’s something that only writer’s can suffer from and so confirms a person’s status as writer. But as writers will tell us, block is the thing that fundamentally contradicts this status, and as a consequence can begin to unravel a person. Psychological research into writer’s block has helped to remove some of the romance of these depictions however, with Jerome L. Singer and Michael V. Barrios confirming that blocked writers are significantly more likely to experience anxiety, depression, unproductive repetition, self-doubt, perfectionism and procrastination, than non-blocked writers (2009: 229). Working with a group of blocked writers Singer and Barrios unearthed a central issue for writers experiencing block:

[N]early all of the blocked writers find the experience of prolonged incapacity to write to be in itself quite depressing. Further complicating the work process, the blocked writers report an aversion to solitude, seemingly as an avoidant response to work-triggered dysphoria and feelings of helplessness. (2009: 229)

This research establishes that writer’s block can become more than just an annoyance or frustration, more than just a momentary stall in the creative process or a part of the process in general; the experience itself can impact mental health in very negative ways. Working with a variety of practitioners, Singer and Barrios also identified specific types which those experiencing writer’s block can fall into, suggesting that although there may be shared characteristics across several experiences of writer’s block, a block can also be directly related to the project at hand and the writer in question, creating an interdependent and individualized incapacity to write.[i] Narratives of block from a variety of practitioners seek to confirm this idea. For example, John Fowles, who struggled for twenty years to get his work-in-progress ‘In Hellugalia’ beyond the planning stages, described this block as “something like abulia...but...more like a loss of vanity, a not really caring what I write or have written – even worse, what anyone writes” (1989).[ii] Patrick Marber, writer of plays such as Closer, suggests a move to Sussex and away from London was responsible for five years of block; the change in location seemingly disrupting his process in fundamental ways (Brooks 2016). When August Strindberg couldn’t write he painted, producing landscapes of dark skies, churning and tumultuous seas battering bruised rocks, characterizing his mental state and illustrating the anguish of his own particular experience of block (Searle 2005). Andrew Motion’s experience of writer’s block is perhaps so well-known in the UK because it occurred during one of the most high-profile periods of his writing life: as Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009. In an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme in 2008 he describes the effect of this block as so severely undermining, his sense of self “sort of dissolved” (Humphrys 2008). Attempting to write poetry in the “ritualistic” way he had grown accustomed to (getting up early to spend two hours at his desk), would produce nothing, or he would write poems that “just didn’t feel like me” (Humphrys 2008). For Motion, the usual, reliable routes of his creative process for producing a poem had begun to take him elsewhere or nowhere at all. Taking into consideration his job title at this time, the distressing nature of this becomes completely understandable. If Motion, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, cannot write poetry, then how can he understand the narrative of his poet self? Just as Robison describes her experience preceding Why Did I Ever, for Motion, writer’s block seems to be directly linked to losing a tangible sense of a particular writing self. These examples of experiences of block demonstrate that although the goal may be similar, and the field of work to traverse might be recognisable to other writers, no two experiences of writer’s block can be quite the same because every practitioner must work with/in the nuances of their own processes and their lives which provide specific personal and professional contexts. If writing and selfhood are linked for someone, they will be linked in particular and personal ways for all of the many possible writing selves a person establishes. But a commonality across these experiences is the sense that when writing is a significant part of a person’s identity, block can disturb senses of selves in fundamental ways.

Acknowledging that writer’s block can be a highly individualized experience is important, particularly when considering how narrative therapy and narrative psychology can develop our understanding of block, so avoiding assumptions about one-size-fits-all routes through block is a concern of this essay. However, Mary Robison’s experience and subsequent text warrants particular focus since Why Did I Ever is an illuminating exploration of block because of its origins, and how its form and content can also be read as seeking to perform aspects of the experience of block itself. As a consequence Why Did I Ever and Robison’s creative process allow for an opening up of our understandings of block, moving from illustration to performance and perhaps, if appropriate, to instruction too. Robison has said that for ten years she was unable to “write much of anything”; the fact that she wrote Why Did I Ever in the way that she did, structured as it is, would suggest it is a valuable text to look at specifically (Ihara 2002). Why Did I Ever concerns Money Breton, wanderer of the American South, imbiber of prescription medication, blocked Hollywood script doctor and mother of two children. Mev, her daughter, is a recovering heroin addict working through a Methadone programme; her son Paulie has recently experienced a prolonged, violent sexual assault, the perpetrator of which is awaiting trial. Money is breaking apart, and so is the text. Made up of 536 titled or numbered pieces, the narrative of Why Did I Ever is built gradually by the reader, layering our understandings of each piece as they sit alongside each other, sometimes associated by theme or character, not always by con/sequential plot or action. The pieces which create the totality of Why Did I Ever often exist as both part of a whole and as self-contained stories, simultaneously adding to the development of the broader narrative of the text but often presented to the reader with no further explanation. One of the effects of this is that the reader becomes engaged with the space around the written text as a place to imagine, infer and imply, offering opportunities to understand Money through what she doesn’t reveal, alongside what she does. The piece numbered ‘191’, for example, tells a story of Money in forty-five words without ever actually revealing the details of the story itself:

