Abracadabra for Writer’s Block


 

In fairy tales, Abracadabra has the power to break spells. And what is writer’s block, if not a maniacal spell that roots you to the spot? Oddly, I was once stuck in such a spot until released—not by that eleven-letter charm, but by a sixteen-word one. It wasn’t magic, but it felt just like it.

Paralysis struck as I was attempting to edit the first draft of my memoir, “Don’t Say A Word.” I had decided to use for the opening line something my mother had said while carving the Thanksgiving turkey one year, the moment I first became aware of my parents’ mysterious metamorphosis. My family and I, visiting from Boston, were swept up in the excitement of my parents’ plan to spend winters in Mexico. But alarm bells went off when my mother announced their decision to buy a used car, sight-unseen in Guadalajara from a lawyer she had reason to think dishonest. Gleefully unfazed, she prefaced the news with a pre-emptive warning, “Don’t say a word!”

Opening my book with my mother’s command seemed perfect. As a child, I’d felt squelched by my parents, a domineering pair who had intimidated me into never asserting myself with them, a condition I did not outgrow. I loved the notion of flying in the face of my mother’s order by writing a hundred thousand words or so that she would have cut off from the start. Do I need to mention that both my parents had died before I began my writing project?

The rough draft had emerged in a sort of cathartic rush, but when I tried to set up the book so that my parents and I came through as real people with our relationship delineated, I couldn’t do it. After my mother’s opening warning, I couldn’t find a following sequence that flowed or even seemed to make sense. Every day, I would cut a few lines or a paragraph from one place and paste them somewhere else, but by the end of the day I’d have put everything back. The writing felt heavy, immovable. In fact, the words on the computer screen seemed written in stone: they actually had a carved, incised look to them. To return each morning to my computer was to re-enter a world of complete stasis.

This inertia persisted for weeks, until the day I was inspired to make a small insertion into the third paragraph on page one. The first paragraph set up the Thanksgiving announcement scene, the second introduced the cast of characters, the third drew the following quick portrait of our relationship:

“Why the gag order? A lifetime of bowing to my parents’ impressive self- confidence and extremely impressive tempers had worn a deep groove. I was as likely to confront them as to throw myself under a steamroller, and for the same reason.”

But that morning, seemingly from the blue, it suddenly occurred to me to follow with the parenthetical remark:

“(And I’m a person who in all other situations needs to get in her two cents.)”

As I typed the words into the text, I watched as my computer screen turned soft and pliable. It took on a luminous, jiggly look. Cutting and pasting no longer required brute force. More importantly, the sentences became readable as strings of words, as opposed to proclamations with an authority I couldn’t question.

It was as though my mother’s booming, “Don’t say a word!”, carried the weight of her formidable personality. My mother had seemed to loom over my writing as she had over the dining table, silencing me. But as soon as I inserted the little mention of my usual assertiveness, reminding myself and informing the imagined reader that in other contexts I could speak up perfectly well, I could.

The decisive battle that broke the spell was fought entirely in my head. Playing the part of my mother was a demonized version of her I’d created, a version I’d inadvertently called up, like an unfriendly ghost, in my effort to recapture a moment from the past. Playing the part of me was the ‘I’ that was writing the book, the one who’d been happily living as an adult in the real world, as opposed to the one at the book’s Thanksgiving table who had yet to break free. Marvelously, the mere parenthetical insertion of the writer-I into the dining scene was sufficient to banish the ghost and to give me back control.

What a pity that ‘I’ never had the guts to grapple with her demon-mother in real life: it might have produced some really big magic.

19 Responses


  • Diana Birchall // // Reply

    That’s a fascinating story, Liz! I look forward to reading the memoir. By the way, of course you have produced some really big magic: You did not do to your kids what your mother did to you.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      I so hope you are right!

  • noel // // Reply

    learned a lot about you in this short dialog. the I!!!!!!!!! wow it is wonderful, caring,strong.

  • Karen Weiss // // Reply

    I’d wondered when you were going to give us another update and it was well worth the wait! Your candor in describing personal relationships along with the accompanying feelings is cathartic for me!

  • susan // // Reply

    This passage speaks to the power of honest, searching memoir writing. When it is probing, it works for writer & for reader.
    As always. good work.
    Susan

  • Mickey Blum // // Reply

    So glad you decided to say more than just a word. I agree with Denny. You have emerged as an amazing writer and thinker– and loving mother. I remember feeling intimidated by your formidable parents. It also brings back my own struggle to emerge from the shadow of my mother. I am happy to report that –at 95 –my mother has become a much softer, sweeter version of herself. I look forward to reading more.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      I can’t imagine my mother softening, but I suppose anything is possible; she certainly did morph into a version of herself at the end of her life I would never have credited, if I hadn’t seen it. It’s so wonderful you are having the chance to see the sweeter side of your mother, whom I also remember well.

  • Andy Rose // // Reply

    Cousin, you are not only a little assertive but very eloquent. That is something your parents lacked in spite of their aggressiveness. Thank you for sharing your writing.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      You would know!

  • Sara // // Reply

    Enjoyed this piece. Can’t wait to see more!

  • Miriam Freidin // // Reply

    terrific writing. I think your Mother would have been proud that you are producing something fascinating. It is hard to imagine what she would have said in the course of praising you for your good work. Rest assured, it would have made a good story.

  • Bob Lobis // // Reply

    Lovely writing! I hope you continue to explore the relationship between the “I” who writes and the “I ” who is written about.

  • carole clark // // Reply

    Amazing how something so seemingly impulsive can be so precipitous and liberating.
    Wonderful story!

  • Ginna Vogt // // Reply

    What does it mean when someone like one’s mother tells us something obviously provocative and then admonishes, “Don’t say a word!”? After all, your mother had no need to tell you anything about the car at all, yet she chose both to provoke your voice and silence it. I have long felt that Thanksgiving would be a much happier holiday in many families if it looked more like Passover. A seder offers tasks and roles, scripts and games, the reiteration of small communal rituals into a journey through one great meal. Thanksgiving offers too much food, too much drink and absolutely naked family dynamics played out in the vacuum of a feast that can feel like it’s going on forever. Thanks for this delightful essay just in time for the holiday!

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      What an interesting comparison: Thanksgiving and Passover. I’d never thought of it! A good subject for an essay, Ginna!

  • Stefan Stein // // Reply

    Another discovery in your moving prose. I think you are saying, in addition, that when you allowed yourself to come to life as an adult writer, you were finally able to say good bye to your mother, that is, the mother of your childhood. More soon I hope.
    ps Happy Thanksgiving

  • Robin Bates // // Reply

    Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I find myself particularly fascinated by the use of parentheses, which some writers (I think especially of Swift) use to masterful effect–a seemingly tossed out thought which in fact carries the weight of the whole.

    • Elizabeth Marcus // // Reply

      So nice to hear from you Robin.

  • Corinne Adler // // Reply

    Her critical voice and your paralysis in writing prevented your progress. Maybe ‘good old anger’ at her unfairness finally broke the log jam?
    A wonderful essay. Keep them coming.

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