The Complementary Arts

4 May 2022

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There are many reasons a writer takes a break. Overwhelming obligations, jumbled thoughts, headaches, and crying babies. The neighbor mowing his lawn and the phone lighting up with scam calls. The vast empty page and the impossible task of stringing words across the white abyss. Did I just call a blank page the ‘white abyss?’ Break time, please.

Some authors claim that writer’s block is a myth; they’ve heard of it, but never had it. Warren Ellis [comic book writer, Transmetropolitan] asserts, “when a writer cannot write… Then that person isn’t a writer anymore.” If I ask my six-year-old, he’ll agree. What do you call a writer who isn’t writing? Just a regular person.

“Writer’s block is a

fancy term made up

by whiners so they

can have an excuse

to drink alcohol.”

― Steve Martin

As a regular person, I once had a case of writer’s block that lasted twenty years. It started when my diary was read by immigration officials during an ill-fated (read: poorly planned) move to the UK. A quiz on my romantic daydreams and amateur poetry, as interpreted by a dour airport bureaucrat, sliced away the uninhibited part of me that could pour thoughts onto the page. Now every word was subject to review by outsiders. The diary wasn’t a safe place anymore.

When I married, set up housekeeping, and fell into a thankless low-level job, I stopped writing except in fits and starts. I destroyed the stories I wrote with relentless editing. “Ms. Immigration might read this,” I thought as I snipped out dialogue, details, emotions, and revelations. I tried poetry, letter writing, and Bridget Jones-inspired journaling, but always lost steam. Writer’s block was winning. That’s when I discovered the complementary arts.

“If you get stuck, get

away from your desk.

Take a walk, take a bath,

go to sleep,make a pie,

draw, listen to ­music,

meditate, exercise;

whatever you do, don’t

just stick there scowling

at the problem.”
― Hilary Mantel

I improved my meager cooking skills, sketched illustrations for a picture book, and threw myself into meticulous housework. At the store, I skipped the bakery aisle, making bread and cakes from scratch instead. I taught myself knitting, making sweaters, gifts, and baby clothes for charity. I confined my writing to thoughts, dashed off on scraps of paper during lonely shifts at work, tossed into the trash on my way out the door. Instead of writing stories, I told them in my head, imagining the kings I was cooking dinner for, a child smiling at my drawings, and the babies in Afghanistan wearing my little green jumpers. I built virtual cities in video game simulators, inventing a family for each house, an owner for every shop. Writing, writing, writing, in my head while cultivating the complementary arts of daily life.

“Housework won’t kill

you, but then again,

why take the chance?”

― Phyllis Diller

Now, I’m rarely in the mood for a break from writing. After years spent on hiatus, I have no more time to waste. When my keyboard yawns in boredom and my thoughts scatter, I’m furious. The process is too slow. The house is too noisy. I am too lazy to pull it together and work. Forget knitting and cooking and container gardening. Housework? For the birds. Where are the words I need? Why is it so hard to do my dream?

Though I don’t want them, I return to the complementary arts again and again. Kids’ science projects, doing the laundry, and restorative naps. Drawing treasure maps, spot-cleaning the bathroom, and following my favorite baseball team. My sanity demands it. Imagine an office job without weekends. Look at the quality of life for people who work seven days a week. They are exhausted. And they probably drink too much. They need time for the complementary arts.

“Writing about a writer’s

block is better than not

writing at all.”
― Charles Bukowski,

The Last Night of the

Earth Poems

For writers, writing is essential to life. We have an urge to “write through it,” to shrug off writer’s block, and force inspiration to arrive on demand. Stress levels rise, frustration creates tension, and every word is more grudging than the last. We blame ourselves and wonder whether we are still writers. When chattering birds nest outside your window or a cat’s meow derails the morning’s work, the relief of the complementary arts can save the day. A home-cooked lunch and a nap in the afternoon, a digital collage of the clutter in your head, or singing your favorite song loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Clear your thoughts with your complementary arts and tell the world you’ve never had writer’s block.

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