I say to myself, “And let me remind you. The next time you go off in some purple fucking haze, you are not to go wearing your good red-leather jacket. Because you don’t always return to consciousness with it on. You know what I mean?” (Robison 2001: 69)

The red-leather jacket is never mentioned again, but we can choose to understand its significance as an example of Money’s personality and behaviour. Why Did I Ever is full of moments like this, alongside pieces which refer to and reveal more directly her present context, providing the reader with both a direct and indirect understanding of Money and her multiplicity through multiple stories as well as through the broader narratives of the text. Understanding this structure from a narrative therapy perspective, these moments offer an illustration of how, “although some accounts of our lives become dominant and privileged over others, we are all composed of many stories and live multi-storied lives” (Walther and Carey 2009: 3). To synopsize the plot of Why Did I Ever might be to focus on Money’s career, her children and the specific difficulties they all face; but in amongst those more privileged narratives are hundreds of other stories which build to create an understanding of Money beyond, underneath and around these ongoing situations. In Why Did I Ever the multi-storied nature of identity is illustrated in both content and form through the darts of insight that Money reveals, and the way in which these are presented as individual, numbered or titled pieces: 536 stories which can be built to create extended narratives. In narrative therapy, acknowledging and supporting the notion that lives are multi-storied connects to an understanding of what Michael White terms ‘absent but implicit’ narratives. These are stories which exist as “other” aspects of an experience, “not in the original description or expression, but implied by it” (Carey et al 2009: 321).[iii] These narratives are revealed through therapeutic conversations which, following an enquiry, may provide possible alternative stories of an issue which dominates an individual, highlighting the notion that selfhood is in constant flux (Carey et al 2009). If seeking out alternative stories is one way to work with a problematic issue, it might be worth considering this practice as a productive way to address writer’s block. However, if we consider Why Did I Ever to be a text that opens up understandings of writer’s block through Robison’s experience and the ways the text itself manifests, illustrates and reveals writer’s block, it must be done with an appreciation that this particular experience of block (like all narrativized experiences), is woven and connected to a multiplicity of other stories which affect and establish this reading. Robison, and Money’s, block narrative exist as interdependent and individualized, but nonetheless significant to an exploration of block because of what these particular narratives draw attention to in terms of a particular self-formation and its connections to creative process and practice.

