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The Yang Slinger: LXX
Some people will tell you there's no such thing as writer's block. They're lying.
I am writing this week’s substack about writer’s block, and it’s not going well.
As you read this, I’m sitting inside Howley’s, a South Florida diner that often inspires me to churn out words as Brian Quinnett once churned out …
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I had an analogy in mind, but it doesn’t work. Brian Quinnett was a bench warmer for the Knicks from 1989 to 1992. But bench warmers don’t churn out bricks, because they never play. And they don’t churn out splinters, because serving as a reserve (even on a bench made of pine or oak or birch) doesn’t mean your output has anything to do with wood. Fuck. He wouldn’t churn out butter, even though butter is churned. So I did a Google search to find other things that are churned—and, cocksucking motherfucker!—nothing is churned besides butter. Literally, it exists as a sole churned byproduct.
But I can’t totally abandon the whole Brian Quinnett thing, because I’ve already thrown 20 minutes into this nonsense. So here I sit, staring at a relatively blank screen, surrounded by happy people, fattening up on coconut cream pie as a nearby clock tick tick tick ticks away, wondering whether I’ll ever again find the words and brainpower to churn anything out as Brian Quinnett once churned out butter on the Knicks’ bench.
Back in the day, when I covered the Major Leagues for Sports Illustrated, I would often find myself alone in some random hotel, story due in four hours, freaking the fuck out.
The words just would not come.
Could not come.
So here, in no particular order, are the things I would do to try and break free of writer’s block …
Take a run.
Take a walk.
Punch the wall.
Call a colleague.
Read the hotel Bible.
Pace around the room.
Order the world’s worst pizza.
Speak paragraphs aloud.
Google “Erik Estrada” and “Larry Wilcox.”
Google “Erik Estrada” and “Larry Wilcox” and “giant asteroid approaching earth.”
Prank call Emmanuel Lewis.2
Ponder the potential joys of unemployment.
Punch all the buttons on the nearest soda machine.
Which of the above worked? Hmm … all of them. None of them. On the one hand, I’m about to enter my 30th year of journalism, and I have yet to fail to submit a piece or miss a deadline. On the other hand, I’m not sure whether jerking off to photos of (cough) Tanya Tucker from her (cough) greatest hits box set (cough) sent me on my way to literary genius.
But here’s what I do know: Writer’s block is a thing.
Yes, there are those who, through the decades, have insisted writer’s block is pure myth; as authentic as Brian Quinnett’s butter churner. Just Google around, and you’ll find stuff like Erika Rasso’s 2016 piece, WRITER’S BLOCK DOESN’T EXIST, and the 2019 Belinda Weaver opus, WHY YOUR WRITER’S BLOCK ISN’T REAL (AND HOW TO GET UNSTUCK). You can hit up this dandy Reddit stream (Writer’s block does not exist), or just stop and peruse UNPOPULAR OPINION: WRITER’S BLOCK IS FAKE.
And, to the writers of such takes, I would like to officially say (in all caps): SHUT THE FUCK UP. SERIOUSLY, SHUT THE FUCK UP. GO AWAY. FAR AWAY. BECAUSE UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN SITTING IN SOME SEATTLE MARRIOTT, 2,500-WORD EDGAR MARTINEZ PROFILE DUE IN THREE HOURS, ONE PARAGRAPH WRITTEN AND SALIVA DROOLING DOWN YOUR CHEEK—YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT. YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT NOTHING, AND YOUR LITTLE WRITER’S-BLOCK-ISN’T-REAL TAKE IS PURE BULLSHIT. HELL, YOU WRITE A BLOG ABOUT YOUR CAT. AND NOBODY EVEN READS BLOGS THESE DAYS. OH, AND YOUR CAT IS DEAD. RAN UNDER A BUS CHASING A HUBBA BUBBA WRAPPER. SO FUCK YOU.
