How To ReBoot

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you. — Anne Lamott.

By PJ Parrish

A wail of agony came from the man cave. Followed by a chain of profanities. It was only 3 o’clock but the thought crossed my mind that maybe I needed to serve the husband his gin and tonic a little early.

Five minutes later, he emerged from the cave red-faced angry. “I. Need. Some. Help.” It came out in a strangled whisper.

I set aside my laptop and followed him into the cave. He had been working for hours on a long free lance document and it had…just disappeared, he said.

“Did you save it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think so.”

I know from experience that he never saves anything. Except his old underwear and tax returns from the 1990s. “Well, let me take a look,” I said.

“Just tell me what to do and I will do it.”

Cut to the chase. I finally got him away from the computer and found the doc for him. He had saved it in the wrong place. This happens with his underwear occasionally. He assumed the helm and I started back out of the cave.

“Also, the printer’s broke,” he said. “It won’t printing anything.”

“Well, let me take a look.”

The printer was brand new, and because it is wireless, it sometimes just gets in a bad mood. I tried to print the doc. Nothing. I fiddled with the commands. Nada. I copied the doc and tried again. Just a blinking “error” message.  I turned the printer around and yanked out the cord.

“What are you doing?” the husband yelled.

I plugged the cord back in. The printer spit out the doc. I went to the kitchen and made myself a vodka tonic.

Sometimes you just gotta unplug.

I have writer’s block. It’s been going on, oh, maybe three weeks now. Actually, I don’t believe in writer’s block. It’s an excuse. I just can’t seem to write anything worth saving. I know the idea for the story is good. But I am about 10K words in and I seem to have lost my way. So I unplugged.

I stopped writing. Instead, I’m playing pickleball every morning for two to three hours. I’m getting pretty good. I’ve taken up running again. I’m getting stronger. I’ve also been reading a lot. Right now, I’m lost in the stars of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel.  I loved her dystopic masterpiece Station Eleven, and this one’s equally enthralling. She’s a master storyteller, the pacing is breakneck and she breaks every rule in the book. She jumps back and forth in time. She switches points of view fearlessly. It’s fragmented, elegant and deeply moving.

Few writers bring out the envious in me. As a writer, I’m a fair juggler, and can keep four or five balls in the air. Mandel juggles flaming chain saws. And this virtuoso performance has left me even more paralyzed in my own work.

Don’t worry. I will finish The Glass Hotel soon, and I know that I will find my way out of my thicket and back onto my path.

I will plug back in.

I know this because I have also been re-reading a lot of Anne Lamott’s work. She’s my go-to cheerleader when I get a little low about writing. If you haven’t read her, please do. Start with Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life. Therein you’ll find great advice on everything from how to follow your outline to how not to worry about your crappy first drafts.

Looking for other things she had written, I found some of her essays. One was titled “Dust Jacket.” It was about reissuing her first not-very-successful book. This resonated with me because my sister and I are re-editing our book Dark of the Moon for self-publishing. It’s tough going because as our freshman effort, it has warts, stray chin hairs and occasional flashes of rosacea. Lamott made me feel so much better with this passage:

This book of mine, “Joe Jones,” is the street person of my books. It’s my raw, wolfy child…My great friend Jane Vandenburgh helped me edit it slightly — not with a fine-tooth comb, but with an afro pick, big spaces between the teeth so as not to tug too hard. I hadn’t read it in 17 years, and when I finally did, this winter, I could see why it had not done well. It wobbled and flopped, and didn’t fly in the upward trajectory that I had hoped, and certainly my readers and critics must have hoped. It’s in the present tense, which I don’t like, but I do love the characters. And I can see its part in my evolution as an artist: All of the elements of what were eventually going to lift me out of the swamp are there, beating against the walls of the cafe.

Don’t you love that? That in your early work (published or un), you can glimpse the writer that you will become. And she offered this, an encouragement, against all pressures of our business, to be the writer you need to be:

It’s like meeting the girl I was in high school or in my 20s, with all those affectations, those tics and vague accents, who knew more then than I ever would again; who tried to be like other young women, because everyone said to be — as e.e. cummings said, “Being nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight.”

But the passage I really liked was from her 1996 essay titled “How To Be A Writer.” This really hit me where I needed to be hit:

Here’s the best advice I can give you: go read the book of Ezekiel. Trust me on this. Read about him coming upon the dry bones of a people who had given up, who were lifeless, without hope; until, because of Ezekiel’s presence, breath came upon them, and they came back to life.

The message is, Have heart, don’t panic: spirit revives us. A people were made whole again by breath, by the breeze of attention being paid. That’s so incredible. Find a community of writers with whom you can belong, who will read your stuff and help you get better. Maybe you can encourage them to keep on writing, as they encourage you. And pay closer attention to life. Get your best work done every day. Be the breeze.

Peace out, TKZ friends. Thanks for being here to listen. Be the breeze.

32 thoughts on “How To ReBoot

  1. This is a keeper, Kris. Thank you, particularly for the 411 about Bird by Bird and the Book of Ezekiel. I am a big fan of Zeke. And Job.

    Have a great day! You’ve made mine.

  2. Powerful post, Kris. Glad to be of help. I’m learning to just listen. My wife tells me, “Men want to fix things. Women just want you to listen.” I’m trying.

    Meanwhile, when I have a problem, I want help. Your story of your hubby reminded me of me. “Just. Fix. It!”

    Thanks for the information on Anne Lamott. I’ve never read Bird by Bird, but I will now. And I’m going to read Ezekiel again.

    Oh, the next time I lose a document, can I give you a call?

