Coughing Up a Writer’s Block


Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.

The Writing Ideas Are Out There—Bring a Net!

Writer’s block, eh? For me it can sometimes be, “Writer’s Pathetic, Strangled Bleat of Knowing That I’ll Never, Ever Write Anything of Consequence Again, Sob!” (Of course, that presupposes that you’ve already written something of consequence.) I’m a master of dithering when I’m beginning a writing project, searching desperately for nits to pick up off the floor, needing just another cup of coffee to add to the seven previous, accidentally browsing a Tahiti travel site for 45 minutes and on. But something always kicks in when I get that first paragraph done, so in scooping out the first shovelfuls, I wondrously often see the road being built.

Thus one of the first things to do is get your first paragraph written, no matter if it’s for a 500-page novel or a 500-word blog post. A lead paragraph (or perhaps even a paragraph deep within the belly of the beast) can lead to a second, and a giddy third. I have seen repeatedly that a spark can touch off a fire. But there are things that can lead up to that lead, a setting of the writing table, a gesture to welcome the Muse in, a curt gesture to escort the idealess bum in the hammock out.

The external things (besides beating the pets) that seem to help for me are exercising, reading something that’s greatly unlike what I’m trying to write (perhaps sewing pattern books), or doing something that’s mindless but physical, like rearranging my nun puppets. Exercising really is a good one for me: I honestly get full sentences that just jump in my head, particularly when I’m bike riding. But of course, I don’t carry a notebook when I’m bike riding, so the sentences do get bounced around a bit before they get home.

Grab That Fluttering Idea (But Don’t Strangle It)
Following that thought: grab the idea while it flutters, because it will only be loose feathers when you come back to it later. If you get a sentence in your mind without writing tools available, keep writing it in your mind. Not only will the idea be refined, but it will stick long enough to remember it, or at least its essence. This is the method I most often practice on the bike. It’s worth noting that often periods that seem the most frustrating, when you’re PLEADING with your brain to muster up something your character needs to say, and all you get is the stone wall of silence, relax: that wrestling match often results later in the sought-after medal. So often I’ve looked at the mute letters of my keyboard, given up and gone on to make a sandwich, and while spreading the mustard, I hear the “pop” in my head. Ideas need to incubate, to fledge, dear little birds that they are.

This is not a butterfly—this is an IDEA! Capture it!

You could also keep one of those small digital recorders close at hand, if mental notes turn to mist for you. And of course, the old reporter’s notepad is a mainstay—I just used one on a recent travel assignment for the LA Times and though my scrawled notes while hiking up at Pinnacles National Monument were more twisty than the trails, I was still able to salvage some copy out of my cacography. (I do have a digital camera that will record audio notes with every photograph, but I always forget to use it.)

A 90-Proof Shot of Inspiration
But truly, if you can empty the glass right when inspiration pours you a shot, do it. Too often I’ve tossed and turned over an article idea at night, come up with a angel-winged solution there in bed, and then not written it down. Angel wings turned to broken bones overnight—the actual words, which for me are the batteries of the idea, are often lost. I always get up and write ideas now, even if Morpheus is pulling me back down. Let your great ideas get thrown into the pit of dreams, and they will emerge as dead skin and dross.

I’ll leave with the biggest way to chip that monolithic writer’s block: a slice at a time. Particularly for a long-distance swim like a novel, it’s easy to think you’d never get 400 pages down, and thus, it’s easy to quit. But giving yourself a narrow, easily achievable goal—writing 15 minutes a day—and that Atlantic swim becomes a few breast strokes through the pool. You might have so much fun in your 15 minutes, you could even go for 20. Oceans are crossed by the steady swimmers.