As well as balling something up 26 times, Robison describes another repetitious aspect of her experience of block: “various horrible things had happened, as they sometimes will, and I was having difficulty. I was having more than difficulty. Like a repulsive videotape was on automatic replay in my head” (Murray 2001). Robison highlights here the experience of block as a continual loop that has the potential to carve a deeper and deeper groove in to a person, substantiating the pattern of failure and therefore making it difficult to break the cycle of the block. Money’s block is experienced similarly, where the writing process descends in to frustrated hypergraphia: “I fill up a page and don’t turn to a new page. I just press down hard with my pen and write over top [sic] of what I’ve already written. I’m going to kick that fucking TV into the road” (Robison 2001: 78). Here, moving on productively is problematic for Money. As a writer she is stuck in a constant corkscrew of re-writes in her work as a script doctor, and it is difficult to separate this from how she is struggling to make sense of how her life has become what it is. Turning to narrative psychology once more, it’s possible to understand a connection between this stalling of writing progress with a disruption to what McAdams and Manczak term a “cultural script” which are the kinds of “normative expectations” we have for our lives and events based on what has been established as societal norms (2015: 429). An example of this kind of narrative structure might be something like the three phases of 1) school, 2) work, then 3) retirement. For some people this might track as a typical experience within their culture and society and which could be seen to fit neatly in to a traditional three act structure of a particular life story. For a writing task a typical narrative structure might be something like 1) idea or inspiration, 2) drafting, then 3) editing. When something occurs which doesn’t seem to fit within these structures, or a person gets stuck in a phase of a narrative, it’s possible that “causal coherence” can be disrupted. This is the ability to explain within a narrative, “how one event caused, led up to, transformed, or in some way related meaningfully to subsequent events in one’s life” (McAdams and Manczak 2015: 429). Alongside this is “thematic coherence”, which is the identification of an overarching “theme, value, or principle that integrates the many different episodes of [a] life and conveys the gist of who [s/he] is and what [their] biography is all about” (McAdams and Manczak 2015: 429). If a person is unable to place experiences within a chain of events, and /or is unable to characterize an experience as fitting within a broader personal or societal arc, the creation of a coherent narrative can be challenged and semantic meaning is harder to establish (McAdams and Manczak 2015: 429). It seems possible, then, to consider Why Did I Ever as a performance of the experience of seeking new ways to understand oneself when causal and thematic narratives change. Blake Butler describes reading Why Did I Ever as being like a maze without exit, “where the deeper we go in, [the maze] seems to grow even more irate, its central voice that much less willing to cooperate with whatever flow you might have tried to form around it” (2015). As readers we aren’t always sure how details connect in the time-space of Why Did I Ever, often because Money isn’t sure either. In “Work Better, Go Union” Money wakes up unsure as to what happened the night before, surrounded only by clues that provide context rather than specifics:

That Something Producer, Evan, ended up here, I’m fairly sure. And the night did cost me but somehow it paid very well. Here is my wallet, emptied of every dollar and coin. My left Nine West shoe, however, has six hundred bucks in the toe. (Robison 2001: 69)

The reader, like Money, can only be “fairly sure” of the story here because causality is not clear. This incoherence also extends thematically for Money when she considers what has happened to her son:

One story about my son may never have an end to it. Or the story will have an end I don’t want to know because it’s horrible. Want to or not, I have to wait, wait, wait. (Robison 2001: 10)

In the midst of this experience, unsure of how this narrative might develop and how it might ever make sense, Money’s inability to find coherence is mirrored by the experience of reading Why Did I Ever and as a consequence we are prompted to consider the ways in which narratives can be constructed.

Regarding its structure, Robison has said about Why Did I Ever that, “if you read the pages in reverse order, they work about the same,” demonstrating that chronology could be less of a concern should a reader choose a different way to approach the text (Murray 2001). This disorientation is tempered in places, however. For example, from front to back Money’s cat, Flower Girl, goes missing, comes back skittish, runs away again and is found dead. Entropy is at work here; numbers, titles and chapters frame each piece that build the text, and help to stabilize the reader by providing a suggested order in which to read. Robison even acknowledges that, “beginning-middle-end structure is very appealing and very comforting. It’s similar to north-south-east-west. Both of them help us know where we are” (Murray 2001). Robison has purposefully shaped the text to provide a guide-line, but it is a shape that plays with any fixed sense of beginning-middle-end because a typified structure isn’t representative for Money who is struggling to make those connections herself. Extrapolating this to a consideration of identity- forming practices, the desire for this kind of narrative coherence suggests that the breakdown of these structures can be incredibly disorientating for a person trying to navigate their way through an experience towards a recognizable and helpful story of a self or selves. However, when these structures fail us, producing self stories or narratives that aren’t satisfactory to us, or if prescribed patterns don’t fit us, it’s possible to understand them as problematic in and of themselves. “North-south-east-west” and “beginning-middle-end” are suggestive of the kinds of normative discourses that Sarah Walther and Maggie Carey identify as limiting because they insist on privileging certain narratives and marginalizing others (2009: 3). Looking to Money’s experience as a script doctor, the hierarchical studio structure of innumerable executives has left her in an interminable cycle of re-writes on a script that has changed and changed and changed again without moving out of the development phase, leaving her and the script utterly disorientated:

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The script used to have a man in love with a wood nymph. Then a version had him in the redwood forest in love with a tree. Now the story’s set in Alaska, and is about some dame chasing after Bigfoot. My job, and what I do for a living. (Robison 2001: 70)

