I came down with a nasty case of writer’s block this week. It may very well have something to do with the fact that I spent last week spread-eagle, margarita in hand, on a beach in sunny Puerto Vallarta, only to return home to Toronto’s wet blanket of damp greyness and a sun that sets before the end of my workday.
This week I’ve been sitting here staring at an empty Word document and my creative energy is as flat and blank as the screen in front of me. During times like these, I look back through some of my old writing in desperation for ideas. There are times when my old writing makes me cringe (Did I really think that?!), other times it makes me smile, and even other times I wonder what the hell I was on about.
The Semi-Colon Abuser of Writing School
I was once criticized by a fellow creative writing student I sat across from in writing school of being guilty of, what he called, “semi-colon abuse.” He had a point, I think – I’d just read Jane Eyre and had fallen in love with writing that flowed continuously like water, as Charlotte Brontë’s does. She accomplishes this with long, graceful prose joined together using all manner of punctuation, from semi-colons, to commas, to more semi-colons, to colons, to dashes, to clauses folded neatly into parentheses.
Her periods were used only when necessary, acting almost as an interruption to writing that wanted to flow unimpeded.
One early morning in my 20s (or late night?), after being assigned James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room in an English class, I rolled over – unable to sleep – and plucked the book from the foot of my bed with a sigh of resignation. Within a few pages, to my surprise, I found myself captivated by the story of a young man who’d ventured off from America to France on an identity quest, narrated through Baldwin’s beautiful writing and use of language – which resembled Brontë’s in its flow, albeit with a more modern flavour. Five hours later, as the sun was coming up, I turned over the last page.
I had read the book all the way through.
While Giovanni and his metaphorical room moved me a great deal ten years ago, I wonder if it would have the same effect on me now. It was a very dark, grey story, kind of like Toronto weather at the moment. Also, the gay guy gets hanged at the end – a motif I’ve had enough of in queer narrative at this stage in my life (been there, done that, got Jake Gyllenhaal’s plaid shirt hanging in my closet).
Leaping Feet First into the Em Dash
After I recovered from my misguided phases as abusive semi-colon user and sturm und drang 20-something, I began to take things less seriously and my writing reflected that – especially my newfound favourite punctuation: the whimsical em dash. So free, so unrestricted, the em dash signals a beautifully confident switch in the sentence—mirroring the movement of our thoughts as they jump from one stone to the next.
You can see my infatuation with writing using the em dash in this excerpt from a short story I wrote in the 1st person called Bleach, about a tall, thin young man who works at a waterslide park, and lives beside an old lady named Wolfdog who sells pot. Here he is meeting a new doctor for the first time because of chronic stomach pain he’s experiencing, caused by his compulsion to over-eat, of all things, grapefruit:
My new GP’s name is Dr. Sandals. He is a tall man (shorter than me), lanky, shaved head—he has a wonderful way of putting things. Like when my insides were wringing themselves out like a washcloth full of broken glass—Sandals tested everything. He had a reality TV camera down my throat—had me drink a nuclear margarita—analyzed my poo analyzed my pee. But like I mentioned he has a great way of phrasing things. He said that my “intestines are like over-bleached whites.” He said it’s because I eat too much grapefruit—which is true—it’s my absolute favourite meal.
Zadie Smith Doesn’t Like Similes
My writing, as you may have noticed, is filled full with similes (i.e., a comparison using like or as) – I confess I love them and I’m not ready to grow out of it just yet. During a recent interview on CBC Radio’s Writers and Company, author Zadie Smith proudly admitted, with a dry, English chuckle, that she no longer cared whether one thing was like another in her writing. I chuckled, too, because I knew what she meant, but I also frowned inside, wondering if my writing continues to evolve – as I’m sure Zadie’s does.
In the previous Bleach excerpt I count two similes, and in the following excerpt from the same story, I count four (along with a river of em dashes):
I work at a water park along the lightly populated, northern edges of the city—where the city begins to separate into threads like too-long jeans. I enjoy being around water when it is contained in man-made shapes. We have a wave pool and a lazy river, which I have renamed the crazy river for its twisted, unending, narrative presence over the park; we have water slides, fast or slow. I work at the locker key checkout. They leave a $5 deposit and get a key to a locker for the day. It’s kind of an out-dated system what with automated everything that’s available. But the water park—it’s called Cindy Jo’s Water Go—can’t afford to upgrade.
Wolfdog came up once on a cloudy day. She brought some of the men that buzz around her like bottle flies. I remember how out-dated their bathing suits were. The staff were given free passes for a Friends and Family day—I traded the passes with Wolf for a pea-sized bud all coiled in on itself like a black hole. And as potent. I mixed it half and half with tobacco.
I watched Wolf from my locker key booth over by the wave pool—she sat out on her rusted patio lounge like an old iguana that lost her tail. The men collected around her—they were of varying ages and experience. Wolf handed one of the men, a short man wearing a burgundy Speedo, some money and he walked off. He returned with a tray of neon green margaritas.
While I still enjoy a good simile, my writing has since stepped away from the em dash to its quieter, less extroverted cousin: the en dash. The en dash (not to be confused with a hyphen) is a safer, more mature leap for a sentence to make in writing (visually, at least), and I don’t know how Bleach’s story would change if I search-and-replace all the em dashes with en dashes. He would no longer leap and bound as I imagined he would.
Misplaced by Metaphor
It occurs to me now that I never fully realized the young man with the over-bleached insides; I didn’t know what he wanted or where he was heading. It’s entirely possible he got lost in my writing along the way, especially given my over-use of the direction-shifting em dash, alongside some seriously disconnected similes.
Bleach ends by melting away metaphorically, which leaves you hanging. The protagonist ends up getting locked in the water park overnight, after he’d stuck around floating in the lazy river looking for lost locker keys at the end of his shift.
I was at the opposite end of the park when they flicked the lights and locked the gate. But I didn’t panic. I let it happen, floating in the chlorine dark of the river.
Talk about surreal. Talk about time being liquid nitrogen frozen when you’re alone at night in a water park, like a bad movie paused until the morning. I climbed up from the crazy river with my lime green suit splatting against the cement. The moon was covered over entirely—it was tar dark. Light occasionally cut through the tar like a knife blade, reflecting strange Jurassic shapes all around me. The water slides were brontosauri paused at a watering hole. The wave pool was a cave of water—a broad, yawning abyss. What creature lives in there? I made my way to the patio chairs—very carefully. I confess I have a watertight case just big enough for a nail and a Bic Lighter—I used the flame to find my way.
I found a patio chair—indeed it was the same rusty one Wolfdog had used. I displayed myself like her and sparked my nail—imagine what it would look like from overhead, this tiny spark among a wilderness of dark. Are there gnats swarming around me? Do the brontosauri collect heavily around me, just beyond the edge of the spark’s glow? I want to say that I took it all in—but I don’t know what that would entail.
It’s more that it took me all in, as an ice cube melting into water.
There’s no need to create a simile for what it’s like to sip a margarita on a beach in a sunny, warm place, but there is an ideal punctuation that fits perfectly with it. It’s a bit of punctuation we use to signal in our writing that something has been removed or displaced – and in the case of a vacation it’s you who has been displaced from your day-to-day and replaced by three little dots…
…also known as an ellipsis: the melting ice cube of punctuations.