I say again—writer’s block is a thing. That doesn’t mean it’s a hemorrhoid-type malady that requires a physician’s attention. But the inability to create; the brain’s stubbornness when it comes to forming sentences, is 100 percent a plague that most writers face at one point or another. And it transcends genres. When I asked the rapper Money B whether he struggles with writer’s block, he replied “all the time” (then texted the cure—“I usually have a cocktail or two! 😉🍺”). Jonatha Brooke, the gifted singer/songwriter, told me she treats writer’s block by doing laundry—and she does a lot of laundry. J.A. Adande, longtime scribe and director of sports journalism at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, calls The Block “absolutely” a thing—“I would type my byline just to get something on the screen.”
“Of course I have writer’s block,” says Dr. Amy, an erotic hypnotist. “I [have to] step away until I ‘feel’ it call me.”
Perhaps the best-ever summation of writer’s block comes via a passage from the 2014 Barbara Brown Taylor novel, “Learning to Walk in the Dark.”4
Wrote Brown Taylor …
"... the words told me they could not go on much longer. Let us rest, they begged. Leave the house, go for a walk, call a friend, take a shower. We have to rest.
"There’s no time for that, I told them. We can't stop. We have to keep working. Not long after that, all the words lay down and died, lying on the page like ants in a poisoned anthill: little black bodies everywhere, their legs curled up like burnt whiskers..."
Taylor described what she submitted as "an ashcan of words smoking with despair."
Back in 2007, an anonymous writer took to the sportsjournalists.com message board with this familiar plea: “I'm working on a couple projects right now--one due tomorrow and the other due in the near future--and I'm stuck. I have all the information I'll ever need. But I can't get started. I'll start to write and I can't come up with anything. I'll write a lede and rewrite it and rewrite and rewrite. I'm just stuck and it sucks.”
The responses were plentiful:
Flash: “Lace up the sneaks and go for a run. Take a break. Come back to it with a clear mind.”
Rhouston: “My best advice would be to write as many ledes as you can, and even if they don't sound good, keep them. After you do that, walk away and do something to get your mind off of the articles. When you come back, read over all of your ledes again. One of them hopefully will trigger something. That's what works for me. But hey, all writers are different. In short, don't trash a lede if it doesn't sound good at first.”
Jgmacg: “Try writing something - anything - other than the lede. Write the middle - a couple of scenes you're sure of; or a graf of informational boilerplate; or a physical description of one of your subjects. Write the ending if you know where the piece is headed - or even if you don't. Sometimes it's hard to sort out the entirety of a piece when viewed from the very beginning. Try instead to write the component parts. Then go back and write your lede.”
Peter Champion: “Forget the wording if that’s what’s giving you trouble. First figure out what type of lede you want to write. Would an anecdotal lede work best for your story? What about a straight news lede? Something funny? Something serious? Figure out your tone first, then set it with words.”
Rpmmutant: “Go night putting. Come back after you make three putts in a row. Start typing.”
Along those lines, Sandra Roberts—my former Tennessean colleague—says that while she’s never had writer’s block, per se, she was, “frequently blocked from writing sentences that were meaningful or even sensible. So I would just write some crap, then take a little walk, drink some coffee, and return to edit it, usually from stem to stern.”
One of my friends, the novelist Julie Carrick Dalton, was working on her latest release, “The Last Beekeeper,” during the Covid lockdown. It was not fun. “I felt like my creative self was stuck in a box inside my own head,” she told me. “I couldn’t sleep, it made me feel incredibly anxious. It wasn’t lack of inspiration. I knew the story I was trying to tell. I just couldn’t tap into the emotional part of my brain to tell the story in a meaningful way. Everything I wrote felt flat.”
In such moments, we writers try and find an escape. Again—it can be jerking over old country singers. It can be Googling ‘80s stars. It can be cooking pasta, dancing to Menudo, licking ice cubes. For Julie, it was fitness. “I started kick boxing in my basement,” she said. “I let myself write in my head while I was punching and kicking a bag. No editing, just thinking. And kicking and punching. Maybe the impact jarred something loose in my head, because once I started boxing regularly, the writing came more easily. I did that the entire pandemic.”
The book, which dropped in August, is terrific.
“I now live in an apartment with no room for a bag, so I go to yoga three times a week and I swim, which seems to work just as well—although I do miss the satisfaction of kicking stuff,” Julie said. “I think all three—boxing, yoga, swimming—have rhythmic, meditative qualities which help my writer brain.”
There have been plenty of theories about writer’s block, and also plenty of potential antidotes. Jon Finkel’s three “100-percent foolproof ways to break out” include taking the dog for a long walk, lifting heavy weights while blasting ‘90s rap and doing a hard-core swim workout.
Why, in 2011, the New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear wrote a riveting profile of Barry Michels, a Hollywood-based therapist who specializes in writer’s block.
This was the lede …
The story is an engrossing ode to visualization, to positive thinking, to looking at yourself from an outer vantage. And, not being a therapist (but I am married to one!), I can’t tell people Michels’ approaches are wrong or right. If something works for Adam McKay (a Michels’ client)—wonderful.
But, truly, I believe there is one fail-safe approach that, like Brian Quinnett churning butter on the Knicks’ bench in 1991, is almost too good to be true.
“Block off a chunk of time, say 9-to-11 am, and tell yourself you’re going to write and keep writing, no matter what vile flotsam initially pours onto the page,” said Rick Jervis, the fabulous USA Today writer. “Keep writing, the good stuff eventually surfaces.”
Added Jon Wertheim, my ol’ SI chum: “I will not X until I have Y number of words … I will not get up from my seat … I will not take another swig of my Snapple… I will not check my phone.”
And, to be clear, it’s not easy. At all. I’d actually argue nothing about this job is harder than writing when you don’t feel like writing. I’ve been there 1,000 times over—you order an iced coffee, you plop down, you open up the ol’ MacBook Pro, you call up whatever document owns the day … and pfft.
So, like Jervis and Wertheim say, you just have to keep going …
Today’s substack concerns writer’s block.
I hate writer’s block. It sucks and it’s hard and it’s so incredibly frustrating.
And you keep going …
Sometimes writer’s block feels like the worst migraine ever. Your head is pounding. Your hands are shaking. You start tapping your feet—but nervously, not as if you’re listening to music. You think about the following morning; about having to tell your editor that—for the first time ever—you can’t complete the task.
And you keep going …
You’re in the darkest of holes. You don’t know how to escape. You feel as If you’ll never escape. Your days as a writer are over. You have failed. You are a loser, just like your mother used to tell you back in Monroe, Louisiana. “You’ll never be anything,” she’d say. “Look at you—born to fuck things up.”
And you keep going …
But then, magically, your fingers somehow begin to work. And those words you’ve forced onto a page—well, they’re not so bad. They make sense. Maybe they’re not quite Woodward and Bernstein, but there’s a comprehendible message behind them. You will live to write another day. You will survive.
And you keep going …
Writer’s block, dammit, is beatable.
As long as you just keep writing.
The Quaz Five with … Robert Garrett
1. Robert, you have ALS and now you've written a book about that battle. And I think a lot of people know of ALS, but don't know what it is to live WITH ALS. Best you can, how to describe?: I think there is a distinction to make between my situation and the “typical” ALS progression. The standard disease is fast moving and quickly takes away all of your muscular ability. Before you know it you are on breathing and feeding tubes and just trying to survive. You're looking at only a handful of years and many of those are really difficult. My progression has been glacially slow—which is a good and bad thing. It's good that I've had this time to watch my children grow into teenagers and stick around for 13 years while being sick. But, as my wife recently told me, this is a family disease. It takes an army of people to help me and that's the difficult part for me. I was an extremely able person throughout my life but now I'm dependent on people for everything. I'm still very lucky to be able to talk and eat normally. My doctor recently called me an outlier. In the words of renowned life caddy Carl Spackler, “So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.”
