The Doldrums

[November 2008] Whenever the subject of writer’s block comes up, I usually say that I don’t believe there’s any such thing. The answer to writer’s block is, quite simply, to write. Write something. Book reviews, essays, blog entries, anything.

However, I do believe there is such a thing as Writer’s Doldrums. The original Doldrums are regions in the oceans near the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. Sailors who ended up in the Doldrums could find themselves becalmed for days or weeks. They were also known as the “horse latitudes,” because mariners often ditched any livestock that might compete for dwindling food supplies aboard the stranded ships.

I’ve been in the doldrums for the better part of two months now. It’s not that I haven’t been able to write—I’ve completed an essay or two, several book reviews, and at least one short story. However, my output has dwindled compared to my norm.

Hurricane Ike was where it all began, ironically, since hurricanes originate in the Doldrums. For the better part of a week, our world was upended. We had no electricity or telephones for days. The place where I work was closed. We cooked meals outdoors on our gas stove and waited in long lines to get gasoline. Communicating with anyone proved difficult. We found creative ways to fill our waking hours, and retired when the sun went down rather than mess around with candles or gas lanterns. We listened to the news on the radio and marveled at the destruction.

Once the power returned, we got back to our normal routine, except everything had been knocked off kilter. The wounds from that storm are still visible in the region. The root system of a massive tree that was unearthed in a neighbor’s yard remains visible. Office buildings downtown still have boarded up windows.

The election and the economic cataclysm have also contributed to my listlessness. A medical situation involving a family member also turned things upside down for a while. It’s hard to concentrate on fiction amidst such turmoil.

Except for the days during the Ike aftermath when we had no power, I’ve dutifully gotten up each morning at the usual time when I do most of my writing, gone to the computer, and found numerous other things to do to occupy the time. I let two anthology deadlines slip past without getting anything together to submit to them. I didn’t miss any real deadlines—anything I was supposed to do, I did—but I wasted a lot of hours, too. Since my window for writing each day is comparatively small, it doesn’t take much of a distraction to have it whittled away to nothing.

I’ve been toying around with starting a new novel, but since it’s predecessor was in limbo for a while I couldn’t get myself motivated to tackle it with much enthusiasm. I’ve written the first three chapters, but I’ve spent far more time pushing those words around than I have in adding anything new to them. The plus side is that those three chapters are in pretty good shape but, given the amount of time I’ve spent on the manuscript so far, there should be more.

Last Saturday, I went to the Mystery Writers of America Southwest Chapter monthly luncheon, where the guest speaker was David Morrell. I’ve met him on a few occasions in the past, including sharing a table with him and his daughter at the Stoker banquet a few years ago, and at NECON. His abbreviated writing seminar at the Stoker weekend in L.A. was both inspirational and motivational, and his writing book—reissued recently as The Successful Novelist with new material—is also worthwhile reading for any practicing writer. I figured that if anything could put a little wind in my sails, it would be a pep talk from David Morrell.

I was right. Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t come home from that luncheon and add more to the novel manuscript, or write a new short story, or outline the great novel. But I do feel reinvigorated and ready to get to work on a number of projects. I have a short story under consideration for an anthology where an editor asked me to reconsider the ending. He didn’t give me any specific guidance, just an option to give it another shot. Given the theme of David’s talk this weekend—writing the books and stories we were meant to write based on the dominant emotions that have governed our lives that we need to come to terms with—I have a new appreciation for what that short story is really about, and a new way to tackle the ending. After a suppertime discussion with my wife about a new short story I’ve been ruminating over for several days now, the big picture concept of that tale fell into place, and I’m champing at the bit to get started with it. And I’m looking forward to retackling my most recent novel, once I hear back from my agent with his report, hopefully in the next week or so.

I’m not completely out of the Doldrums yet, but I can feel the winds stirring and they’re pushing me in the right direction. I don’t feel like I’m going to have to toss any more horses overboard. I’m going to do my best to take advantage of the trade winds while they’re being supportive.

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