If You’re Stuck, Here’s a Suggestion


A client and I were discussing John McPhee’s essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens.” With its richness of form, multiple themes and sources of tension, I thought the essay would make good material for a rich conversation. And it did.  My client recently underwent shoulder surgery and will not be able to write for several more weeks, so had been eager to dive into a piece someone else had written.

As we were talking, it occurred to me that the essay’s innovative form—on one level it’s a step-by-step series of games between the narrator and his friend and exploration of Monopoly’s origins and creator; and on another, it’s a journey through Atlantic City and a commentary on our boom-and-bust economy—could easily be applied to other situations.

In fact, mid-conversation I remembered that I had once written an essay based on a set of instructions.  The first was an explanation I had gotten from the Internet on how to drive a manual transmission, and the second was associations these instructions triggered about my father teaching me to drive.

Once she is able to begin writing again, this client will likely feel very rusty.  Altogether, it will have been months since she was last free—albeit with some pain—to honor her writing practice.  As we were discussing what she might write about, it occurred to me that McPhee’s piece could serve as an excellent reentry model for her.  On one level—the initial—she will not be responsible for coming up with either the words or the ideas.  She can simply pick something like a favorite recipe, for example, and copy its successive steps onto the page.

Limiting responsibility for every single word is a perfect antidote to the anxiety that often accompanies starting to write after a long break.  With a recipe or instructions or the description of a procedure, the writer can prime the pump with somebody else’s prose, and once that’s happened, it will be much easier to land her own voice and words onto the page.

After lining up the various steps or stages of the ready-made prose, the writer can reflect on each one and see what associations they call forth.  For me, reading about learning to drive a stick shift brought back one driving lesson in particular, when my father commanded me to drive up a steep hill, at the top of which was a traffic light.  Terrified of having to start up again on this particular grade, I told my father I was afraid.  “You can do it,” he insisted.

Afraid to displease my father, I dutifully shifted the car into second and began inching up the hill, all the while holding my breath.  When the light turned red and the line of cars ahead of me all stopped, I became dizzy with panic.  I could already  feel our car slipping backward and crunching into the car behind us, as I struggled with playing the clutch and the gas simultaneously.

“I cannot do this, Daddy,” I implored.  “Please switch seats with me!”

When he refused, without thinking, I pulled up the emergency break, put the car in neutral, opened the driver’s door—and fled.  It was the first time I had ever disobeyed my father.

As my client and I talked about what material she might use for the initial layer of her essay, I could hear excitement in her voice.  Or perhaps it was relief.  The relief of having a collaborator for her first post-surgery writing.  And as we said goodbye, I realized that modeling an essay or a story on “The Search for Marvin Gardens” might be a perfect option for any writer who feels stalled.

Abandoned Barn, Mendocino



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