2. Why write a book about it? Why not just ... not write a book about it?: I know this is going to sound weird, but it's something I wrote about on my Substack. Part of the inspiration was from our first interview together when you asked about what it's like to live with ALS. I gave a really shitty answer.
Another source of inspiration was to be able to succinctly answer questions people have asked me for years. As I wrote in the introduction, I really was reluctant to take on this task because I knew of the trauma I had to revisit.
And of course the most important inspiration was my family. In particular, my wife of 22 years. I made a tremendous amount of missteps during this time. I wanted to tell her—as well as the world—what we went through.
Finally, many of my friends encouraged me. Not a lot of people know what ALS really is about. It took a lot of convincing to start this project. I wrote my first book as more as a warm up to wake up that part of my brain that I hadn't used in 20 years. I'm glad I approached it that way because this memoir is far better because of that.
3. I struggle with health anxiety, and there are times–just being honest-where I think, "If I had ALS, I'd want to end my life." Because it just seems so fucking hard to deal with; so hard for your loved ones, etc. But then I see people like you, and it's beyond inspiring. And I wonder: What is the mental adjustment from, "You have ALS" to where you are now?: At first it was a strong case of denial. I knew I was sick but I didn't think I had this horrible disease. But as time went on, and it became more obvious, I reconciled with myself that this was my burden to bear. I didn't know if I was brave enough. I was scared out of my mind at first. Especially during the diagnosis phase.
And as I started to lose my abilities, I focused on living more than anything. We took our kids on trips and focused on experiences for as long as we could. My boys inspired me to be brave. To keep putting one mental foot in front of the other.
And lastly, I really work hard on my attitude when it comes to my caregivers. It's so hard on everyone else around me that if I was a prick the whole time this whole exercise would be more miserable than it should be.
4. You were an excellent writer pre-diagnosis, and you still are. And I wonder—how has ALS impacted, specifically, your writing? Process? Output? Etc?: Thanks! There were a few adjustments at first. For example, I use dictation software because my fingers don't work anymore. I struggled with speaking my innermost thoughts out loud. Try it sometime instead of typing. It's weird.
I take more time in preparing myself mentally for the writing I'm going to do that day. I run through the copy in my head multiple times, massaging the phrasing and the theme. I will holler at my phone to take notes for things I really want to remember.
I took inspiration from the movie, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” It's the true story of a former magazine editor who had a massive stroke leaving him paralyzed except for one eyelid. With that condition, he sets out to write a book. I mean, shit, I had it easy.
The most difficult part is the dictation software doesn't do well with slang and my unique vocabulary. So I have to use my eyes to type on a screen keyboard sometimes.
Now, for Nerves of Steel, there were sections where I was emotional (OK, I was blubbering). Those sections forced me to wait because I couldn't talk and my eyes were blurry with tears so I couldn't land on the right letter. I would call my wife or my mother-in-law to come in and help me wipe my eyes so I could continue.
Overall, my mind has really sharpened and it helps me write more succinctly.
5. I love your first book, "Stringer: A Sportswriter's Memoir." And I wonder how you see the future of journalism? Is there any reason for optimism? At all?: Thank you again! This question saddens me. And it's a reflection of the industry as a whole. There are still a lot of good journalists out there. There are people like you that provide detailed, excellent guidance based on your experience. Part of my intention of writing Stringer was to attempt something similar. I wanted to talk about what it really meant to go and cover your community. I talked about how to specifically cover Sporting events, at least from my point of view. That's what I think we're going to miss is the people that are truly dedicated to the craft. But that's one of the biggest problems is finding the right people to read. Anyone can stand up a hot take blog. Anyone can write something to get clicks.
But you as the reader have to know where to find the “right” content. As a former sportswriter, I find The Athletic worthwhile. But mostly I just look for writers that I trust.