Money is consistently thwarted by Belinda, one such studio executive, who insists on a process that Money doesn’t recognize as productive and so resists, which reaffirms her block. This reflects the notion that dominant narrative arcs (in this case, of creative practices), can become stifling if they don’t correspond with a particular developing or developed sense of self. Moving beyond these well-established but sometimes confining narrative structures may allow for the possibility of alternative understandings of selves. In Why Did I Ever we can’t plot traditional narrative precisely; there is no compass rose of easily defined first, second and third acts or up-down-left-right. Instead Money’s life stories and the narratives of Why Did I Ever develop through a layering of these fragments of detail; when and where each incident or insight takes place and how they come to pass isn’t always obvious, confusing any sense of linear causality and suggesting that the reader could move through the text fluidly, at will. This kind of narrative arrangement which eschews a traditional arc allows the reader to consider the building blocks of both stories and identities; how multiple they are, how we can continually re/formulate, how disparate elements can be arranged to suit normative discourses but also how they can be scattered and lost creating causal and /or thematic incoherence. The structure of Why Did I Ever allows us to consider how identity-forming building blocks can be re-arranged to create an alternative discourse, one which opens up alternative understandings, particularly if established narratives are repetitiously producing unhelpful outcomes such as an experience of writing which results in 26 balled up attempts or an endless loop that we’re unable to exit.

The story of Robison’s relief from this block, according to Robison herself, begins with scraps:

Let me start at the beginning...to get through, I began scribbling notes. I would go out, take a notebook. Or drive, or park wherever and take notes. I would note anything left. Anything that still seemed funny or scary or involving for four seconds. (Murray 2001)

Robison’s workplace became her car, where she would consider these notes and begin to shape them:

In what she calls ‘the great tradition of writing in cars,’ Robison worked on Why Did I Ever in her now-deceased Honda, recording thousands of microtapes, transcribing them with an electric typewriter plugged into her cigarette lighter; for illumination she positioned her ‘moon-roof’ under street lights. (Ihara 2002)

A prototypical tactic for writer’s block is often to change elements and try something new as part of the creative process in order to invite and inspire work, presumably because previous creative processes have begun to stagnate preventing any kind of productive motion and therefore losing their essential meaning as methods of creation.[iv] A new process becomes significant when it is a reliable part of the creation of satisfying work (which could imply self-representative, publishable, pleasing, all of these or whatever the writer’s particular priorities are in that moment). The space of this creation in Robison’s case seems to be the essence of motion. Don’t like your surroundings? Feel bored or uninterested by them? Start the engine of your portable office and move on. But there is perhaps something more metaphorical happening here too, something more akin to Rebecca Solnit’s ideas in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, in which she discusses how getting lost is a way to go about finding “love, wisdom, grace, inspiration...things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else” (2006: 3). This seems like a constructive way to read Robison’s process: by driving to no place in particular and looking for what was “left”, whatever might be at the very peripheries of herself, using what sounds like her last ounces of resolve in order to satisfy an “urgent need to distract” herself, Robison discovered a “steady voice” and the potential for story if editing and shaping could take place (Murray 2001). “Distract” becomes a poignant description on her part because of the opportunity to understand this method as a way to sidetrack, divert, deflect; words which describe ways to move direction in order to re/evaluate the familiar. Instead of looping through cycles of failure, Robison was able to find alternative routes of creation; re/assessing by literally re/locating.