    • Actually, call my sister Kelly. She’s great with puters. Anything I have gleaned about cyper-survivial came from her. My poor husband, well, that’s another can of worms.

  3. Thanks, Kris, for drawing from the deep well of what it is really like to be a writer, that only comes from long experience.

    Glad you have a good go-to in Lamott. She’s a deep well, too, esp. her chapter on jealousy.

    My go-to is Dwight V. Swain.

  4. Oooo, another Emily St. John Mandel. I just put a hold on it at the library. Thank you for reminding me that I had enjoyed Station 11 too.

    I’m not a published fiction writer (yet) and have a lot to learn (thank you TKZ for being part of my DIY writing craft education) but I found Kristen Lamb’s column last week, “Writer’s Block: is it laziness or a critical part of being a longtime writer,” an intriguing read.

    • Ha! Re Lamb’s question: I vote for no. 2. After decades of writing fiction and being in the newspaper biz before that for 30 years, I have come to grips with my nature, and that, try as I might, I need periodic writing time-outs.

    • It’s not a craft book per se. It’s just reaffirming and inspiring. “Just…” 🙂

  5. This is such a timely post, Kris. For stalled times, stalled art and my stalling writers group. We are designed to lift each other, keep the “tribe” alive. Hunt, gather, raise family, however we define family. Create!
    But if the whole tribe is stalled? Reach outside to reboot, as you suggest. Read “classics.”

    • I get that. When I was in a very active critique group back in S. Fla. there were stretches (rare) when all of us got off the path. One of our guys, however, always was abubble with ideas, so we could always count on him to bring us new material to chew over. The fun was we always had to rein him in! I miss them.

    • I am laughing out loud right now, because I swear it is all true. But here’s a confession: The other day, the TV cable froze up. I am dumb as a stump at this. But I figured out, rather proudly, that the remote needed new batteries so I put them in. Still frozen. So I just start yelling at the blank TV til he came out of the cave. I had put the batteries in backwards. All good marriages are a rich stew of particular talents at any given time.

  6. Kris, I downloaded Bird By Bird some time ago on the advice of someone whose name escapes me now. I haven’t read it yet. Shifting it up in my TBR craft books.

    I love your post. Sometimes I get into this tired rut where I think my life, what’s left of it, is all about the Big Write. After reading your post, I’m thinking I’ve got it backwards. The Big Write is all about my life, but only a piece of it. I mustn’t ignore the rest . . . like going outside to commune with my frogs and praying mantids, and watching my dog roll in the grass.

    We need to roll in the grass once in awhile, right? 🙂

  7. “Just take ‘er bird by bird, buddy.” One of the top ten writing quotes ever, Kris. I’m onto a new series project which requires exactly that approach, but to get ‘er done I gotta unplug from 110 and replug into 220. Enjoy your day KZers and, yeah, be the breeze.

  8. Great post, Kris, and a timely one for me as well. “Bird by Bird” is a favorite of mine, too. I’d given away my copy years ago, and finally picked up a new one last year. Such a great source of wisdom and writerly comfort.

    Natalie Goldberg’s classic “Writing Down the Bones” is great source of writerly wisdom and comfort. Have a wonderful day!

    • Yeah, I’ve given many copies of the Lamott book to writers who are just starting out. Thanks for the mention on the Goldberg book. Hadn’t heard of it.

  9. This was so encouraging. After the past couple of years, I think we all need to unplug!

    Anne Lamont spoke at a Faith and Festival writers conference I attended, and I actually rode the elevator with her. 🙂 And with Mayou Angelou –I should have hung out at the elevators more. Clyde Edgerton was the keynote and he was wonderful, too. A true Southern gentleman.

    • I rode in an elevator with Joyce Carol Oates once. I was so verklempt I couldn’t speak to her. Alas. She’s my favorite author.

  10. You are so right, Kris. When my lasted book bogged down, I unplugged for 3 days
    — no computers, no phones, no TV news, and lots of novels. It worked.
    So enjoy your pickle ball and then come back renewed so we can all enjoy your novels.
    I’m the IT person in my home — and my computer skills are laughable. But when the despairing cry, “I lost my article,” comes out of Don’s office, I often close the top story and the one he wants is underneath. he still doesn’t get Windows.

    • LOLOL. I can just see Don watching as you close the windows and voila! There is the masterpiece!

  11. I was going to mention dealing with my wifi printer, then my computer rebooted itself for no reason I can figure out. It’s not a Mac thing to do. So either my computer became pissy about me saying bad things about his bud the printer, or a new iMac is my near future. Anyway, Mac Pages has an automatic save feature. Maybe Word has one, too, if that’s your software of choice.

    In past years, I was not only a writing teacher, but I was the go-to person among my pro writer friends about problem manuscripts. The 10,000 word mark tends to be a pantster stopping point where the creative juice disappears, and a writer realizes they may not have a book after all. For plotters, it’s a realization that they’ve strayed off the path of their plot. Good luck with your manuscript.

    • Well, that makes sense since I am definitely a pantser. Am going to dive in tomorrow with fresh eyes. Thanks!

  12. I love your posts, Kris.

    I’ve never read “Bird by Bird.” I will now.

    Thanks for inspiring!

  13. Kris, I believe your husband and mine may be related. My husband is a brilliant guy who can explain far more about nuclear reactions than I can understand, but he’s incapable of saving a Word doc reliably. I often get a frustrated groan coming from his office. Helping him makes me feel more competent than I am.

    I’ve heard about “Bird by Bird” for a while, but I’ve never read it. Just tossed it in the shopping cart and will read soon.

    Love the reference to Ezekiel. Thanks.

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