Bonus [rank in order--favorite to least]: Steve DeBerg, The Police, flatbread pizza, Steve Bannon, Coca-Cola, "Who's The Boss?", hangnails, Jemele Hill, fart jokes, Tua Tagovailoa, the letter 'C', Elvis: The Police (as a former drummer Stewart Copeland was a huge influence), Coca-Cola (living in Atlanta by law this has to be in the top five), flatbread pizza, Jemele Hill, Elvis, Letter C, Steve DeBerg (nice deep cut on the former Buccaneer. I would put him in the top two in the ability to play action pass fake), fart jokes (my boys will be disappointed this was low on my list), Tua, “Who’s the Boss?”, Hangnails
Ask Jeff Pearlman a fucking question(s)
Here’s a wacky idea—ask me any journalism question you like, and I’ll try and answer honestly and with the heart-of-a-champion power one can expect from a mediocre substack.
Hit me up in my Twitter DMs, or via e-mail at email@example.com or just use the comments section here …
From Dave W.: What words or phrases do you repeatedly use that might be a mainstay of your writing? One that I’ve noticed could be “in the lord’s year,” or I might be imagining. For me it’s “stint,” maybe because I wrote a lot of pr.: Oh, jeez—I have too many to count. On this substack, certainly “in the lord’s year,” but I actually love the sound of those words and willingly repeat it for my own giggles.
The biggest problem is a book, because you’re writing 120,000 words and it’s extremely hard to catch all the repeats. For me, the biggies include “hence,” “however,” “whereas” and “thus.” My wife is actually my first proofreader, and the expletives who jots down alongside those offenses is always funny.
From KayVee: With his recent death, would you consider a Bobby Knight biography?: Knight is a tremendous subject, but I’d gouge my eyes out. I just can’t stand the man. Never could. Crude, mean, racist, vile. So I’m gonna pass.
A random old article worth revisiting …
On Nov. 23, 1967, this amazing piece appeared in the Asheville (N.C.) Times …
The Madness of Tyler Kepner’s Grid …
So unless you’ve been living beneath a pebble beneath a rock beneath a big hunk of cheese, you’re aware of Immaculate Grid, the daily game that’s drawn thousands of nerdy sports fans (guilty!) to its ranks. And while the NBA grid, NFL grid, NHL grid and WNBA grid are all fun, this game is at its best when it comes to baseball—where the names are endless and the transactions ceaseless.
Over the past few weeks I’ve often discussed the grid with Tyler Kepner, the Athletic baseball writer. And now, for kicks, every week I’m gonna feature one of Tyler’s bonkers grid results. He’s the ultimate baseball geek (I say this with great affection), and his outputs blow my mind.
• The Rockies are always tough, so I’ll often rely on guys I covered as a beat writer: like Agbayani (Mets), Henry (Mariners) and Greene (Angels). As a beat writer, you get to know the history of the players you cover, so keeping track of their teams comes pretty easily.
• In the Nationals’ row, I always go Expos. With Stenhouse, I remember him as an Expo, and while I have no memory of watching him playing for Boston, he was there briefly in their famous 1986 season, so he shows up on that roster. Scanlan is a Padres broadcaster and I spoke with him for a story this year and remembered that he finished with Montreal. I knew he played for Houston because I filled out an Astros SIM roster with him once. Breining can be explained by this glorious card, taken at Candlestick Park and not at all airbrushed …
• I always liked Lollar ever since I was little and he was pitching for the Padres and gave up, as I recall it, back to back upper deck homers at the Vet — and smiled about it on the mound. Never met him but seemed like a good guy. I know the Padres traded him to the White Sox in the Ozzie Guillen/LaMarr Hoyt deal, and he was on the 1986 Red Sox World Series roster. Juan Agosto pitched for both those teams for a while, but mainly I remember having a conversation with Rene Lachemann once and he was trying to remember his name: “you know the guy, shitball lefty…” So of course how could I forget that? And the last guy is Dennis Cook, who I covered with the Mets and rooted for as a Phillies fan in 1989-90. So there you have it.
