The Secret of My Writer’s Block

 by Bethany Ball

In those days, I thought that nothing could deter me from writing and so with eight hundred dollars I flew out to New York City where it was, I thought, that writing happened.  I found a job at one of the smaller publishing houses and I was thrilled the day we were issued ID cards. They coincided with our acquisition of Salman Rushdie and new security guards who stood in the lobby of our office on 18th Street.

It was there that I began to learn the mechanics of big city book publishing. I learned that getting a memoir on the New York Times bestseller list didn’t mean you had a winning novel in you--or that you would necessarily be inundated with fan mail. I learned that a writer could work on a manuscript for years and get only a ten thousand dollar advance, and that a five thousand print run is pretty good. I learned that it was imperative to have an agent, and that sometimes a good idea is only good enough for a magazine article. I learned that Oprah could sell more books than anyone and that she sent publishing houses into celebratory panics when she tapped a book for special recommendation. I learned the system of editorial assistants that could get an advanced reader copy of nearly any manuscript in the city, except maybe Harry Potter.

My journalist father, never easily impressed, was nevertheless impressed that I’d found my way to a New York City publishing house. My mother liked getting advanced copies of Susan Grisham and Tom Wolfe.

But the dot-com world was beckoning and so I landed at Dreamlife.com in February of 2000. It was just a month before the climax of the dot-com bubble when the NASDAQ climbed to its peak of over five thousand. Our large office was in the newly refurbished Chelsea Market, what had once been the Nabisco Baking Company factory. Money was pumped in daily via the lifestyle guru Tony Robbins. I was told that the company was worth over sixty million dollars but it was hard to see how these companies with no revenue model could sustain themselves, much less our large salaries.

My job was to write and edit courses and articles about family and relationships. I hired experts, wrote copy for my page and discussed functionality with the programming team. Electric cars raced across the large carpeted corridors and every other week all the guys in the tech department would head off to see the Intrepid, the big aircraft carrier docked not too far away on the Hudson River. Kozmo.com was vying for dominance with Urbanfetch and anything could be had off the Internet within a couple of hours. With our big dot-com salaries we ordered cameras and laptops to our office, and videos and condoms to our apartments.  On Fridays we ordered Krispy Kreme donuts delivered by UrbanFetch in their green messenger bags. I went to Paris and bought a wardrobe. I briefly considered finding a bigger apartment. I published some articles on the side for CitySearch New York, some other smaller publications and scads of book reviews for Publishers Weekly. I worked steadily on my short stories and novel before work, in the early morning hours by the light of my six-floor East Village walk up window.

It took a year, but the bubble finally burst. We waited anxiously to find out whose jobs would go first. F*ckedcompany.com kept tabs on which companies were hemorrhaging employees, and it wasn’t long before we were tracking Dreamlife. When I was finally let go, I took my unemployment money and decided to try and finish that manuscript I’d been kicking around since college. For six months I sat in cafes trying to write. It was a story that was once fresh and interesting, but in those months when it was my exclusive focus I saw that it was stale and overworked.

I began to wonder why I was writing. What purpose did it have?  Would it change someone's life? Would it change mine? Was I writing to be famous? Was it to fill some kind of destiny as the daughter and granddaughter of writers? If so, what did I really want? What had happened to my childhood wish to write purely for the sake and discovery of telling a story?

At the end of those six months, I took a trip to California, arriving back in New York City on a Monday in early September 2001. My now husband was in Nashville working. He was due back that Wednesday in time for my birthday. Tuesday morning I woke up late from jet lag. The phone was ringing; the television and radio didn’t work. There were people lined up along the roof across the street from my window with cameras and telescopes focused downtown. The world had changed.

It was at that time my husband introduced me to his meditation teacher, who’d impressed me from the first moment I met him at his house on a cold night that November. He opened the door and gave me a good long look. I fought the urge to fold my arms up protectively. Instead, I let him in, and his bright smile was my reward.  Some weeks later, I met with him alone in his West Village townhouse. He’d grown up in the Bronx and had been a jazz musician in the Village where he’d rented an apartment for $12 a month. Later, he’d become an art dealer where he’d brought Leonora Carrington to the US and discovered the Mexican artist Francisco Zuniga. But now he was retired, and a teacher in the meditation work he’d been doing for nearly fifty years.

 “What do you want from life?” he asked me. “What is your wish?”

 “I want to be a writer,” I told him.

“Well,” he said. “It seems to me that you might want to get to know yourself a little better first.”

It was a blow, and not at all what I'd expected, but I understood immediately what he was telling me. At twenty-eight I was not destined to be a prodigy. All the years of book parties, media parties and secreting away business cards had not strengthened my wish--my real wish to be a writer. And wishes aren’t to be taken lightly or superficially. And so, I set that wish aside.

In the years to come I had two children. We moved to Miami, and then moved back to New York City. We went broke, and left the city for my husband’s kibbutz in the north of Israel.  I thought I might start again to write there, but found that ulpan, the Hebrew learning school, took up the majority of my time. We moved back stateside where I started working full time while my husband built up a new business, which this time, fortunately, was a success. During all this time we continued our meditation practice with our teacher. Then, extraordinarily, after five years, the old yearning began again. It coincided with the birth of my daughter.  I met with my teacher, who was then quite old, and nervously told him: “I’m going to start taking writing classes. What do you think?”

He looked at me for a long moment and then his old wise watery eyes lit up. “I think that’s a fantastic idea! And I’ll help you. If you get stuck, you can call me anytime.” The next day, I signed up for writing classes at Sarah Lawrence.

My teacher died the week before my first February class began. The grief was strong and I couldn’t believe he was gone.  Meditation had changed my life. And unexpectedly, I found it had strengthened and renewed my wish that had gotten lost those hard early years in New York.

Now, a year later, it seems there is never enough time to write down all the ideas I have, and I am overflowing with them. I’m learning to edit my own stories and to accept criticism. I enjoy my classes; enjoy thoroughly listening to other’s stories without pretension, reservation or competition. In those classes, everyone comes from different backgrounds with different stories but we all share a common wish: the wish to write. I think back to those six months after the dot-com bubble burst and sometimes wish that I had that kind of time, with the City bustling around me, to sit in Le Gamin on 5th Street and spin my stories. But I wasn’t ready then. I’m ready now.

 

Bethany Ball lives in Nyack, New York with her family. She looks forward to moving to the side of Hook Mountain and the completion of her first novel.

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