Subject: An Awful Day at the Philadelphia Writers Block Society
It has been an arduous journey writing the first draft of my Great American Novel. Every morning, I sit in front of my typewriter, the same model F Scott Fitzgerald used, and confront the page. Next to me sits the most trusted edition of Merriam-Webster. When the words to write don’t come, I scan the collected works of Fitzgerald, and a few volumes of Hemingway and Richard Yates.
Most days, to warm up, I complete the day's Wordle, despite five-letter words not being useful for the type of writing I aspire to.
The great writers in history lit a cigarette in the morning. In 2023, I prepare a cup of hand dripped Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.
My story begins one morning when Jennifer, perhaps seeing the blank page in my typewriter, became increasingly insistent that I put my boots on the ground (as she described it) and venture out to meet other members of Philadelphia's writing community.
"I'm working two jobs so you can take a year off to pursue your goal of becoming a writer," she said. "You can at least receive some input from the person who pays the rent."
"But I can't allow myself to be distracted," I say. When her facial expresson reached a level of exasperation I had not seen, I relented. "I'll look into it."
To placate the sole supporter of my writing endeavour, I began to meticulously investigate writing groups in the area. None seemed appropriate. Jennifer nudged me toward attending the 'Philadelphia Self Publishing Meetup'.
Reading their member bios, it became clear I would not want to associate with a group of delusional young people dreaming of writing the next Hunger Games or Twilight. If I spent time with them, I might also pursue writing fiction with easily relatable protagonists and page turning tension.
In the following weeks, I began to focus my time on researching the themes I wanted to cover in my novel. Mostly to document the travails of our society and times. One morning, as I was engrossed in reading of the impacts of budget cuts at West Virginia University to our national education system, Jennifer walked in and placed a print-out on my desk. It was about a conference this Saturday by a group called The Writers Block Society of Philadelphia.
The explanation of how insulting this was formulated in my mind but Jennifer had already left the room, closed the door, and sounding as if she was heading out of the apartment.
I returned to reading about the travesty of the WVU budget cuts. This could lead me to the opening chapter of my Great American Novel.
Later that afternoon, Jennifer has still not returned home, I took another look at the Writing Block Society’s seminar info. I could kill two birds with one stone. (You taught me to never use a tired cliché such as this in print.) I could please Jennifer and also wade in a pool of schadenfreude watching beginner writers struggle. I decided to attend.
On Saturday morning, I slung a messenger bag over my shoulder, one which held my Pilot 823 fountain pen and a new moleskine I had bought for the event. Twenty minutes of cycling later, I arrived at the seminar location, a coworking space on 12th Street.
My first impression of the other visitors was that they didn’t look like me. Nor did they look like serious writers, not at all.
An attractive woman smiled and said it was nice to meet me, and sat in the seat next to me. I wondered if she was trying to sell something. On my other side, a slightly anxious man sat and busied himself with his laptop.
At 10am, the forty people there began writing. Or, not writing, as the moniker of the club suggests.
I stared at the page whilst I thought of the important topics in the world. Climate change, race relations, the disadvantaged, or, thinking of classical fiction: romance, a character’s journey to an enlightened state of being, moments of world history.
In the corner of my eye, laptop man kept choosing different fonts for the sentence he had typed. The overtly friendly woman next to me drew intricate sketches of fantasy creatures.
A bell chimed. It was 11 am. An hour had passed.
In the awkward silence, there was a scattering of chit-chat. I snuck furtive glances at the notebooks and laptops of other attendees. They mostly appeared as blank as mine, thankfully.
“What font do you use?” the man next to me asked.
I blinked, not knowing how to reply.
“Oh…” he said. His face burned red. “Notebooks don’t have fonts.”
The awkwardness was interrupted when a speaker took the stage. She introduced herself as Ellen and said she would give a ten minute talk on mindfulness as a cure for writer’s block.
Empty your mind of thoughts, she said. Recharge your vitality for writing by focusing on the breath. Let’s begin.
We spent the next 9 minutes in silence. The bell chimed. The beginning of the next fifty minute block of writing. Suffice to say, during the nine minutes of not thinking of anything, no new idea for writing arrived.