This week’s college writer you should follow on Xitter …
Abby Jenkins, Ohio University
Jenkins, assistant culture editor for The Post, wrote this really lovely column about her 20th birthday—and aging, and growing, and what it means and represents.
One can follow Jenkins of Xitter here.
Journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: Really depressing piece from the New York Times’ Graham Bowley—TOP GERMAN JOURNALIST RECEIVED PAYMENTS FROM PUTIN ALLY, LEAK REVEALS. According to the story, “broadcaster, Hubert Seipel, had been paid about 600,000 euros (about $651,000) in installments from accounts connected to Alexei A. Mordashov, a prominent Russian businessman.” And it’s just so pathetic. It’s why, most of the time, I root for the asteroid.
Musing 2: As a kid who loved, loved, loved The National, this is insanely cool.
Musing 3: The Washington Post’s Ruby Cramer is a superstar, and her latest offering—THE LIBRARIAN WHO COULDN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE—is absolute gold. Writes Cramer: “It was her last Monday morning in the library, and when Tania Galiñanes walked into her office and saw another box, she told herself that this would be the last one. Inside were books. She didn’t know how many, or what they were, only that she would need to review each one by hand for age-appropriate material and sexual content as defined by Florida law, just as she’d been doing for months now with the 11,600 books on the shelves outside her door at Tohopekaliga High School. Last box, and then after this week, she would no longer be a librarian at all.”
Musing 4: I’m not a big Drake guy, but J. Cole can do no wrong. He’s the best rapper out there, and has been for a while. “First Person Shooter,” the new output from the two, is buttery butter.
Musing 5: Interesting Politico story from Ally Mutnick on Kari Lake’s efforts at image rehabilitation as she runs for a United States Senate seat. Writes Mutnick: “It’s a sharp pivot after a brutal midterm in which Lake bragged after her primary win that she ‘drove a stake through the heart of the McCain machine,’ told an opponent he was ‘okay with special needs kids being’ sexually assaulted and tweeted that Robson was ‘trying to buy the election with her 95-yr-old husband’s millions.’
“Lake’s bid to make nice could pay off if it at all weakens Sinema’s appeal with the more moderate wing of the Republican Party. Sinema has not decided whether she will run but she has strong relationships with centrist Republicans in the state, particularly those in the mold of the late Sen. John McCain. ‘Kari Lake is willing to reach out and talk to anyone who wants to help unite the party so that Republicans can win Arizona back,’ said Garrett Ventry, a senior adviser to Lake.”
Musing 6: Lord, this is grim.
Musing 7: Charissa Thompson admitting—without shame or regret—that she sometimes made shit up as a sideline reporter is more than a bit troubling. To be honest, it’s a fireable offense, and I’d be sorta surprised if Fox Sports doesn’t at least suspend her. You can surrender certain things in this biz—but you cannot (ever) surrender trust. And I’m not sure I’d ever trust Thompson again.
More important, this shit drags down the (I presume) 99 percent of people who bring honor and professionalism to the gig. Laura Okmin’s furor over Thompson’s behavior is beyond justified. So is Andrea Kremer’s. And Lisa Salters’.
Musing 8: If you’re looking to be wildly entertained, the new Milli Vanilla doc on Paramount Plus is absolute gold. What surprised me most is you walk away with tremendous sympathy for Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the two non-singer singers.
Musing 9: The SI.com website really depresses me. So much gossip, goop, nonsense. As an alum of the mag, this shit hurts my head.
Musing 10: I loved hearing this from Ed Cooley, Georgetown’s new men’s basketball coach. In this age of thin-skinned sports wimps, it’s refreshing to come across a coach who demands tough, probing questions from reporters. Bravo.
Musing 11: The new Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Jeff Bradley, former ESPN The Magazine baseball scribe-turned-baseball glove guru.
Quote of the week …
There’s a reason I list this first.
The late Sylvia Slaughter, my former Tennessean colleague, randomly gave me his number.
There’s a reason I list this twice.
Props to my former editor and forever pal, Catherine Mayhew, for alerting me to this gem.