Hello, and welcome to the inaugural article of Chopping Block–a new interview series dealing with writer’s block and all everything it entails. The idea came about here following a discussion between me and another writer venting our frustrations about being unable to write, and finding a temporary solace in knowing that the block is more ubiquitous than one can ever imagine when dealing with it on their own. At some point in our creative endeavors we all must eventually come face to face with the block, so it is with this new series that I hope to show that those frustrations are kind of ephemeral.
In this installment we have a back and forth with Bud Smith, who was a lot to say about writer’s block.
So without further ado, let’s have at it.
Andrew Byrds: You’ve been published many times over the last few years, and have been writing for even longer than that. You’ve published novels, short story and poetry collections, collaborations, and most recently a memoir. It may go without saying that with the amount of output you have, you’re always finding those little moments to write something down, and so for someone who has only prominently appeared within the last few years seem to never really get any wrenches thrown into the gears of your creativity. Has there been a prominent window within this time-frame when writer’s block sucker-punched you out of nowhere. Either on a specific story where the words just weren’t coming out right, or were there moments when you had this blank space and the block really resonated with you?
Bud Smith: Sucker-punched, oh definitely. There’s been times when I’ve had nothing, so I just didn’t make anything. I went two years without doing any writing. 27yrs old through 29yrs old. I just wasn’t into it. I usually only do creative work when I feel like doing creative work. Sometimes my energy for the thing just wanes and I don’t have the energy or the drive to make it, so I stop for a while. The truth is, output doesn’t mean anything. Look at it this way, I have a bunch of Rolling Stones records: Exhile on Main Street, Begger’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, Some Girls, Sticky Fingers, and that Hot Rocks Compilation. They’ve released 56 proper albums, not counting compilations. I’m a big fan of six out of fifty-six of those albums. By that math I like 9% of the work. I think they are one of the greatest bands that’s recorded rock music, but like I said, I enjoy 9% of their albums enough to spend a couple bucks at a used record store on them. Writers? Damn, some of my favorite authors, I only like one or two of their many books. What’s it matter if someone is prolific if the work doesn’t resonate? Of course, the prolific musician, painter, author, they don’t care if you like their work. They’re generally oblivious people, with blinders on to the world outside of the work they are doing. They may come up to the surface here and there to periodically check in on the world, but those prolific, consumed people, they live very deep underwater, or high up in a tree in some weird ass nest they’ve managed to build and there is very little evidence of the world that is happening anywhere beyond their bunker. Me? I’m here on earth with you, and when I want, when I feel good, I try and write. However, I am following the path of least resistance, doing whatever I can to not become a tortured artist. It’s more work to stay happy beyond the creative work, in my personal life, than it is to stay happy with the creative work. But, if you are doing good in life, you have a shot at being able to find the time and energy to make your art. That sometimes requires a lot of sacrifice, and forfeit of creature comfort, but here and there a balance is possible. When it’s not possible, no sweat, then that’s the time to just not make art.
AB: Going off this idea of the tortured artist, I’ve found in my own endeavors two varying philosophies to kick my ass into gear when the world grows a little too quiet. At times I feel like a creative has to create something every day, no matter what kinda mood they are in or if anything significant has happened. In other words, write, write, write, damn the torpedoes, always get your thoughts down. However, I also believe at times in only writing when you’re experiencing pure honest-to-god emotions, when you feel as if what is happening now is the most important thing that is ever going to happen. For the most part, this is when I’m angry/sad/confused, darker emotions that elicit more self-reflection, and also feelings that arise often when I feel like I can’t write. The former idea produces more work, the latter produces more honesty. I’m 25, I’ve reached this point in my life where a little suffering stokes the artistic flame, so when I can’t write I wonder if it’s because I’ve found contentedness with where I am. How do you go about finding things to write about when everything seems boring or unimportant, without giving into the pressure of suffering that stigmatizes other writers?