I thought about fonts. Why don’t paper notebooks have fonts? And should we do something about that?
In the hushed silence, the roadwork noise from outside became a steady companion. In the cacophony of jack hammers and rumbling engines. I couldn’t possibly think great thoughts. So I surrendered and decided to simply observe the others, at least until the next speaker took the stage.
They didn’t look like writers. The top bun hairstyles. The nose rings. What were they trying to prove? Everyone was fidgeting. It was the visual equivalent of the noise outside. I returned to staring at my blank page, and trying to recall the great words of Fitzgerald.
At noon, the chime sounded, and the next speaker jumped to the stage. An excited looking young girl, who appeared to be about 12 years old, grinned as she pranced around.
“As you can see, I’m a child, I haven't had any experiences. I haven’t had a job, a boyfriend….or a girlfriend.” She winked theatrically. “I have nothing to write about!”
She paused, holding a smile almost as if she was frozen, before she continued.
“But when I stare at the blank page, and then put down the first word that comes to my mind, the next word follows…and soon there’s a whole page of words where previously there was nothing. I have created something from nothing.”
“If I can do it, you can too!”
She rushed off the stage. The crowd clapped politely while looking back and forth between her and her parents, perhaps saluting their early rearing of a TED speaker.
We returned to staring at our blank pages. I had invested two hours and didn’t have much to lose. That is, except for the condition of my new leather notebook. I put the fountain pen down and took a pencil out of my bag. I very lightly wrote a word down.
This was progress!
Now, following the speaker’s advice, I had to decide which word comes next, I considered the various options:
Nothing worked. I had chosen the wrong first word. I erased it, being careful to leave no trace of its existence.
Life experiences. I did have more than her. I went over mine: high school, the lacrosse team, AP classes, scholarships, attendance at the Iowa Writers Workshop. No one would care to read about those. These are not the important issues in the world.
The bell chimed.
A middle-aged man in a sports jacket took the podium. He dressed like a commercially successful writer, or as someone who pretended to be one in online writing courses.
“Who has difficulty in finding words to write on the page?” he asked.
A few hands rose up. Most turned their gaze down.
“When you sit down to write, be as honest as you can and the words will flow. Write what you know. Write what you believe in. Do it now.”
He shuffles off the stage, and I see other people begin to write.
What do I believe in? I believe in the writing of F Scott Fitzgerald. I think about what he would write. The words begin to flow.
“My predilection for epigrams, I believe, has shown I’ve always had a heightened sensitivity to the intricate quivering facets of the human heart.”
With this excellent first sentence down on the page,I take a break and think of which next sentence could follow this.
While I'm still thinking, the bell chimes.
It’s over. One of the most painful experiences of my life. I did write the first line of my novel. It’s in pencil, so luckily I haven’t committed to it yet.
The four hours was such an awful experience, I immediately went to the coffee shop across the street to write down the preposterousness of it all before I forgot the details.
I’m never attending a meeting of the Philadelphia Writers Block Society again. I could have spent a full day at home writing by myself.
When I returned home, Jennifer grabbed the leather notebook out of my bag before I could stop her and opened it.
She smiled. Her eyebrows furrowed, her pupils darting back and forth, analyzing my prose. “This is great,” she exclaimed. “The first thing you've written in months!”
I had been opposed to attending the Writers Block seminar. But thanks to Jennifer’s encouragement, I realized, if I do attend, I will be able to write at a minimum one sentence of the Greatest American Novel each month.
Your student at the Iowa Writers Workshop (2017)
Subject: Re: An Awful Day at the Philadelphia Writers Block Society
I was deeply moved by the update on your writing journey, and by your appreciation of many of the great authors of American literature, many of which I may have discussed in my lectures. I encourage you to immerse yourself in your life with Jennifer, and with the trends of your generation. And your email was 1,651 words, that's more than I ever saw you write in Iowa. You are making progress, keep up the good work!
Subject: Re: Re: An Awful Day at the Philadelphia Writers Block Society
I know you're busy, so I haven't sent you an update since last year.
My first short story was published in Harper’s magazine, "Unblocked in Philadelphia". It might not be F Scott Fitzgerald, but it's a start.