Getting “lost” in all the ways Solnit describes in Field Guide could be one way to understand different selves as aspects of a person which are continually re/established; that a self that feels connected to the writing being produced and what the writing represents is constantly changing. It also seems possible to associate this notion of becoming lost as a re/evaluative tool with rhizomatic modes of thought. Originated by Deleuze and Guattari and adopted as part of narrative therapy as a mode of enquiry that “can initiate off-shoots of stories which can then take root and develop as distinct but linked accounts of preferred story”, rhizomatic thought is non-linear and nomadic (Walther and Carey 2009: 5).  When considered as an identity-forming practice, “self as a rhizomatic story has multiple entryways and each entryway will lead to other constructions of selfhood” (Sermijn and Loots 2015: 536). Rhizomatic narratives are “characterized by horizontal branching that establishes new elements; not as divisions of the whole, but as multiplicities that are linked and connected” (Walther and Carey 2009: 5). The structure of Why Did I Ever fits particularly well with this description, speaking to Solnit’s idea of becoming lost to uncover different aspects, or create new understandings of selves, as well as aligning with rhizomatic thought in the way that it wanders, encouraging sidetracking, diversion, and distraction. Why Did I Ever is nomadic in its structure in that it reaches a place, pauses and then moves on, in a constant state of transition from one piece to the next echoing the methods of its creation. If we read Why Did I Ever, with its connected multiplicities, as rhizomatic and consider the “metaphor of the rhizome as an image of how we might circumvent...top-down hierarchy”, then Why Did I Ever provides an example of how we can continually create and understand life stories that diverge from established narratives and open up a variety of other possibilities (Carey [n.d.]). It feels poignant to regard the choice to leave the story of Paulie’s rape, of the beginnings and endings of Money’s marriages, of the breakdown of her relationship with her parents, for example, as implicit when perhaps in a different context these stories would be privileged over the minutiae of late-night visits to Laundromats and twenty-four-hour convenience stores. Or the fact that Robison revisits the statement that is also a title, “This Must Be America”, repeated as if continually being reassessed: firstly to reflect on a shop out of goods but with a vendor selling everything Money doesn’t need outside; secondly to watch a sunset-lit streetcar driver, smoking and “roosting” on the street curb (Robison 2001: 49, 110). As a way to approach writer’s block, reflecting on the possibilities for rhizomatic creative processes as a way to establish dominant and emerging narratives may allow for some relief as opportunities for alternative approaches to writing processes are allowed to come to the fore.

It’s hard to imagine that Robison’s roaming didn’t just inspire the creation of the character of Money but also in some way the protagonist’s own rampant, destination-less road trips across the American South. In Why Did I Ever Money drives from Louisiana, through Mississippi, to Alabama, to Florida; just some of the places named explicitly. Some of the towns and roads mentioned by Money, if she names them at all, are unfamiliar and looking them up on Google Maps we can’t be sure of which “Melanie” or “Chapel Street” she means (Robison 2001: 94). But this is because the point of these drives is not locations or destinations; Money drives in a state of delirium very rarely sure of where she’s going:

142

Can I turn here? O.K., good. I can? Thank you. But what if I don’t know if I want to? Sir?

143

I just regret everything and using my turn signal is too much trouble. Fuck you. Why should you get to know where I’m going, I don’t. (Robison 2001: 51)

As Money gets lost, performing “the same exits and merges for hours and hours,” wondering if an aerial view of herself might be “fun to watch”, her lack of perspective demonstrates that hers is a story being told in present tense as it is being formed (Robison 2001: 10). Money can be seen to be in the midst of the process that Solnit explores in A Field Guide To Getting Lost, and we can understand Money’s wandering as a way to get nearer to the borders between narrative selves through the kind of exploration that allows for uncertainty and the possibility of shaking off one self and the jacketing of new narrative selves. This movement, however, could be interpreted as inaction if, for example, it becomes a way of procrastinating and in that way, keeping still and maintaining the status quo. David Swann makes a connection between Robison’s self-styled subtractionism (“a discipline that depends on the removal of material”) and spiritual quests “where the presence of God is ‘inferred from the experience of absence’” (2017: 194).[v] Swann suggests that transcendence is often a thematic concern in Robison’s work, but that the transcendence sought by characters such as Money is stymied by a kind of personal stasis that is reflected in Robison’s writing through narrative movement, as opposed to narrative action. He cites Why Did I Ever as an example of this, where “Money simply drifts through a blizzard of moments” as opposed to following a more familiar, Hollywood-style “character arc” and “plot-chain founded upon principles of cause and effect” (Swann 2017: 198-199). Swann describes how Robison’s “suspicion of plot’s bullying, totalitarian tendencies” leads her to creating narratives which “press the freeze-button”, where the focus of her writing is on the “doubts and vulnerabilities” of her characters, captured in “vivid snapshots”, as opposed to “engineered narratives that resolve their [characters’] difficulties in ways that real life rarely can” (2017: 203). Swann’s reading highlights that Robison’s texts and her characters are often conscious of story construction and, in Why Did I Ever in particular, the ways in which hierarchical structures such as the Hollywood movie production machine enforces set shapes and expectations from stories. But by using terms such as ‘drift’ and ‘freeze’ to describe Money’s experience and the narrative of Why Did I Ever, this reading perhaps denies the agency which could be understood to be present in the process both Robison and Money are undertaking. When becoming lost in the way Solnit describes is a choice or is performed actively, it is dynamic. This lostness can also become a way to understand the creation of what Sarah Walther and Maggie Carey, through Deleuze, describe as “lines of flight” or “deterritorialisation” (2009). “Lines of flight” in narrative therapeutic practices seek to find “other territories of life and preferred stories” by firstly understanding that we “live in and inhabit particular terrains, territories or fields of life, which are associated with particular sets of concepts and practices of living” (2009: 4). Quoting Deleuze, Walther and Carey establish “lines of flight” as “available means of escape from the forces of repression and stratification” that established personal and societal terrains can create (2009: 4). Acts of difference such as rhizomatic thinking can open up these lines of flights, which in therapeutic terms means exploring these lines to develop a person’s preferred stories and working through problematic accounts of selves. With this in mind, Money’s driving to reach a destination-less place could be understood as a way for her to map her own psychological terra incognita. Her mapping is a process of story filtration (what is necessary and what can be sieved), mapping to understand where she’s at, where she’s been and who she might be; a process which could be read as an exploration of potential lines of flight. Money is through, is almost never in a place when she drives; as Solnit suggests, “a place is all about here and now; a road is about there and later...A road promises something else” (2001: 185). On one particular drive to a place called Battier, she reflects: “I know now that nothing I planned is going to happen. Whatever it was I planned” (Robison 2001: 49). Money, then, comes to encapsulate the notion of self stories as something that is always becoming rather than being, again aligning the descriptions of her experience with narrative therapeutic understandings of identity:

