So I had a friend challenge me to write a short story about an idea he came up with that involved a literal scenario of writer’s block. Here’s what happened. This work is complete, but I’m open to suggestions on making it better and editing. Because, unlike this narrator, I believe editors are a God send.
Thanks for reading!
a short story by Erica Tuggle
I began composing stories before I even knew how to read. That’s how we writers are. We’re born with that desire to create; to see some good in this strange world.
I’d hang around my mother as she went room to room on her various doings, and my calf-height self would tell her fantastic tales. She’d nod and smile to placate me, but she had no idea I was creating actual, living and breathing art in those moments at her heels. What I was to become, and subsequently my gifts, was not recognized until much later. As it happened, the first person to “discover” me was an unlikely friend, my poetry professor during my first degree at University.
He knew from the moment I chose to read a Dylan Thomas poem aloud as homage to the author before reading my own creation. He knew I was a novice poet then, and I’d be a great poet further down the road.
I don’t say all this in a vainglorious boast. I’ve got credentials to back my words (ha). Namely, a Pulitzer for my collection of work:“The Window’s View is of The Wall.” I’ve got an MFA from Harding University. At the local community college, I’m a professor of the standard semesterly offering of creative writing and I currently teach a class called “The Poet’s Workshop” three times a week.
What Professor Gary didn’t know as he listened to my reading of “Clown In the Moon” in that university classroom was that I would also become a novelist.
I’ve always considered writing something with length. Something provocative, mysterious, and a little bold. That’s what I’ve set out to do now, and no doubt, once I get rolling on this new project, it’s bound to catapult me into a new realm of authorship.
I’ve never had an issue with what we in the field refer to as “writer’s block.” Sound to me like that’s a cutesy way of excusing you from the work of pushing through your ego and life’s miasma of responsibilities to get to. When a new project comes across my docket, I sit down and I attack it as viciously as anyone would pursue the work they are paid to do. I have drive. Determination. It’s a matter of will. My job may seem a little more glorious than that of a plumber who pushes against a stubborn clog in his daily ventures, but our work is similar. We are not deterred by the obstacle. Because we see the end result, and know that its rewards are worth “unblocking” our work.
This is why my experiment had to happen. Last month, when first I decided to make my transition to the literary slant of things, I took this philosophy with me to my favorite cafe, along with a notebook, and prepared to begin my first novel. Yet, I found myself unable to create; an unpleasant first for me.
I tried writing the novel at home, between classes, in a different cafe, on my Macbook, in the morning, right after lunch: in short, every possible scenario. And still the words were uncooperative; the sentences were meandering; the prose unacceptable. Other people, those with far less experience and dedication than I, had written and published works, and so I was determined that I was just not approaching the work correctly.
The idea came to me when I was reviewing the literature for one of my upcoming lessons on Gothic literature and the evolution of the horror genre from its inception to current day. I turned the pages, in print and electronically, viewing image after image of artist’s renditions of Poe’s short story descriptions brought to visual completion. I explored the imagery of human beings stretched upon wooden tables with their entrails twisted out and above them, contortions of the body meant to inspire fear and disgust, and further sidelong searches to modern horror’s dealings with torturous films like Saw, where there was always a chance to save one’s self if there was a sacrifice made for the RIGHT to live. In particular, these latter cases paid with flesh and blood to keep existing.
That’s when the idea struck me. Sure, I could say that I had put blood, sweat, and tears into my work, but the metaphor was cliché without the teeth that these horror films and images were giving it. I had to be willing to sacrifice my self to bring my work to life. The epiphany heavy on my breast, I took to the place where one could most readily procure a device to prove loyalty to the craft.
The social media analogs of the Internet.
My request was unusual, and so I chose the medium where there would be a great exposure of my message, and to individuals who prized secrecy and a quick buck above the average man. My CraigsList post read as such:
“Entrepreneurs! I am an accomplished poet wanting to make my transition into the world of novels. To do this, I need a push most dire. I need an individual willing to craft a machine that will make my writing a necessity hinging upon life and death once I strap myself into the apparatus you construct. Be creative! This needs to be undertaken with care as to leave no out for me to find to shirk my writing deadlines. Only serious inquiries need apply. Compensation will be ample and all work will maintain anonymity.”
