Breaking the block

Our blueline for the February magazine came to the office today. That’s always our last chance to proofread. Our last chance to make changes. Our last chance to catch the mistakes that inevitably slip past the earlier proofs.

When you stare at pages for days on end it’s almost impossible to see where something is still wrong. Your brain sees what it wants to see. So you do your best, take a deep breath and send your publication off to the printer. You know there are mistakes waiting to jump out and mock you — typically once the magazine is printed and delivered to the office. But you do get that one last chance to catch them.

When I looked at the blueline today, the first thing that caught my eye was my own name on the masthead. It was wrong. In two different places! You’d think I could at least get my own name right.

For 21 years I didn’t touch my name on the masthead. It was always “Karen Barr.” And then in December, I changed it. One of my staff members noticed, and asked me about it. “It’s a long story,” I told her, then changed the subject.

So here’s the story.

In early November, I took most of a week away from the office to write “An Ethiopia Adoption Story” for the December magazine. My husband was out of town. The timing was perfect. I was looking forward to spending long, uninterrupted days at my computer, blissfully playing with words. The story would be the framework for a book I hoped would follow. I gave myself a week to luxuriate in the lifestyle of a writer, without the distracting duties of a publisher and editor.

Except that’s not what happened. The first day came and went and everything I wrote sounded terrible. Then the second. And the third. I tried what typically works for me when I’m experiencing writer’s block: I went for a hike in the desert. Even that didn’t help. By the fourth night, I was truly starting to panic. I woke up from a bad dream with the very real and frightening sensation of terrible pressure on my chest.

The next day I spent some time with someone who knows me well. By talking with her, I came to realize why this particular story was so hard for me to write: It was fraught with unresolved emotions about my father, who struggled in his last years to write the book he always dreamed of writing.

My dad did finish a novel before he died. It was never published. And for 21 years I ignored it.

My father always said there were messages in  his book — things he never felt he could tell my brothers or me. I never read it because I was afraid I wouldn’t find them.

But dismissing his effort was now affecting mine.

So how did I break my writer’s block? I allowed my dad into my writing process. I pulled his manuscript out of the closet and put it on the shelf near my computer. I started reading it. And when I turned back to my own story, the first thing I did was insert his name, my maiden name, into it. I silently asked him to let me go — to let me do this. And, as Karen Davis Barr, I got to work.

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