It's not writer's block. For that, I would have to want to write. True, I enjoy words when they flow like a river, or move like a panther, with their own will. I enjoy it less when, as now, they are forced from me by an invisible pressure on my mind, as if an invisible gangster held a gun to my temple and whispered in my ear, "Write something."
Fingers hovering over the keyboard, unable to move for lack of direction, I might whimper back, "Write what?"
"You know what," he whispers back, a malevolent glint in his invisible eyes.
Zen tells us that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. But that's only part of the story. I can tell you that the journey isn't a real journey until you've walked the first hundred miles. Then you can think about what it's going to be like to walk that nine more times.
The gangster in my head throbs. Maybe he's only a headache, or some sort of vitamin deficiency. "I'm not going away," he whispers. "Keep writing."
"Why?" I ask. I'm feeling bolder.
"Shut up. I want ten chapters. No more, no less. Got that?"
It occurs to me that he's testing me. Will I revolt? Walk away? Phone for a pizza and turn on a game show on TV? But what if I can't shake him? If he's inside me, in my head, what then?
But he's annoying me. What kind of man am I if I don't try to regain control of my life?
"Leave me alone," I say. I say it out loud, as if he were a real person standing behind me, just beyond my peripheral vision.
"Ain't gonna happen," I hear in my mind. That soft intimate voice, so close.
I can't stand it. I throw on my jacket, put my cell in my pocket, and head out the door. Away from my laptop and hopefully away from that voice.
Out on the sidewalk, I flip open my phone and call Sarah. My lifeline, she is. My friend. Maybe my best friend. Hell, maybe my only friend, so I try not to intrude on her too much. But this, I've got to do something.
"Hi Sarah?" I say when she answers. She's at work. "Yeah, it's Mark. Got a minute?"
She does, but only just. I pace while I talk.
"I'm in a little bit of a pickle," I say. "I've got this thing," But wait. I can't tell her I have a voice in my head, with a gun, for cryin' out loud. That's just crazy. And what could she do about it? "This, uh, problem. What? Well it's hard to describe. Wait, never mind, okay? It's nothing, never mind. Bye." I can't go on. I don't know what to tell her. I flip the phone closed. Hang up on her, something I've never done before. I look down at the phone, dumbstruck. I turn back toward home.
Settled back on my laptop, fingers over the keys. What else can I do? I can't just do nothing, which is what I've done for so long now that I can't remember the last time I wrote anything worth half a read. Why can't I write? It's more than just my dissatisfaction with myself. That's easy to deal with, as long as I can afford pizza and ice cream. It's this new thing, this pressure and the gun. It's life or death now. Squeeze something out or have my brain blown out.
I go to the fridge, get out ice cream.
"What are you waiting for?" whispers the voice. I feel the gun pressing harder now.
I whimper, sitting back down and spooning ice cream into my mouth as fast as I can. "I don't know what to write."
"Just make something up! That's what you always do. Something out of nothing, isn't that the creative challenge?"
"Uh," I say, ice cream dribbling down one side of my mouth.
"What's the problem?" There's a gravely edge to the voice, an impatience that frightens me.
"I need something. Structure. Boundaries. Constraints. Otherwise the canvas, so to speak, is too broad. Too white."
I feel the voice in my head shaking, not in anger now, but in amusement. "Structure? That's easy. Here's structure for you. Give me a thousand words. Exactly. Tell a story, a real story, in exactly a thousand words. Not a word more or less or I'll end it for you. Got that?"
"Uh huh." I say. "Yeah. Let me think."
I start typing: "Sarah was a sweet thing of twenty. She stared at me intently as I unbuttoned her blouse."
I look at what I've written, consider where this might go for a moment. Then I erase it all.
I run out the door, damn the voice, damn the gun. It isn't fair, this making me write about Sarah, or about anything. What am I to stories, or stories to me? Must I be held hostage to them, to the damnable flow of words? Must I die for them?
On the sidewalk, surrounded by the building I live in on one side, tall fences on the other. There's no way out. A fine day, though, I think. A fine day to die, if die I must.
The voice is still there, I can feel it. A gentle flutter within.
Feeling calmer, I walk back. Sit at the laptop. Gaze at the still empty page.
"It's all good, Mark. You're fine, my son. Fingers on the keys, empty your mind. Now, give me a thousand words, ten chapters of exactly a hundred words each, please."
All tension drained, I feel I can do this. I type: "Sarah stood still before me..."
"Don't write her," the voice said quietly. "You. Write who you are. What it means to be a writer."
I blank the page again, then write, "It's not writer's block. For that, I would have to want to write..."