Seeking Flow in an Empty Boat

Write around a block to revive creative flow.

Posted Apr 02, 2012

Some nice warm-hearted authors can't write their way out of a paper clip. Mark Salzman, however, is a compassionate, feeling man who writes with humor, honesty, and insight.

His latest book, The Man in the Empty Boat, takes the form of a memoir. Inspired by his confessional monologue, "An Atheist in Freefall," it's about anxiety, a serious case of writer's block, the death of Salzman's sister, and a search for meaning. And yet it's playful rather than heavy.

Long before the events explored in his current book, I interviewed Salzman about his creative process. Recently I asked him what has changed over time. His amusing and thoughtful response is below the original interview.


SKP: Do you ever lose track of time when you're writing?

Yes, but in very small increments. Almost inevitably the writing I do when I'm really swimming downstream, when I look at it later, it's usually cliched and over-sentimental and I usually have to erase it all.

For me, my best writing is my workaday, painful word-by-word work. I'm a very slow writer. I'm very steady, in that every day I try to write four hours and I'm disciplined about it. I usually write six days a week. My temperament is just that I feel so guilty if I don't.

When I sit down, the first thing I'm aware of is that it's all virgin territory. The characters, the plot, everything is new to me and so I'm uncertain about what is the best way to go. I'm a massive rewriter, even a first draft to me represents probably 40-50 attempts to go paragraph to paragraph. It's a very slow, not particularly pleasurable experience, but I have satisfaction at the end of the day when I feel I've made progress.

To me communication and the sense of reaching other people is the type of pleasure that means the most to me, so I'm willing to put up with four or five hours a day of really unpleasant work but that somehow drives me forward because I feel that it has a meaning for me.

Usually, at least once a day, I'll finally get into a state where I'm just not really aware of sitting there in this sense of swimming upstream. I'm so lost in just the questions, what do I have to do here, but then for a period of whatever, it can be just five minutes, sometimes it's 40 minutes, for that amount of time, I'm pretty much lost in the task.

SKP: Do you have writing blocks sometimes?

Oh yeah. My typical pattern is that when I've finished a book, then for a year after that, I'm trying of course to think of a new story, but I just feel dry. I'm of course very anxious during that time. I'd love to be right the next day back at work. I'm happiest at the end of the day when I've accomplished something. So that year is always kind of uncomfortable for me.


SKP: What's different about your writing process today compared to the way you described it a decade or so ago?

In most ways, it's the same; I'll never be the Mozart of prose composition, you can bet on that. In those pre-parenthood days I held to a consistent schedule of writing four or five hours a day, six days a week. Well, that's certainly changed. I've been a stay-at-home dad for eleven years now - sayonara, consistent schedule. I never know when I'm going to be able to write anymore, and I can go months at a time now without writing anything because there's just no time, and when I do sit down, my mind is like one of those snow-globe toys that's been shaken by a 3-year-old. White-out conditions, no visibility.

When I do write, it's slow, slow, slow. I'll have occasional bursts of what you might call flow, followed by lots of slow, slow, slow revision to get what came out during the flow period into shape.

But while the process is more or less the same, I think it would be fair to say that I experience this process in an entirely different way than I did in the past. I had a profound crisis at the age of 49 (it's the subject of The Man in the Empty Boat), and, knock on wood, I seem to have emerged from that crisis feeling relieved of a terrible burden.

In a nutshell: I became convinced that my familiar sense of conscious will as the source of my choices and actions is an illusion. I no longer believe that I—in the sense of an autonomous self, capable of true free will and self-control—exist at all. At all times, I do (and think and feel and choose) what I must according to circumstance, and by circumstance, I mean impersonal, unintentional factors like genetics, prior conditioning, and present environment. And if I am doing what I must, then for all practical purposes, that is the same as saying that I am doing the best I can.

For a person like me—given the combination of existential anxiety, artistic frustration, and spiritual yearning that had tormented me for so many years—believing that I am doing the best I can no matter what seems to be just the medicine I needed. Now, although I still write slowly or not at all for long stretches, I honestly don't consider that to be a problem that I can solve. It's my process and as long as I'm not tensing up my whole being thinking that I ought to be fixing that process or exchanging it with someone else's, it's not painful. It's not something I feel obliged to control anymore; if my sense of control was a mirage to begin with, what's the point of trying to revive it?

My process unfolds and I experience it—and of course, I'm not just talking about writing. Holy cow, what a difference it makes!

When my wife was delivering our first child and the contractions got really intense, an anesthesiologist came into the room and gave her an epidural injection. The moment it took effect, her face lit up and she looked around the room and said, "I feel like kissing everybody!" That's how I felt the moment I lost my sense of being the author of my life narrative, and the feeling has lasted.

Listen to Mark Salzman here and read his "Why I Write" essay here.

Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry