The Block

A Short Meditation on the Dramatic End of a Playwright

I’m not sure what I think of the expression “writer’s block.” A block is something solid, whether it’s the hard chest of a football player or something you chop vegetables on or the wooden building elements that captivated children until Legos and computer games came along.

In any case, it’s something I had managed to stay far away from. It’s like a disease, isn’t it? You don’t want to catch it. And there is always the fear, if you are superstitious like I am (and you probably are) that you might will it into existence. There’s really only one symptom—not being able to write—and if there were a therapist in the world who could cure it, well, that therapist would be a millionaire.

***

In late September of 2012, I sat at my kitchen table in Berlin (exactly where I sit now) in the best possible spirits. I had just finished a second draft of my latest play and felt very happy with it, convinced I had written my best work yet. The play flowed out of me. I was soon heading to London to care for my father while my mother went in for hip surgery. I looked forward to spending time with the man I adored beyond all others and had thought up small adventures we might embark upon. Instead, I received news that he had landed in the hospital, and I’d be heading over to care for both of them. My trip to London was the start of a four-month odyssey that ended in my father’s death. These four months in which I witnessed his final decline and protracted dying were the worst in my life.

My father’s death was bad enough, but losing Stanley was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The bedrock split open, and I dropped into a space I’d only read about in novels. Some call it an abyss, others grief. Its manifestation, however, was writer’s block.

Thankfully, my mother proved stronger than I could ever have imagined, which allowed me to fly to the women writers’ retreat Hedgebrook in Washington state, where I was lucky to have won, in a kind of lottery, an alumni’s two-week return stay. While there, I met funny, brilliant women writers who made me laugh and helped me heal—though my writing output was meagre, to say the least. A sentimental poem of six lines and a few jotted notes about my recent hospice experience. But still, my father had just died. No one, including me, expected more of me in the way of productivity.

On my way home, I took the chance to visit with my mentor and beloved friend, Stanley Kauffmann, in New York, and then flew on to London to check on my mother, helping her transition from caretaker to widow. That September, back in Berlin, I finally sat down at my kitchen table bursting with the ambition to write again. And then the email arrived. Stanley was very ill and given that he was then ninety-seven years old, no one could say for sure what would happen. I got on a plane and spent two weeks by his bedside. Somehow, he seemed to be recovering, and I convinced myself that he had miraculously beaten death and that I would see him again. I flew home. A few days later he died.

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So within the space of a year, I had sat at the bedsides of two very old men and watched them dying. These men—one a poet, the other a critic—were charming, elegant, and learned. They were witty and wise. They also happened, and not incidentally, to be two of the most important people in my creative life. They urged me on and took my writing very seriously, and I loved them ferociously for it. I’d sworn allegiance to them both and now they’d left me in the lurch—jumped ship. My father’s death was bad enough, but losing Stanley was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The bedrock split open, and I dropped into a space I’d only read about in novels. Some call it an abyss, others grief. Its manifestation, however, was writer’s block.

***

From the time I began writing plays something like twenty years ago, I’d written, on average, a play a year. Writing a play had never been a problem. It was more like a sacred ritual, or part of the natural rhythm of life, like planting seeds in the spring or reaping the harvest. I always had a new idea, which, whether it involved research or not, began in a burst of inspiration and ended, after invigorating work was done, with a pile of filled pages. The tortuous path toward production, the near-constant rejection and resulting despair, my revulsion at the bad behavior of too many in our profession, had never, and I repeat, never, stopped me from writing the next play. Something I look back on now with wonder.

Goddess knows, there’s fodder for a thousand dramas out there in the world (and in my cupboard of ideas). But set off by that most awful of years and lasting right through to this present moment, I stopped being a writer. I stopped being a writer because I stopped writing plays and plays are all I had ever written (apart from an occasional essay, which isn’t the same). This was a momentous turn of events, which caught me by surprise, and because it has now been two and half years, is no longer an event but a continuous state of affairs. And the fact is, it’s not a sure thing that I will ever write a sustained creative work again.

***

My father and Stanley would be aghast to learn they’d left me with a case of writer’s block. But in the end, it’s not such a mystery. As French feminists have been writing since the dawn of the ’90s, daughters seek to please their fathers at a cost. Mine was a textbook case: my father and Stanley were my two patriarchs. They were the giant winged-bulls with human faces at the Assyrian gates, now shattered. Yes, I needed their approval and support, and they protected me. It was I who did the work and took the blows, of course, but they supplied the reason to go on. Or so it seems. Because any faith I may have had in my work flew out the window with their deaths. And all of us in the theatre know that losing faith in yourself in this profession is quite fatal, because there’s not a lot out there to sustain you without it.

So why am I writing this, you might ask? Because in the past year as the writing has receded further and further, I’ve observed the lives of playwrights and the theatre from a particularly odd and not unpleasant distance, as if it were a town I once lived in and never expect to visit again. I’ve watched with awe as people I love keep on doing it. And my conclusion is that playwrights are very brave people. And though even the bravest among us might need and deserve it, protection is an illusion.

And I’ve realized that the compulsion to write is very like an addiction and lasts far longer than the last written word. We all want the uplifting ending, and I sort of have one. I’m finally sitting at the kitchen table again allowing myself to imagine that words might come.

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I'm sorry it took me so long to read this. Thanks for sharing your current story. It sounds like it's still developing. Regardless, your courage and bravery in writing this is not lost upon me.

I think the person who wrote this is a writer who is writing. Maybe not plays, but who cares what form it takes? Here you are, animating your thoughts on the page. And doing it so beautifully and cogently.

As one of the Hedgebrookies who had the good fortune of meeting you during that extraordinary time, I have never doubted that you were writing during your residency, and have been writing constantly since. The word count doesn't always matter.

As you know, I too have suffered "writer's block" for these past seven years. The events of my life rendered me mute. I simply couldn't process what was happening in written words, other than diary entries. I dropped out of my professional community, I stopped publishing, I went down into the pit of myself. I had to just sit and absorb it, feel everything, cry and make notes. The hardest part was that even as I despaired that I was no longer a writer, I felt I should be writing. It was agony.

Of course, you and I recognized each other immediately when we met, being the scions of critics and powerful fathers. Now mine is slipping into dementia. His body is still here, but his all-powerful mind is nearly gone. It is shocking, heartbreaking and deeply disorienting. But I also feel his long shadow moving aside and there are moments where it feels like I am stepping into the broad, warm afternoon of myself at last. What is happening to him shows me that our minds are on short-term loan to us, and if I want to leave some evidence of my own consciousness behind, I had better get back to work.

Like your friend Octavio so wisely said, we need to reorient to the pole star of our new selves. I am no longer the carefree font of fun and whimsy I was as a writer, and I still have to wrestle myself to the page every day, but when I do, I find my work has deepened in astonishing ways.

Your lovely, honest piece inspires me to get back in the ring with my writing self. Thank you, Lydia.

What you share here, dear Erika, brings me to the thought that everything about the writing can change--how you write, whom you write for and where you go with the words--it all changes after a prolonged period of not writing as before. After some darkly silent years you are feeling freer to travel into new territory, as you suggest, and I want to be your reader. As your father's dementia has allowed you to see, and you describe so perfectly: "our minds are on short-term loan to us" and writing is "evidence of consciousness". No doubt this is true, but life itself is on short-term loan, and it is important for me to accept that being alive in and to the world may or may not involve writing. with love, lydia

Hi Lydia, I want to add my thanks for your honesty and my voice to the chorus offering encouragement. You and I have shared some deathbed stories in the time we've known each other and I have a sense of how deeply your bedrock was shaken. I'd love to share an experience of another writer that builds on Marcia's beautiful metaphor of learning to walk again, in a completely new way. I have a playwright friend who also suffered the loss of a beloved friend of many decades. It took a while for the block to set in and it took the form of him writing many hours a day only to find himself weeks and months and even a year later with the scripts no further along than when he had started. He's just beginning to climb out of the hole and it's happening by working in entirely new ways. Instead of hours alone at the writing desk we've been throwing him into rooms with a director and actors where their curiosity and enthusiasm has focused his creative energies. He's doing a project with a long time friend who is questioner/guider/dramaturg and with each draft he's guaranteed long phone calls of interest and support. He's rising towards the surface, more positive than I've seen him in a long time. Students have proven particularly great facilitators of energy because they are so open and excited and giving. So my little seed to plant here is the idea that if how you've been doing it isn't working, try a new way. It might let the next seedling poke its head toward the sun. I certainly hope so. But whatever happens, I hope joy and love and creativity find other means of expression in your life. Who knows if one of those pathways might lead you back to the page. Sending you much love from NYC. Beth

Beth, how beautiful to find you here. I'm grateful you've shared your friend's example, which offers excellent practical advice. A block might be seen as the mind/soul's method of instructing us that it is time to approach the work in a new way entirely, as you say and describe. That's a very interesting and helplful idea. I wrote this piece because I had a sense that it might be an experience shared by others. I wasn't looking for sympathy. There's nothing worse than people feeling sorry for you! And thank goodness that's not what I've been getting. What I have received in response is some seriously and beautifully thought out advice and expressions of understanding.

I find your testimonial very moving and courageous. You seem to offer proof that sometimes we outlive our compulsion to make art, to form words into a meaningful narrative design. When life happens (and in your case, death happened twice), we have to submit to it, absorb the shock of it and find our new place in the experience, and thus, reorient the polestar toward our new selves. That process takes time, and it's bound to interrupt our activities, our daily concerns and even our life's calling. And if we happen to be rendered silent and the silence of the time seems to say more than if we gathered some words into a meaningful whole, then so be it. That silence is in itself the artful response.

Yay! A block is just that, a block. It's not death. Go on with your imagination. I, unlike many, believe writers are writers even when they are not writing. Like the rhythm of nature, the rhythm of writing is at times disrupted. Uncertainty is our only certainty. Resilience and patience are our only protections.

This is a lovely and playful response, Poonam. I think you are right about resilience and patience being protective forces. But I have another view on writing. I believe in daydreaming and thinking and researching and experiencing and living life and imagining all kinds of things as values necessary to an artistic life--but none of these are writing, which is a very precise activity.

L,thank you so much for sharing this. This is so much to be expected... you will write again... all when it feels right to do so....thinking of you all . david sends love.Chrisxx

I'm impressed by your ability to define your psychological relationship to your father and mentor. I wonder if pleasing a parent and taking good direction from a mentor aren't very positive things. How else do we accomplish anything if not for the help of others? Do you think finding another mentor - in whatever form that role takes - would be helpful. You write so beautifully about how much play writing meant to you. Finally, mourning takes different forms and different times for all of us; some of the best advice I've heard is to wait a year or 2 before making decisions and changes. Perhaps for you, you need a bit more time. I hope.

Thanks for your kind thoughts, Paul. Receiving direction and encouragement are certainly good things. I was very lucky and am eternally grateful to have had these two men in my life. But dependency is something else. It's interesting to me that some of the strongest and most brilliant people I know had neither strong father figures in their lives nor mentors as such.

When you wrote earlier in an email that you hadn't written a play since Lucien's death, I wanted to write back that I had also felt a kind of creative blankness since he passed away. Lucien wasn't my father, of course, (I have--had--a lovely and much loved one too), and I don't necessarily link his passing with my not-as-keen ambition to write poetry, and yet, even for me, I see that something's up. The buoyancy of youthful ignorance. Is that necessary to the making of art? The reader in the back of the mind. Was that somehow Lucien, at least for me? The ever-present "so what?" Do I ask that question more now than before, and is it a muzzle? I have never been one of those writer who "must write no matter what." For me, it's always been an act of will. More now than ever before. You have such a talent and voice. Will it. Like living every day.