BS: Well, everybody is suffering, that’s for sure. Everybody alive is suffering every minute of the day, and writing is a way to distract from that suffering, maybe even a way to subtract from that suffering. I don’t have any answers or advice on how to make your pain any easier, or how to make anyone’s writing any better. I do think it all comes down to practice. Practice. Practice for years. Practice living how you want to live, and practice making your art as only you can. That’s what the ‘writing every day’ thing is, the practice of writing. Get conditioned to your thought process, play with your ideas and scope, develop the comfort of stepping out of the real world for a while and entering into the ‘bullshit world’ where you can tell fun lies, or have the power to scream at the injustices you can’t irl. And the way that you write with emotion if you aren’t feeling things, if you are too content, is to believe that all people through history and into the future are connected and these people that came before you and who will come after, were all, and all will be, subjected to a cruel world, and a kindly world, and a rain drenched world, and a scorched wasteland of a desert. Empathy is the only thing required to be a great writer. If you’re broke and can’t travel through the many worlds that are on this earth, the good news is that your public library can get you all the things books you’d ever need to get this required deeper empathy. Even if you are solely seeking to write about your personal experience and nothing else, you still need to know more about the world and its other strange inhabitants, and how their suffering reflects on your own experience and connects to it. Nothing is extraneous. No one is lowest on the totem pole. Nothing is useless. Watch a ton of movies. Talk to anyone who will talk to you at the junkyard. Believe in the significance of ordinary things, and don’t be afraid to put God in your writing, even if you, like me, do not believe in the existence of God. Providence isn’t a word used anymore, maybe it’s ready to make a comeback. Providence, and magic. Most of the time I find I am writing about my past, somehow, and in writing about my past, I can see how it all worked out and what it came to be worth. Magic. That’s nice. Maybe all of humanity is inwardly and outwardly tortured, and maybe making art is some kind of sick joy that helps things get better, not only for you, but if you’re lucky, some strangers out there who could use some help. Over the course of a long unseen lifetime extending out in front of you, beyond your present horizon, I do believe unexplainable things will be proven.
AB: I think that’s something that has been lost nowadays, exploring other art mediums and honing one’s empathy in seeking out new perspectives, be it through movies/books/music, or even going out to some seedy dive and listening to people tell their stories. It’s true, isn’t it, that good writers are good readers? Have there been any works you’ve seen/read lately that helped you gain some new insight about the world/the writing process?
BS: It’s hard to say. Most of the good writers are good readers, in at least that they seek out books that question. I mean, a person can read 250 books a year and if they haven’t made that person question the nature of their reality, then they might as well have read zero. If you can find literature that challenges the way you live, and the viewpoints you have, then you are well on your way of gaining not only knowledge but empathy. You mention talking to people in a seedy bar, sure, that works too, but it’s not just talking, it’s listening. Listening to someone is a feat of strength that makes the building of the Great Pyramids look like a joke. But, back to your first sentence in that question: ‘I think that’s something that has been lost nowadays …’. I believe that nothing has been lost nowadays. People are probably how they always were, and the things that people need are what they always were. There’s a saying, ‘The Past is just the Present dressed up in funny looking clothes.’ Well the future will be too. A safety guy at the oil refinery gives us a motivational speech every year where he claims, ‘People are like cats, they just do what they want. A dog can be trained. But people are like cats.’ I don’t get the point of the speech, because he is trying to train us. But we’re cats. And our past wore funny clothes. And everybody is scared shitless of the people in the next village over. So how is it possible to be empathetic to the people who are your ‘enemy’? I don’t know. I guess you just have to understand that your enemies became your enemies because you couldn’t properly communicate with each other. How the fuck do we say anything to each other? How do we get a point across? Shouting doesn’t work. You have to say it soft as possible. And then when that softness is drowned out by the noise of the world, you write it down faintly in a book, and you hide that book somewhere deep and hard to get to, and when your enemy finally seeks it out, on their own, something unexpected happens—they learn who you are, and in knowing, they have a harder time killing you. Most of the time, you’re already dead anyway at that point. Books are the slowest instant miracle cure going.
