My struggle with a prolonged and nasty writer’s block continues. At times like this, my mind swirls with doubts about who I am and what I’m doing. The hard realities imposed by living in a system that places very little value on what I do, on what I must do because it is who I am, are never far from my awareness and my experience. When my expressive energy is so horribly constrained, those realities feel even more amplified and oppressive in my consciousness. It’s one thing to make sacrifices for an active process; it’s quite another to make them for a process that is, based on all outward appearances, inert, at least temporarily.
This period of creative barrenness and loss of voice comes at a time when I’m feeling as if I’ve exhausted every idea I’ve ever had about how to live my life. It’s not as if I’ve never been in this place before. The difference now is time. Time, once a wild card in my life with its seemingly unlimited series of branches of infinite possibility, is now the trump in the deck, the card that will, soon enough, end the game. Time may heal, but it also kills, and I’m long past the point in my life where time is on my side.
There is a certain inevitable hopelessness that comes with the work I do as a writer, in the sense that there’s virtually no possibility I can ever support myself financially doing it, no matter how good I might be, how creative I am, or how hard I try. I still don’t want to believe this, but it’s getting harder and harder to deny it, and there are many times now, too many, when I fear I’ve doomed myself to a lonely, impoverished old age because I would not give up what I could not have.
I told someone recently, “I wouldn’t wish being a poet on my worst enemy,” and I wasn’t kidding. Not in this culture anyway. I’d have a better shot at making a living as a blacksmith or a barrel maker. The big money machine does not need truth, it doesn’t need feelings, and it most certainly does not need poetry or poets. My friend David Jewell likes to say, “Crime doesn’t pay and neither does poetry,” but criminals, by and large, make a far better living than poets, especially in the increasingly opportunistic, militaristic, authoritarian, predatory “might makes right” / “winner take all” system of lying, fear-making vulture capitalism that dominates our world today.
I’ve spent most of the last thirty years in unfulfilling jobs that pay the bills but use me up and I don’t know what to do about it. My first book is going out of print in about six months and I don’t know what to do about it. My second book remains unpublished after three years and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m going to be 55 in a little over a month, with no pension and no prospects for ever retiring, and I don’t know what to do about it. Lately I feel like I don’t know what to do about anything.
Robert Christgau once said, “Work too long toward a future that never arrives and you lose your hold on what comes naturally.” I wonder how much of this writer’s block I’m experiencing is due to my sinking, ever-deepening realization that my life is, in all likelihood, never going to be more than what it already is: that there is no key and no door, no path to transformation, and no breakthrough to be had, just more lousy soul-sucking jobs to pay the bills (if I’m lucky), and maybe (if I’m lucky) more writing and more poetry.
I’ve tried for years (oh, how I’ve tried) to convince myself that getting paid to sit in a cage all day doing high-end monkey work to keep the technoconsumer culture humming along on its hyper-accelerating path to oblivion ought to be good enough for me. But for whatever reason, for better or worse, doing meaningful work that moves me is not just important to me, but essential to my well-being. Some of this urgent necessity for purposeful work is an inherent aspect of who I am at my core. Some of it is, I’m sure, fueled by a deep need to prove my worth that’s rooted in growing up with a father whose approval I desperately wanted and needed, but never received. Some of it is cultural: men establish, assert, and maintain their identities and their value in my culture by way of their work.
And some, I suspect, is my lineage. My father, my grandfathers, all of my uncles, and all of their forefathers were working class men: farmers, factory workers, mechanics, welders, truck drivers, power linemen, canal workers. Builders, growers, makers, diggers, movers, and fixers. Hard work in the service of producing something tangible and useful was an intrinsic element of their nature, at one and inseparable from their character. It is part of my masculine heritage, one of the long strands of my family DNA.
I did my best to follow the masculine path of work in my family. I spent several years in blue collar jobs (restaurant, sawmill, construction, warehouse, factory) before graduating to a desk in a plastic box. Many of the jobs I took early on were physically demanding and quite dangerous, in part because I had so few choices and in part because I was determined to prove my manhood to myself, to my father, and to any number of other people who saw me as timid, weak, and lazy. Looking back, I can now see that this was an essential step in my rite of passage into manhood, a critically important experience I gave myself because I knew (consciously or not) that I had to have it.
The down side was that, in order to pursue that path, I turned away from other opportunities that would never come my way again. I was very damaged and very confused as a young man. There was virtually no one older in my life to whom I could turn for guidance and assistance, and I trusted no one but my peers, who were struggling in the dark just as I was. I made several critical life decisions early on, before I really knew who I was, that made my life harder then and continue to do so now. Lacking an accurate appreciation of both my capabilities and my options, and not knowing any better, I consistently aimed low. And I hit what I aimed for.
Lately I feel like I’ve spent most of my life blindfolded, and that I’ve finally begun to remove the blindfold just as the sun is setting, much as it’s sinking into the horizon outside my window right now. Better late than never, sure, but how late is too late? To what extent does a greater awareness of one’s capabilities compensate for a fading physicality, a merciless chronometer, and an ever-shortening runway? And how many cards are really left for me to play this late in the game?
Twilight is sometimes still and lovely, sometimes spooky and surreal, but today it feels like a big kick in the chest.
The Twilight in present time by Rick Belden, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.