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.