The replies began a mere ten minutes after I had posted the ad to several large cities. They flooded in over the next three days. Some of these were joke replies, some spam, and one respondent wanted to know if I was lonely. At the end of day three, one reply seemed most promising:
My name is Dave and I’m a pre-med, engineering double major at a university in the U.S. Because of the nature of this post, that is all I feel comfortable in discussing about myself. I hope you understand. My dad is a carpenter and I’ve apprenticed enough to feel sure I could design the device you are looking for. My fee for building to your specifications is $500 plus allowance to install a small computer to track my own date of what you are utilizing this structure for. Please reply, if acceptable, to…” So on and so forth…
I replied with my specifications, instructions so detailed and precise that a read through alone would have scared off anyone with less than steel dedication. Dave agreed to these about a day later and agreed to mail me my device by the month’s end. Then it was just the waiting.
And so I waited. My novel in progress (or rather not so in progress) taunted me. The ideas were there but their expression escaped me. Every time I’d get out half a sentence of something, the next half of the sentence made it sound trite and unnecessary. The wadded balls of paper in my office garbage can grew, overflowed, while my word count remained paltry.
Several times a day, I’d gently pull back the curtain from the front window and peer at the space in front of my door; the perimeter of the mailbox. Both of these remained vacant and I would twitch the curtain back into place in agitation. One day, sneaking up on the curtain, I parted its silk fabric and immediately the large cardboard box on the porch greeted me. The big brown truck that had deposited it there was just pulling away from the curb.
I unlocked the front door, snatched at the parcel, and tested the box weight, concerned to find it was light enough to easily pull into the house after me. My anticipation was tinged with nervousness now. What had this boy built me? Was it right? Was it worth the cash, sent a month prior in a vulnerable brown envelope as a trustworthy money order?
I pulled the box to me and ripped at the tape that held it together with my pocket knife. Almost able to pull the box wide open, I nicked my finger on the knife. I didn’t have patience enough to stop and tend the minor wound. Holding the bleeding finger against one of its fellows, I continued to dismantle the box, my blood smearing along its cardboard edges, and I pulled my prize out from within its depths.
Let’s pause dear readers at this moment to consider…what possible thing a writer in publication deadline crunch could resort to? It’s nothing all too complex. In fact, I utilize it right now as I write to you. Even as I shatter this third wall between us, I do so with the device alongside, assisting even. But oh, “the device” sounds altogether too chilly. Let’s call my hardware “The CoWriter,” because, after all, this is what she does.
The CoWriter is silent all around me as we work. Her hinges do not squeak to interrupt my stream of thought as it moves from me to the paper I scrawl upon. If anything, Her wires are a guide, a steady reminder of our journey in creating this great piece together.
Make no mistake, it is I who writes the work. It is my name that will appear on the finished cover page alone. But my CoWriter is to credit for my focus, for the determination.She’s got all the benefits of a strong cup of coffee would produce, but She’s more than that. She removes my error of humanity that may allow me to shirk my sacred duty, my life purpose. The CoWriter is…well, it’s best to get back to our first encounter. Show, don’t tell…it’s the first thing they teach you when they try to teach you writing, after all.
I pulled the CoWriter from the box, pink packing peanuts falling from Her and back into the box and onto the floor as She rose. I admit, at first, I thought Her too simple a thing. I missed your elegance, dear.
The majority of Her bulk was in the form of a sort of collar, placed round the neck. It was wide, spacious even, and well-padded for comfort (on the outside that is). She appeared to me to be a combination of Victorian neck ruff and plastic dog cone: the kind used to prevent an animals incessant need to bite and scratch a fresh wound. The other side of the collar held the long, sharp blade, of course.
I needed the ultimate incentive to not only finish my novels, but to infuse them with raw emotion and true urgency of purpose. I had asked the creator of CoWriter for a sort of guillotine for these purposes of motivation. Here is what he brought me. He too was a master of his trade.
Besides the main body of my CoWriter, there were appendages of a sort. From Her, trailed thin, plastic coated wires that falsely advertised a delicacy on their exterior. These trailed down and connected with light and thin metal sheaths that anticipated my fingers within them.
