Three years ago, I sat on a rock on the beach at Cape Henlopen and waited for my muse to show up. Instead, I got a surfer.
Cape Henlopen sits on the southern tip of the Delaware Bay as it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Seventeen miles across the Bay is Cape May, New Jersey. There are two lighthouses on the bay side at Cape Henlopen and a World War II watchtower rises over the sand. Cape Henlopen is also a popular state park, for camping, fishing, swimming, and surfing.
I wasn’t there to enjoy any of that beach fun. I was there to write. The Delaware Division of the Arts had sponsored a Poets & Writers Retreat—eight poets and eight prose writers selected and housed at a former World War II military training center revamped and renamed the Biden Environmental Training Center. From Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon, the sixteen participants and two group leaders were to meet for critique sessions. In our down time, we were to hunker down and write. Those were our orders: write. Don’t chit chat in the hallway. Don’t interrupt your fellows’ efforts.
I was honored to be selected. I appreciated the opportunity for three days of studied work and feedback and free, uninterrupted time to write. I had no plans to chit chat or interrupt my peers.
There was just one problem. The ambiance of “You are here to write, so go write, dammit” guaranteed I couldn’t.
I hate the term writer’s block. I’m not sure I believe it exists—or maybe I just refuse to give in to the concept. Stuck, mired, stymied, hesitant, frustrated, stumped, those are all words that describe when a piece of writing grinds. BTDT. Blocked means there is a something in your way—a physical impediment between the writer and the writing. I make a living by writing, writing about writing, and working with writers. The only thing that stands between me and my productivity is the ever ticking clock and whatever outside stuff I allow to intrude. That’s the attitude I live by, 24/7.
When I get stuck, mired, stymied, hesitant, frustrated, or stumped, I don’t stop writing. I tinker. Or write something else. Or go for a walk to clear my head.
Yes, I know I am going to get into trouble for dissing writer’s block, so I’ll add a disclaimer: But that’s just me.
That weekend at Cape Henlopen, I could not produce for two reasons:
I stubbornly tried to write a piece that stubbornly wouldn’t come together.
I had a bad case of Good Citizen.
I was handed this chunk of free time to write, not fiddle-dee-dee on the beach. The Good Citizen in me commanded me to produce, not…enjoy myself.
The Good Citizen has a guilt complex.
So I stared at my laptop for nearly a day, wasting that precious time and that opportunity, until I told my Good Citizen to take a hike and took myself on one. The wind was brisk so I bundled up. With the watchtower to the north and the lighthouse up ahead, past the rickety beach fence and the rock jetties splitting the water, I pulled up a cold rock and absentmindedly watched a half dozen brave/foolish surfers out on the water while begging my muse to come out to play.
I got nada.
Finally, “Hey there!” a voice said, and I jumped a foot.
I had not noticed him approach from the other side of the rocks. The surfer wore a black wet suit. He had jet black hair and pink cheeks and an adorable smile. He was adorable all over, as a matter of fact, the way a grown man looks adorable when he’s spending a weekend morning surfing in way-too-cold water. Exhilaration radiated from him.
I wanted to punch him in the face.
I’m thinking here! I wanted to cry. You think I’m sitting on a freezing black rock on the edge of the ocean on an unseasonably cold and windy October morning because it’s fun? No, you jackwagon, my butt is a Popsicle because I need to be alone to think. So, Go Away.
He came closer.
Do strangers talk to you? A three year study by someone at Yale University looked into this phenomenon. It’s an interesting study, but I think they forgot the genetic factor. Everywhere she went, my grandmother was hit up by strangers wanting to spill their life stories. Ditto with my mother. Now it’s my turn. There is no avoiding it. It’s a karmic vibe of some kind. Trust me, the vibe says. Talk to me. Tell me everything. I’ll listen…even if you are totally intruding on my personal space and time and interrupting my muse. I’ll listen.
According to the article, one deterrent is a “hate stare.” Do I need to define this? No, I didn’t think so. I would love to have a hate stare—a face I could pull on that says don’t mess with me. Don’t come sit next to me. Don’t tell me your life story.
I have no hate stare. It doesn’t jive with being a Good Citizen.
I thought I’d left my Good Citizen back at the Biden barracks, but the surfer propped his board upright against the rocks and unfastened the loopy thing around his ankle. I sighed and did what my grandmother and my mother would have done.
When he found out why I was there, the surfer told me, hey, he wrote poetry too! But then he asked about podcasts and what did I think about the electronic publishing revolution? This was no ordinary adorable surfer. Later, when I Googled him, I discovered he was a hot-shot who’d worked for CNN and various big news outlets and was now at a philanthropic think tank in Washington DC.
But that morning on the beach, he was just someone I wanted to stop from talking to me.
Finally, he did. And when he did, guess what? My jumbled thoughts un-jumbled. My brain felt clear. I practically ran back to my room to start working.
Sometimes, you just need to escape your own head.
Fast forward to now. Over the past three years, I’ve attended a number of retreats. Some sponsored, some DIY. I did an intensive on short stories. I’ve holed up with a friend for a weekend at a hotel that was hosting (at the same time) a quilting marathon and a drag queen convention. I’ve spent two weeks at an artist’s colony.
The number one thing I’ve learned is, if you stare at a blank page long enough, it’s going to start staring back. If you turn to another piece of writing, or take a walk on the beach, you may not be being a Good Citizen, but at least you’re not staring at a blank page.
I still don’t believe in writer’s block…but that’s just me.
As for the surfer, well, I’ve been selected for another Poets & Writers Beach retreat, in September. That gives me a month to work on my hate stare. Or maybe not.
What do you do when the blank page toys with you?
Do you fantasize about doing time at an artists colony?