The question writers are most often asked is where their ideas come from. Some writers cultivate a witty response, the best of which would satisfy even Oscar Wilde. Other writers opt for sincerity and admit that there is no pattern to it, that the idea machine works around the clock in the subconscious and can surface to consciousness by random thoughts or sensory stimuli or remembering a dream or …. Often, it’s all a mystery.
Another question that is often asked writers is the opposite of where ideas come from. It’s this: what do you do when you’re stuck, usually called writer’s block. Why does it happen? How do you get unstuck? Whether I’m writing a screenplay or a novel – even a short story – I sometimes get stuck. Usually, the sticking point involves the structure of the story. Every writer has different ways of coping with being stuck. For me, to continue banging away at my computer has as much value as banging my head against a wall. I’ve actually never done this, but you get the idea.
Sometimes I take a walk, go grocery shopping, cook, clean house, or hit the gym, but what works best for me is ironing. Remember ironing? Like cursive writing or doing math in your head or the art of conversation, ironing has all but disappeared (I’m told). My housemate can go a year without ironing a single item. I should add that we live in a small town in Maine where you cannot drop off laundry on Tuesday and pick everything up on Friday, shirts and blouses pressed and folded or on hangers, and so on. There is no laundry service. I, on the other hand, still iron shirts and some pants (rarely). But the prompt to set up the ironing board and fill the steam iron sometimes has less to do with laundry than it does with writing.
When I’m stuck, nothing is more helpful than dragging out a pile of wrinkled shirts and losing myself in the task of creating a crisp, wrinkle-free, warm shirt.
My maternal grandparents were poor, even by Ozark, small town standards. My grandmother had no education and never worked in a factory, an office, or a store. To earn money, Grandma took in laundry. I was about 8-years-old when she taught me to iron. We ironed everything: sheets, pillowcases, pants, shirts, blouses, dresses, even underwear. Since that period, the 1950s, I’ve had years to practice ironing, for myself and sometimes for the women in my life. In one short story I recall writing a line that said, “There are two kinds of people: those who iron their jeans and those who don’t.” Well, I stopped ironing jeans about 1980 when I stopped buying designer jeans, but I like the line of dialogue.
Over time, ironing has become a form of meditation for me, a way of quieting run-on-thoughts, a time of resting the conscious mind, a time of letting the mind drift. The tricky yoke, the sleeves with pleats near the cuff, the collar – the iron moving over the shirt is like raking gravel in a Zen garden. Well, okay! I remember ironing a girlfriend’s pleated skirt a few times. That was a form of torture. But, in general, when I’m stumped, throttled, lost, and my ideas are as dry as a California well, one-way forward is to practice the Zen of ironing while I free my subconscious to ponder –
And then what happens?