The sheaths too are simple brilliance like the rest of Her. They work just as the collar does, but on a smaller scale. They fit over each of my fingers except the two necessary for me to keep writing. And should my wordcount stutter or remain frozen too long, should my words devolve into clutter and nonsense to try and fool Her, She will compress as is necessary to guide me back to the path.
Allow me to demonstrate…
Skucbrats ratew coop jintse.
Now see. Just a simple diversion from purpose and goal, and CoWriter has reminded me not to stray. See the blood upon this page? It is my own. She’s just extended a sharp bit from the thumb sheath and pricked me. Just a few drops for the course, but an effective motivator, the pain is.
When I pulled CoWriter from Her box six months ago, I was facing a deadline at the end of the month of a promised manuscript at least 50,000 words in length. My word count of that moment upon undertaking this feat in earnest was 4. Even these words were just placeholder for the story itself. The words at the top of the page when I strapped the collar around my neck those six months ago and pushed my fingers into the sheaths were: “Once upon a time…”
My goal each day was at least 1,500 words. Once I hit 1,500, I would keep going but the collar and sheaths I’d locked in place would unlock at my goal number and remain so until I clicked them back into place…thus committing myself to another 1,500 goal.
With the collar firmly in place, I began my novel. “Once upon a time” became “Once upon a time, in the time before the cell phone became the idol of the masses, there were real gods who had real stories that mortals could subsist upon as though it were lifebread.”
With that success, my pen faltered once again and I tensed, anticipating attack from CoWriter. But no, it was only 8am, there was plenty of day left to meet my goal with already 34 words down now. She had no reason yet to prod me with more than her weight upon me. And so my pen paused for a moment, but then the next line descended and it was put to ink. The words would flow and ebb, but the pace was steady and mid-sentence I found that the collar clicked beneath my chin and the finger cuffs disengaged and slid down my non-writing hand. I finished the sentence I was on, took off CoWriter and shut my notebook. It was late afternoon, and so I made myself lunch and celebrated with it and a listen to the vinyl press of Hard Days Night.
This, more or less, was the smooth routine my writing took on for a week. By this time, I had 10,564 words, the major characters were in play and things were shaping themselves. One small problem persisted. I had no conflict in my story yet. As I approached my writing desk on day eight, I could feel the dread of this, and know CoWriter would soon speak up if the work continued to drawl in a bathtub story fashion.
I slipped my fingers into her sheaths. I clamped the collar down upon my neck. As my window drew to a close that day, I pulled my notes in close to me and I wrote like the devil was on my back.
I wrote hard and fast, grammar errors and half-flushed ideas spilling out into half-intelligible sentences. As I wrote, and the problem that would fuel that first novel was delivered to the world, I felt release like a mother might on birth day. My body tensed and spasmed as I held my idea down and made it reveal its purpose in my plotline. I felt it from the top of my head to the base of my spine. It was a release almost sexual, and yet unencumbered by a head clouded with lust. It was a lengthy moment of pure orgasm.
Once finished with my writing for the day, the collar free, I moved in a daze to my bedroom and collapsed onto my bed in shaking sweat and with a feeling of weightless ease. In the days that followed, the weeks afterward, the writing was swift and even playful as it was delivered. I almost felt guilty that it came so easily. My work hardly seemed like work anymore. After my big release, I didn’t even feel compelled to use CoWriter for the remainder of the book. I laid her gently in the corner of the room, and let her watch me work through.
I’ll admit, reader, I felt even more happiness to see her there away from me while I finished chapter after chapter. I imagined her a jealous lover, writhing with want as I pleasured myself.
And then, too soon almost, the story ended. The novel was complete. The real work done, I sent it off to my editor and she tweaked its little newborn features until it was presentable at the literary table.
As one might be aware, the book, originally begun under duress, became a flower in my breast pocket. I was no longer a one trick pony of the poetry world. I became a novelist.
The book, “Godless,” debuted on the NY Times bestseller list at no. 3, and quickly rose to no. 1. where it stayed for some number of weeks until being dethroned by the Vice President’s (laughable) endeavor into fiction.