If we consider identity not as fixed or single storied, but as multi-storied, fluid and always in the process of “becoming” something else [as opposed to the rigidity of “being”] through the social and political experiences of life, then we can position ourselves in relation to people in a way that is enabling of their preferred possibilities for living. (Walther and Carey 2009: 4)

Understanding Money’s driving as a way to map, and perhaps Robison’s driving too as she moves to establish a new map for her creative process, allows both to become a narrative of becoming, as opposed to being or something “frozen” and therefore outside of time altogether. In the context of this essay, it may also form a useful point of entry into understanding and working through writer’s block. However, it feels important to bear in mind that some of the tactics Money employs to bring about an exploration of lines of flight, or to re/establish a particular sense of self, could be understood to veer dangerously close, or fall directly into, something which is more self-destructive than self-productive: she constantly speeds when driving, she drinks till she blacks out and is, by her own admission, abusing prescription medication. Paying attention to where the line between destructive and productive sits for an individual would obviously be a key concern of narrative therapy, and ultimately should be a concern for any writer experimenting with the boundaries of their own process. For Money this negotiation is exemplified by her consistent addressing of herself, often to admonish: “I say to myself, ‘Stop it.’ Or so I say. It doesn’t work” (Robison 2001: 24). What this advice may relate to specifically, and the consequences of ignoring it, is left up to the reader, either to imagine or to make associative leaps, once again reflecting the idea that a narrative can have myriad understandings when considered from an unfixed perspective. And that establishing when and what to “stop” in a writer’s life is a personal process.

Distraction, or becoming lost in thought as a way to overcome a block, could also be understood as having ties to day-dreaming or mind-wandering (again a well-established theory of creative practice stemming from as far back as early 20th century Freud), which are opportunities to play, imagine and explore in nonlinear ways, again perhaps linking creative practice with lines of flight (Marriott 2008). Singer and Barrios, after establishing the four main types of experiences of block, considered how different practitioners from these groups responded to what they describe as “Imagery Sessions” (2009). Roughly, these sessions involved participants becoming physically relaxed and letting their minds wander, periodically checking in on the contents of their thoughts, responding to mental imagery exercises, visualizing or experiencing their current writing project and generating a dreamlike state from which to explore this work (2009: 242-243). Their conclusions around this were very positive, demonstrating “the power of using waking-dream generation, focused around specific blocks or goals, for reducing difficulties in expression” (2009: 244). Malia Mason’s 2007 research, summarized by Singer and Barrios, suggests that this kind of dreamlike state and free association allows for, among other things, “spontaneous mental time travel, thus permitting some integration of past, present, and future experiences ” (Singer and Barrios 2009: 227). Turning to narrative therapy once more, it would seem that this notion of merging time aligns with Walther and Carey’s contention that,

 [i]n asking about the meanings of the actions that people take, have taken, or wish to take in the future, there is the opportunity to draw out ‘concepts of life’. Through such reflections on identity there can be the chance for new possibilities to emerge (2009: 6).

