Many years ago, when I wrote fiction daily, I often encountered the dreaded writer’s block.

Writer’s block reminds me of how the washing machine in our house is currently not working: I push the button, there’s a rush of water, then a trickle, and then no water. Try washing your clothes, or Aussie’s car seat covering, with no water.

The plumber arrives next week.

That’s how my writer’s block dysfunctioned. Inspiration would gush in the beginning and I’d happily type away, convinced that finally—finally!—God was speaking through me. Then the words would slow down, eventually coming to a pause. I’d tweak it this way and that (does God tweak?), sometimes change the narrator’s voice, create a new beginning, create an end before much had been written, in short, try various tricks to get me moving again. Even take a day off.

Usually, a new day’s dawn did not bring new inspiration.

I think only other writers can understand the misery of writer’s block. You can’t stand hitting that wall one more time, watching the clock move ver-r-r-ry slowly, welcoming breaking news headlines, the phone call, the bing! notifying you that email or texts have come in. You’ve heard about great writers who always had incomplete manuscripts in their desk drawers when they died? It’s where they went when they didn’t know how to continue on the manuscript before them.

In the second week of May I began what I thought would be a short story. After almost 40 pages, the short story is turning into a long short story, maybe on its way to a novella, maybe on its way to a novel. I have no idea.

And then comes the slowdown. I look out the window at the colorful laundry drying under a hot sun (no storms today). A benign pause (I’ll just take a short walk), a few more. I silently read the words to myself. Now what? Something’s supposed to happen, but what? By whom? From experience, I know that I can edit many times, but that can kill the damn thing. Finally, I look at the screen that remains stubbornly white and admit to myself that I don’t know how to go on.

But I have learned something over the years. The people I’ve created, the characters, they know how to go on. The writer, me, may be the miserable, stuck fool, but they know. I just have to see them clearer, in more detail:

Is the Professor wearing an earring? Why is Jan so skinny? Why does Teddy the Dog hate the narrator? How many rooms does the beach house have? What are the waves like? Why does Frankie like blondes? What book is Gwendolyn sunk in all the time? Is she a vegetarian? Does Delyse walk barefoot?

If Delyse paints her toes and I know what color, that may be the hint that will move me forward. If I watch and listen carefully enough, the characters’ fears begin to surface, also their humor. Part one veil and there’s another, and then another. And finally, I start seeing what they’re blind to, what they’re hiding, their deep well of wishes that threatens to run dry. I start seeing how, despite it all, they’ll go on.

In writing, as in life, I learn to listen rather than impose some pre-ordained turn in the plot, a clever twist, or an ending that fulfills expectations.

Not everyone writes like that. Certain genres, like mysteries or romance novels, take you in all directions and even, if combined with gothic and science fiction, off the planet, but in the end you’ll find out who did it and why love is still the greatest thing since the Big Bang. Once, when I needed money, I wrote a romance novel taking place in the South of France. I also wrote young people’s tales whose endings even the most censorious of parents couldn’t find issue with.

But now it’s the characters that turn the wheel.

My life seems to go this way, too. Rules are rules for a good reason, and we need to break them once in a while. Do I have a vision for how life should be? Ditch it when the first human being comes along. Did I plan a project or a program? It’s fine to start with, but be ready to let it go like a balloon swaying in an air current up to the sky.

And then, just watch, just listen. What else is the wind whispering here? Something is always whispering. Even on the hottest, most stagnant days (like the one we have today), a leaf shakes. No hummingbird or bee there like with flowers, so what’s causing it to tremble like that? Why does it shiver in July? What is this conversation all around me?

I know what the books and newspapers say about humans and the world, I know what I’ll hear in white-wine summer confabs on someone’s deck or backyard. Most of all, I’m aware of my own karmic assumptions and the arrogant certainty that I know what will happen, I know how this story ends.

Throbs and tremors of maple leaves on a hot, still afternoon tell me I don’t.

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