My work, for a first-time effort, was satisfying to me. And while I knew the work had been my own, I still felt grateful for the guidance of CoWriter. When Dave called me last week to ask if She was still functional and working well, since no reports of progress had been transmitted to him in over a month, I told him all was well, referred him to my new book on shelves now and cut the conversation short.
But the call got me to thinking. What’s to stop me from writing another work? A work about CoWriter? The wealth she’s given me could benefit others. Sharing her gift with the world would be a new kind of contribution to literature. I began to sketch out a plan for this new work.
Everyday I would produce a chapter: at least five pages of solid writing. It would be a sort of book on writing, a process manual, and a view into the options CoWriter gave me and could give others. But putting these strict confines on my process irked me. There’s a fluidity to writing that must be maintained lest the well dry up.
Word count had worked well for me before and so why not stick to proven methods? 4,000 words a day, I said. That would be a firm, but attainable goal. I programmed it into CoWriter the day before yesterday.
Every day has been nerve wracking, the project weighty and unmanageable. The premise still loose and floaty, I thought I could nail it down by sheer will. I’m only on day three, but it’s been a long day.
I strapped myself in early this morning, but my words are being uncooperative. The sun has just set outside my office window. I’ve only hours to hammer out what’s need for today’s goal. There’s cuts on my fingers and grooves where CoWriter has dug into me. It’s because I’ve tried to cheat Her to be sure. She’s mercilus with my flighty fidelity to bare minimum word count standards.
I just tried to work ahead on an anecdotal scene that amused me but would probably not make the final cut of the book. It was just to get the writing process going. She didn’t like it. She sliced me then, and a red ribbon of my blood twined down my fingers. I abandoned this thread of writing. I crossed out the lines three times to try and satisfy Her. With shaky hands, I am trying to return to writing I imagine She will tolerate.
As another hour has dwindled while I remain frozen in reverie. She has cut me again: hard and deep this time. Two of my fingers on the opposite hand ache and drip a steady flow. I’ve only two hours left now, and so She cut these two fingers almost to the bone. The pressure on them is increasing by the minute. I fear that no matter how much I type at this point, those fingers will be compressed so constantly, so violently, that they will need amputation if CoWriter does not do this for me.
I’m not even sure I want to share the story of this damned machine anyway now. I wrote the book myself after all. Not Her.
No, you didn’t. No matter how hard you squeeze my fingers, I won’t write that you are an author. It would mock the art. Without art, we have no truth. You are…
… … …
She didn’t like that, readers. Perhaps, She disapproves of this line of diary-esque disclosure. She squeezed all the fingers at once. The two She’d already cut down to bone popped off then. The digits lie slightly out of my reach as I’m strapped against CoWriter’s bulk. I stare at them now. When they were severed, I screamed and screamed. I felt like I’d go into shock seeing that blood spurt. I lost consciousness for some minutes. But here I am, scrawling out words again. The episode took another precious hour though. I’m left with only one now.
Surely, there’s not that many words left in my count today? But maybe She’s not counting these words that digress from the story. Are you? CoWriter…are you counting any of this?
I’m trying not to weep now. The place left on my hand where fingers once were burns and throbs. Each jolt of pain seeks to divert my attention. But, prospective writer, you’ll see that with the CoWriter on your back (or rather round your neck) there’s a focus that comes.
What’s it giving my story you may ask? Well, it’s giving something that pages of paper strung together can’t. It’s making the words real. Searching for what’s real is our job as writers…no, not only that, but as humans as well.
I’m so weary. I can’t think straight anymore. I want to sleep. The CoWriter feels so heavy. She’s tight around my neck. I think she’s tightening every moment now…still trying to urge me to the finish line. I’m down to the last minute now, and so I must type and try to make a message that will be my release.
I think the message is clear. We writer’s are a lonely group, and this isolation can freeze our thoughts. It can “block” us so that we strive so desperately just to communicate what lies beyond the barrier. CoWriter has helped to push the block around, but in the end it comes down to….
END OF MANUSCRIPT
WORD COUNT: 3,726
*Special thanks to Bentley Little for the story idea.*