 If we understand past, present and future to be representative of beginning, middle and end, it seems very possible that this kind of creative exercise is successful for creative practitioners experiencing block because it encourages participants to create stories from these experiences. If it’s possible to build narratives in order to understand a writer’s development, providing opportunities to make nonlinear and/or associative journeys through what could be termed rhizomatic thinking, a writer may be able to re/establish in their work thematic and / or causal narratives of where the block began and how it might be resolved. For The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series, writer Kathryn Harrison discusses the significance of the unconscious to her own creative process through a line from Joseph Brodsky’s “On Love”: “For darkness restores what the light cannot repair” (2016). Harrison suggests that, “there is no way to restore what’s lost, sometimes, other than through dreams and imagination”; that the “dark, opaque process” of being “directed by the needs of my unconscious” can “give back words to the silenced” (2016). This could link directly with Robison’s experience as she listened to her own need to be distracted, looking for anything of interest and moving on when that moment was exhausted; mirrored in Why Did I Ever’s temporally fluid structure, in Money’s narration moving back and forth through time and answering a need to be in constant motion by driving across the American South. Each could be described as a querying of existing narratives as part of the pursuit to create productive self-narratives, and in particular narratives of writer selves.

It would seem when block occurs, dominating the creative process through repetitious over-thinking, manifesting a stagnated and unrepresentative sense of self caught in a web of normative discourses and cultural expectations, that unthinking may contribute to becoming. By encouraging what Deleuze describes as “lines of flight”, and what Solnit understands to be unknown territories at the boundaries of selves, writers may be able to seek out new creative pathways. To know these unchartered places requires mapping, however, in order to understand the compass points and plot points of established narratives to find and then thicken alternative stories. Narrative therapeutic techniques might be one way to implement this mapping, a process by which new paths are forged via being aided to learn how to become open to possibility in order to re/create thematic and causal coherence through rhizomatic thinking. But “aid“ is crucial here. Writing can be isolating, block even more so by extension; so sometimes to learn how to get lost we may need a little guidance. Why Did I Ever, as a piece of fiction created by an author following a period of writer’s block, provides direction in the way that it allows for an opening up of experiences of block, to understand it in relation to creative, personal and practice narratives, all of which intermingle to form an understanding of writing identities. Significantly Why Did I Ever, in content, form and in the block-narratives established here that frame its making, also creates an opportunity to understand that these aspects of identity are constantly in the process of becoming, and that appreciating and embracing this may make any stalls in writing momentum more navigable.

 


 

[i] The four main types of experiences of writer’s block that Singer and Barrios established are: 1) the dysphoric/avoidant type; 2) the guilty/interpersonally hindered type; 3) the constricted/dismissive/disengaged type; 4) the angry/disappointed type (Singer and Barrios 2009: 231-234).

[ii] In this interview Fowles also explicitly mentions his health, in particular how his stroke diminished his “verbal dexterity”, as an additional factor of his fiction-based writer’s block. I mention this because writer’s block, like any human experience, occurs within a context which will undoubtedly have an effect on a person’s experience and narrative of block. Understanding this context will be an intrinsic part of working through a block, but in this essay I can’t, as a non-expert, speculate on the psychological impact these contextual issues will undoubtedly have. So I will focus instead on the narratives of block and its overcoming and hope that the ideas presented here can be given depth by those working in therapeutic professions.

[iii] Michael White’s understanding of “absent but implicit” in a therapeutic context is drawn from Derrida’s work on the notion that meanings “we derive from texts depend on the distinctions we make between what is presented to us (privileged meaning) and what is ‘left out’ (subjugated meaning)” (Carey et al 2009: 321). That understanding comes to us not only from what an experience is, but also what it is not.

[iv] See the following articles: “Hit A Writing Dip? That Doesn’t Make You A Failure” by Lynsey May for the Scottish Book Trust; “7 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block” by Chuck Sambuchino for Writer’s Digest; “How to get over writer’s block” by K.M. Weiland for The Independent and Quora.