As for books that recently changed the way I think … I liked Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke, his work is translated from German, and I like how cold and unsentimental it is. That book is also written like a thriller. Thrillers are the best kind of novels, they remind me most of life, because in life, I am always desperate to know what will happen next. The problem with thrillers is that most of them are written terribly. Day of the Jackal is fantastic though. Back to contemporary stuff; I loved Literally Show Me a Healthy Person by Darcie Wilder, pill sized dispatches from the void. Potted Meat by Steven Dunn, is really great prose about growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, also completely unsentimental. End of My Career by Martha Grover, an excellent memoir, it kind of laughs in the face of death, from the point of view of a woman working lousy jobs and stricken with a disease that she keeps punting up the field like a football, to deal with later, like you do all things. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams was also really good, a western, sublime stuff. I’m really into American History. I wanted to be a history teacher. My favorite time in American History is right after the civil war, up until the advent of the automobile. If you study American History, I really do believe that you’ll see that not much has changed. There were people then who were striving for a better life at the expense of anyone who was slightly less powerful than themselves, and that is still happening today. Of course, there were people who fought for the good of all the weak, and the majority of them are forgotten to the dust, and are not remembered. Most true heroes are poor and cannot be recalled. All the rich dickheads make the record books. I also really enjoyed Noah Cicero’s new one, Nature Documentary, which is a book of poems that reads like a ticker tape from the creator of the universe itself. There’s no shortage of great books, I’m reading Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard right now, he’s got a great voice. All those books gave me great insights into the world. As for writing process? I just finished a book yesterday, another by Peter Handke. It’s called A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and it’s about Peter Handke’s mom, her life and her suicide. He says regarding his airplane trip home to Australia to sit beside her corpse during the customary deathwatch, “And throughout the flight I was beside myself with pride that she had committed suicide.” The book is also about writing the book. How to live. And how to write the book. Everybody’s different, some of them, if you can believe it, are even happy when their mothers die.
AB: Do you ever find that in writing you’ve created while reading works by another author that you adapt to their voice/style? I think one tribulation that arises during writer’s block is this intrinsic need to sound completely unique, but unconsciously one may take on the vernacular of whoever they are reading. For that matter, do you believe this need for sounding completely different from anyone else–thematically, stylistically, etc–leads to writer’s block?
BS: I don’t know. People get stuck in a roadblock for an unlimited number of reasons. Most of the roadblocks probably have more to do with their personal lives, and the stress of that. There’s always something going wrong out there in the world. As for imitating someone else, trying to sound like someone else, I can’t see a problem with that. It’s kind of like training wheels, and most people do it in the beginning before they get more comfortable. Most people out grow it, and find themselves along the way. Speed doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how fast you write, it doesn’t matter how much you get written down, hours, days, weeks, years. What matters is tenacity and a refusal to give up. But, like I’ve often said, I’ve given up more things than I can number, jobs, relationships, cars, hobbies, you name it. The one thing I stuck with was writing and that was only because I got the most personal satisfaction from it. I don’t think writer’s block comes from much of anywhere else besides listening to other people’s bullshit. You’ve always got to do your thing at your own pace, and everybody else can just mind their own business.
AB: Was it around that two year period when you couldn’t write when you realized, “alright, fuck it. This is what I’m gonna do” and tuned out other people’s bullshit? Or I guess, were you even too worried about it in the first place?
BS: I was never too worried about what anyone thought. I just knew I had a lot of work to do to get better and I didn’t see much reason to do all that work to get better. I was lazy. That two year period when I stopped writing was mostly because it seemed like too much trouble to learn how to edit. Too much trouble to learn grammar, and to learn to be more patient. To learn the importance of not only writing, but reading and rereading my own work hundreds of times. To learn to get used to the task of rewriting something over and over and over again. I knew to get better I would have to really dedicate myself to it and I didn’t want to. So I didn’t. It’s perfectly cool to walk away from this stuff. Put it on hold if you don’t feel like dealing with it. You’ll be alive a long time. You don’t have to paint your masterpiece until you are 101 years old. I did other stuff those two years, I exercised a lot and almost completely quit drinking. Haha. I was a much better person. But, eventually I came back to writing because there was this nagging ping in the back of my mind. I liked trying to make books. I liked trying to make books enough that I thought it was worth it to pay closer attention, commit more patience to the study of it, meaning: reading a lot more, and reading, better, more questioning books by a variety of different earthlings. Up to that point I’d mostly just read all the dead white men they wanted you to read in school, or novelizations of movies I liked. There’s nothing wrong with Fight Club it’s just you’ll only get so far reading Fight Club. You’ll get barely nowhere just reading Bud Smith books. But the key to getting better at writing was the combination of years of practice and careful reading. I’ve even seen that some people just type up their favorite books, word for word and dissect the sentences. I’m crazy, I’m just not that crazy.
AB: I get what you mean about Palahniuk. I remember reading INVISIBLE MONSTERS when I was 16 and being completely floored by his storytelling. It gave me this fire to want to give writing a shot. I found whatever of his books I could in smalltown Iowa and devouring them. Then this past year I tried reading him again for the first time since and remembered all his motifs and tricks, just didn’t do what it used to. But it’s admirable how much he writes. Was FIGHT CLUB one of those books that taught you something about the craft?
BS: Yes, definitely, I loved all those early Palahniuk novels, and am glad I found them. It was nice of him to write those books for me so that I would discover them in Brick Town, NJ and feel like I could do that kind of thing, write a novel!, despite no one ever hinting that I should, or could. At the time he was the only contemporary writer I read. This was 1999 and I was a sophomore in high school. I liked One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest too, and Clockwork Orange, and High Fidelity. I didn’t know any literary eggheads. I didn’t know a single literary egghead until I was already in my 30s. I just read stuff that almost randomly jumped in my face at Barnes and Nobles. Palahniuk set me off on the path to discover Amy Hempel, and that discovery showed me what flash fiction was. Amy Hempel led to small press, which is a never ending well of incredible writing. I don’t read highbrow or low brow, and sometimes when I’m writing I’m thinking, ‘Jesus i hope some sixteen year old kids like this.’
So yeah, for sure, Palahniuk and Vonnegut, maybe more so, made me think ‘oh cool there’s another side to this coin of writing, I don’t have to try and write Like F. Scott Fitzgerald.’ Denis Johnson was a great discovery too. And then later, Martha Grover’s book One More For the People was a big book for me, it made me rethink how I wrote, how I constructed my sentences. Twitter was big for that too. That limitation of 140 characters was huge for me and helped me dramatically rethink how I wrote sentences. How silly does that sound? You write for ten years and then you realize you can make your sentences better because of social media. And social media, this terrible blood sucking thing, social media just opens the door to you and let’s as many literary eggheads as you can stomach into your home, and they have you read ALL the stuff that will change your life. I’m happy as hell to be well on my way to complete literary eggheadedness too.
AB: I remember reading an interview Palahniuk did some years back where he claimed that writer’s block doesn’t exist. Said that it can’t because it’s possible to write every day, you just gotta coach yourself to write the things you wanna right and learn to love it. Would you say that writer’s block is more of an inability to write, or a difficulty in learning to love your work?
