KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 5: Spring 2016
Craft Essay: 999 words


by William Luvaas

Perhaps I am tired of sitting at the desk. After finishing a novel and revising an older work, I need a vacation from the stern taskmaster of accomplishment. For it is true, as Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people” (Essays of Three Decades, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter; A.A. Knopf, 1947). While this aphorism may seem oxymoronic, it isn’t surprising given the impossibly high bar we writers set for ourselves. We can never be good or productive enough, never fully satisfied. It’s the writer’s curse. Consider the competition: Shakespeare, Faulkner, Emily Dickinson. Moreover, we can’t rest long on our laurels. Once finished, a book no longer counts. The question is always: What’s next? Writers who stop asking this stop writing.

Thomas Mann also advised that we shouldn’t attempt to be writers unless we can’t live without writing. The discipline is just too demanding and frustrating, not a sport for amateurs. Seemingly, I can’t live without it. While engaged in a project, I feel alive and energized; I know exactly what to do with myself. I get up, have coffee with my wife—half distracted by thoughts of the day’s work—then she goes off to her studio and I to my study, hurrying to jot down lines before they evaporate. When not writing, I feel lost and useless.

Now is such a time. I am in writerly limbo, wanting—needing—to begin a new project. A writer must write, after all. But what? Seemingly, I have nothing to say. My muse lies in a corner with her chin on her paws, much like my dog, MiMi, who regularly ignores me when I ask her to come, as Akitas and muses are wont to do.

Understandably, the transition from one work to another can be difficult. Still psychically invested in the work just finished, we can’t expect a new concept to spring out of our heads fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Books take time to gel. Although Joyce Carol Oates is said to begin a new novel the day after she finishes one, and Georges Simenon started a new book every other week or so. No limbo there. Genre writers who work serially don’t likely suffer blank spaces, and some literary writers, like Mario Vargas Llosa, have projects lined up in their minds for years to come. But most of us must start from scratch with each new work.

Limbo is different from writer’s block, which typically comes midpoint of a work, when we feel defeated and lose our way. Nothing stands in the way of the words now; they simply aren’t there. The page is blank; there is nothing for the internal editor to quibble over. I stare into a dark hole, as Hemingway surely did when his pen dried up.

Typically, I write short stories between novels. They require a smaller investment of time and effort and have a sprightly energy all their own. But, at the moment, the muse will not even grant me a story. I tell myself this is silly self-indulgence. Imagine a lawyer complaining, “I can’t practice law this week because I just finished a case.” But writers aren’t lawyers. We have no law books to guide us; no one even demands that we show up for work in the morning. There is a tinge of mystery about what we do, and nothing more mysterious than the spark that ignites the idea that flares up into a book. There is no explaining that process.

Often, I find that spark in my immediate surroundings. Characters spring to life from the local landscape, bringing their stories with them. Since moving to L.A. recently, I’ve thought to set a book here. There are stories everywhere I look: the homeless guy at the Crenshaw Avenue on-ramp to the I-10, for instance, ’Cowboy Joe,’ in a filthy white Stetson hat and chaps, sitting in the saddle of a makeshift rocking horse he has fashioned from roadway detritus—car springs and hubcaps, fenders and blown tires, computer mother boards, discarded cell phones, scraps of clothing, plastic jugs, cardboard, and God knows what all—waving and yippee-ki-yaying at passing cars, galloping across the wide open spaces of Montana in his mind. What’s his story? He’s my kind of character: a social outcast living by his own rules. L.A. is a city of social outcasts and refugees from places where they don’t fit in, living in tiny Raymond Chandler bungalows along garden paths lined with palmettos, right out of the film Mulholland Drive. My kind of place. But, at the moment, I’m not interested.

“Take a trip,” some would suggest. “Visit Ireland or Easter Island. Plenty of inspiration there.” But how to know which of the four points of the compass will lead me to the inspiration I need?

The journey isn’t outward but inward. We must fathom the compass points of the mind. Writing is a collaboration of the conscious and unconscious minds. They must work in accord. We may feel an unconscious stirring, an inchoate idea, but if we can’t summon it to consciousness, then we can’t flesh it out on the page. Conversely, we may have a conscious fascination—as with Cowboy Joe—but if the deeper psyche doesn’t find sustenance in that subject matter, it will go nowhere. Perhaps, in the end, we write to gratify some psychological obsession that we keep trying to articulate—and never fully can.

Still, I know how this dilemma will be resolved in the end. I’ve been here before. I don’t need the muse to rise from her slumber and inspire me; I don’t need to take a journey, or experience some epiphany, or think my way to a story idea. I must simply sit down at the desk and get started, trusting that the characters and their stories will spring magically to life on the page as if waiting for me there all along.

William Luvaas
Issue 5, Spring 2016

has published two novels and two story collections. His new novel Beneath The Coyote Hills is forthcoming with Spuyten Duyvil Press (Fall, 2016). His stories, essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in dozens of publications, including The American Fiction Anthology, Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, Hotel Amerika, The Sun, Texas Review, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post Book World. His collection, Ashes Rain Down, was The Huffington Post’s Book of the Year (2013).

Expanded bio with list of publications

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