[v] Robison rejected the term Minimalist, a label which is often associated with her and her contemporaries such as Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel, as “reductive”, instead preferring “subtractionist… That at least implied a little effort” (Murray 2001).

 

References

Barber, T.X. and Wilson, S.C. (1978) ‘The Barber Suggestibility Scale and the Creative Imagination Scale: Experimental and Clinical Applications’, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 21: 84-108.

Butler, B. (2015) ‘Underappreciated Masterpieces: Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever (2001)’, Vice.com. 8 April. Available from: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/underappreciated-masterpieces-mary-robisons-why-did-i-ever-010 [Accessed 24 February 2019].

Carey, M. [n.d.] ‘The legacy of Michael’s reading of poststructuralist French philosophy’, Dulwich Centre: A gateway to narrative therapy & community work. Available from: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/michael-white-archive/narrative-practice-continuing-the-conversations/the-legacy-of-michaels-reading-of-poststructuralist-french-philosophy/ [Accessed 24 February 2019].

Carey, M., Walther, S. and Russell, S. (2009) ‘The Absent but Implicit: A Map to Support Therapeutic Enquiry’, Family Process., 48. Available from: www.theinstituteofnarrativetherapy.com/family%20process%20abi.pdf [Accessed 30 November 2017].

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Humphrys, J. (2008) ‘How to get over writer’s block’, Today. BBC Radio 4, 13 September: Avaolable from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7613000/7613947.stm [Accessed 28 March 2018].

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McAdams, D.P. and Manczak, E. (2015) ‘Personality and the Life Story’. APA handbook of personality and social psychology, Volume 4: Personality processes and individual differences (ed. M. Mikulincer, P.R. Shaver, M.L. Cooper and R.J. Larsen). American Psychological Association.

Murray, M. (2001) ‘Mary Robison by Maureen Murray’. Bomb Magazine 77. Available from: http://bombmagazine.org/article/2438/ [Accessed 24 February 2019].

Robison, M. (2001) Why Did I Ever. New York, NY: Counterpoint.

Sambuchino, C. (2013) ‘7 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block’. Writer’s Digest. May 5. Available from: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/7-ways-to-overcome-writers-block. [Accessed 24 February 2019].

Searle, A. (2005) ‘The Sea Inside’, Guardian, 15 February. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2005/feb/15/1 [Accessed 24 February 2019].

Sermijn, J. and Loots, G. (2015) ‘The Cocreation of Crazy Patchworks: Becoming Rhizomatic in Systemic Therapy’, Family Process, 54.

Singer, J. and Barrios, M. (2009) ‘Writer's Block and Blocked Writers: Using Natural Imagery to Enhance Creativity’, The Psychology of Creative Writing (ed. S. Kaufman & J. Kaufman) 225-246. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Solnit, R. (2006) A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Solnit, R. (2001) As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

Swann, D. (2017) ‘The Mathematics of the Heart: Mary Robison Considered as a Flash Fiction Novelist’, Critical Insights: Flash Fiction (ed. M. Cocchiarale and S. Emmert. Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing/Salem Press.

Walther, S. and Carey, M. (2009) ‘Narrative therapy, difference and possibility: inviting new becomings’, Context: The Magazine for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice (ed. G. Smith), 105. Available from: http://www.theinstituteofnarrativetherapy.com/Context105-SarahWalt_424831%5B1%5D.pdf. [Accessed 28 March 2018].

Weiland, K.M. (2016) ‘How to get over writer's block’. The Independent and Quora. 13 April. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/how-to-get-over-writers-block-a6982006.html. [Accessed 24 February 2019].

 

Bibliography

Gornick, V. (2001) The Situation and the Story. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Maftei, M. (2013) The Fiction of Autobiography: Reading and Writing Identity. London: Bloomsbury.

 

Laura Tansley has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and her creative and critical writing has appeared in a variety of places including Butcher's Dog, Cosmonaut's Avenue, Gutter, Lighthouse, Litro, New Writing Scotland, The Real Story, The Rialto, Southword, Tears in the Fence, and is forthcoming in Smoke. She is also co-editor of the collection Writing Creative Non-Fiction: Determining the Form. She lives in Glasgow and tweets from @laura_tans.

 

 

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