I guess I was asking you to "will" the work to come more as a plea than as a directive. I'd hate not to hear your creative voice-- I probably should have written, "Will it, please." And I think you're right: it really is more like willing your will. I'm not always successful either, of course, but success can be a slippery concept.

I have the profound pleasure of being a friend and a fan of Lydia Stryk's plays. I published "American Tet" in my anthology ACTS OF WAR: IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN IN SEVEN PLAYS and I teach her play when I teach plays from this anthology. My students are always captivated, moved and enlightened by her play. Far from feeling that Lydia has receded from the theater, I feel her presence alive and well in my class room and when I read my student papers. As a friend, I shared a bit of her grief as she lived through the loss of her amazing father and friend and mentor. As a colleague, I feel that the American theater, itself, would be a stronger, better, more humane place were more of Lydia's plays on our stage. And I hope that that can happen. Though as a sister-playwright, I harbor no illusions about the hard, often closed, theater world we inhabit. If I have words of advice (which I don't actually, except to say, I am old enough to have experienced long bouts of writer's block) I would say, you, Lydia, had the extraordinary privilege of being mentored by brilliant minds who believed in you, now you need to internalize that experience so that you can mentor others. with Love, Karen

so profoundly sorry for your loss. Please know-- you have articulated my life-- lost my father last summer after a terrible endless decline and have just come back from helping the aide this AM with my mom, awaiting the hospice nurse, knowing it's time to have the conversation about 'the next stage of care...' and amidst it all considering going back to school to be anything else but a playwright. This is so painful, so hard, and I have found that the characters in the work I do create are tough and brittle and a little bit mean-- it's a new world and I don't know what will happen. But I understand now as I never did before what 'words fail' means. I feel so acutely your loss and your struggle and you are not alone. You are not alone. Thank you for writing this brave piece. I am not alone either...

If anything reminds me that writing has meaning, it's what you write here, Melinda. You write honestly and beautifully (which for me, are the same thing) of our shared experience. I don't feel at all brave for writing this piece, though I had a little hesitation, but I do feel happy that I wrote it because of responses like yours. I am thinking of you ...

Lydia:First, my deepest condolences on your terrible losses. Reading your story, I was taken back to being at the bedside of my own 91 year old father July '13, returning home after his death finding it difficult to function, and the day exactly a month later when I felt "almost" a little normal for the first time just before receiving the call that my 54 year-old mentor had lost his battle to cancer. Although not a writer, I do write and it has always come effortlessly. I wanted nothing more (and in the one case was asked) to pay tribute to these men in writing. I could not write a sentence for over six months and that was a kind of pain I had not anticipated. I call this grief Lydia and it changes us in ways none of us understand.

In the Pilates world, we are working with war veteran's who have lost limbs. We are learning that when one loses a leg, the muscles, nerves, etc that attached to that amputated portion rewire and reattach themselves, allowing the amputee to relearn how to use his/her body in a new fashion. You can't teach them to walk as you would someone who had never been through the trauma, but their body finds a way to walk again. I believe our brains and spirits work in the same way.

You suffered a double amputation. You are taking time to rewire and become the next version of yourself. And you will always grieve both those men and the playwright (and woman) you were before those losses. But I believe your creative voice will find its way.

Playwrights are brave. Any one of us who chooses to pursue our passions, who opens ourselves up in the ways required to tell any story - as an artist of any kind - must do so with courage. Today you showed both courage and vulnerability, I'll look forward to hearing the next story told by the "post-amputee" artist you are becoming.

Marcia, you've given me a way to think about 'walking again' which is very profound, thank you more than I can say. And I honor the work you are doing with war veterans whose losses are innumerable--and not limited to terrible physical loss, as you must witness every day.

Lydia - I've not actually had the honor of working with any in the Wounded Warrior Project (my colleagues are the amazing men and women who are working with these heroes!), just met and spoken with some who take my breath away. But I do get to see bodies/minds/spirits do amazing things daily in my practice. On those days you need to remember that you've lost two limbs and you are learning to "walk" again, some inspiration to remind you that you that anything is possible: http://www.danishwoundedwar...