BS: For me it was easier as soon as I decided it didn’t matter if it all sucked, if it was a joke, if other people didn’t take my work seriously. Once I made the whole thing just a fuck-around, just a play, somehow the ego got deflated out of the tires of the thing. If you’re not trying as hard as you can for invisible/imaginary people, it doesn’t matter if you do that dreaded thing you’re not supposed to do when you make art—have fun. Of course it all can’t be fun. But if you’ve got writers block and you’re ready to just stop altogether, my advice to you is to write something that you don’t care about. Take the care out of your work, be reckless, let yourself be stupid on purpose. I used to read the newspaper and write a story based off something in the newspaper. It really is just all practice. Writing is like running, the more you do it the easier it gets and the faster you can go. Of course, like I said, maybe speed and distance is the enemy. People with writers block should immediately go and read somebody like Sam Pink. He’s the type of writer that will make you think, I can do anything. The best writers in the world, are the ones who have found a way to wrangle the ugliness and the beauty of this world into a perfect unlawful line. Palahniuk and Vonnegut were the first writers who I said, ‘Ah, I can do this!” And of course, no, only they can do that. But it’s inspiring. The writers who make you want to write, well, it doesn’t matter who they are, and they do go through a cycle, popular for awhile, unpopular as a backlash, and slightly popular again before they die, just in time to be considered a genius the day after they die.
AB: I read YOUR GLASS HEAD AGAINST THE BRICK PARADE OF NOW WHATS by Sam Pink and wrote like a motherfucker afterward during one isolated Thanksgiving when I didn’t have an excuse to do anything but. It’s a small work—about 50ish pages–that I always recommend to people who wanna throw out all their preconceptions of writing as just go for it. House of Vlad actually has quite a few works like that, if not all. Speaking of other writers, I asked Scott the other day if he’d be up for being part of this interview and he said, “Sure, but I wouldn’t have much to say about writer’s block–i think it’s a myth.” Taking your views on writer’s block and looking at his I think it may be fair to ask who’d win in a fight in an open field at midnight, you or Scott?
BS: I’m not fighting McClanahan, I conscientiously object.
AB: Just a couple more questions and we can put this one in the books. I’m looking towards one of the dog-ears in my copy of your memoir WORK, and it reads:
“I’m of the soft-skulled variety that thinks the only way you can make sure you are dumping all of your humanity into your art, is if you find time to recharge the batteries of your life. Find time for five minute, ten minutes of creativity, on a daily basis. But more importantly make sure you’re getting hours of joy with good people. Don’t carry around a suitcase filled with pointless grudges, jealousy and same song complaints. I tried as best I could to lose as much of that bullshit and I’m happy it’s gone.”
I think for many people, they believe writing is a solitary excursion meant for either lamenting or extolling their lives. We touched on this in an earlier question, but how important has socializing been on your development as a writer, and do you think you can tell whether or not there is humanity in a writer’s style based on their works?
BS: Socializing has even the most important part of my writing. I don’t mind the solitary act of writing but always aim to include other people as soon as possible in the ‘work in progress’. Mostly that happens with readings. If I have a reading set up, I’ll usually try to write something new for that reading so that there’s some pressure on the piece being ready, or close. As for being able to tell if anybody on the arts scene (whatever that means) has humanity, I think most all of them do. There’s very little money and power in any kind of creative arts and that’s a good thing, because that means the people who dedicate some slice of their life to it, are for the most part good people. The majority of writers I’ve met have been bleeding hearts, and I love them for it. I’m right there bleeding with em. It’s a big ol’ blood party. We roll around in the blood and laugh and cry and talk shit about anybody who isn’t at the party.
AB: Before we wrap this thing up, is there anything else about writer’s block you feel you need to get off your chest? And is there any kind of writing exercise you use to get into the groove that you’d like to recommend to other’s for when they’re feeling mired up by the block?
BS: It’s only as real as you make it. Like most things it very well might just be a figment of the imagination. I think someone could write every single day, as long as they weren’t starving to death or on fire or whatever, but. Also, but. And also, but. Everything is but. But. If you can reach down and find your pulse somewhere, then today you can probably write something. But only do it if you want to. Don’t do anything you don’t want to. Do more of what you want to. Oh my god this is over 4,000 words long, I can’t believe you are still reading this. These 4000+ words were all a figment of your imagination too, just as all art advice should ever be. Focus on what you care about, collect random shiny little pieces of this and that to make a nest, take the string and the shoelace and the blades of grass up into the boughs of some high tree, make a nest. All the heavy things are worthless in this pursuit. Make your own heavy, incredible thing, from countless light scraps that no one thought to want.