By Tim Hayes
Anyone who writes for a living has been there.
You’ve done the interviews, you’ve collected the information through research, the “reporting” part of the job has finished. Now comes the second act. Reading through all those notes and printouts and scribbles on one side of your desk, and glancing hesitantly at the blank computer screen on the other side.
And it’s up to you to turn that pile of random thoughts into a cohesive, smooth, elegant, readable, actionable piece of writing.
Sometimes – most times, actually, I’ve found – the transition from a 12-car pileup of notes into a streamlined article or report comes quickly, easily, naturally. But when it goes the other way? When the flow of ideas dries up, with no forwarding address? It can make for some interesting times at the keyboard, let me tell you.
But don’t take my word for it. Just ask the band Chicago. One of their all-time greatest hits tells the story of a songwriter who struggles most of the night with a terrible, crampy case of writer’s block. The song title that resulted, “25 or 6 to 4,” actually refers to a clock in the room where he wrestled with his creative constipation. The time was either 3:34 or 3:35 a.m. – or, put another way, twenty-five or (twenty)-6 to 4 (a.m.).
Waiting for the break of day / Searching for something to say / Flashing lights against the sky / Giving up I close my eyes / Sitting cross-legged on the floor / 25 or 6 to 4
When the muses cease singing their siren song to a creative person, one can feel lost. Frustrated. Angry. Disgusted with oneself and the inexplicable shut-down of talent, motivation, and results.
Why do you think places like Pixar and Disney have ping-pong tables and basketball courts and beautifully landscaped outdoor parks for walking and relaxation? Because brilliance doesn’t work like a spigot or a radio. There’s no automatic ON or OFF button. Inspiration arrives on its own schedule. Its own agenda. You can’t snap your fingers and make it appear in its sparkly, stunning glory. You gotta give it room, time, the freedom to pop back into focus.
Staring blindly into space / Getting up to splash my face / Wanting just to stay awake / Wondering how much I can take / Should I try to do some more / 25 or 6 to 4
I feel your pain, Brother.
“Getting up to splash my face.” Done that, hoping that a cold slap across the kisser would shake loose some great idea. Mixed results, at best.
“Should I try to do some more?” The real question, isn’t it? Can you push yourself, will yourself, into a higher plane of thought? Maybe, but nothing’s guaranteed.
“Staring blindly into space.” Although this song was written in 1970, somehow it deftly and with incredible prescience and accuracy described the hours upon hours wasted, gaping, zombie-like, at the Internet and its bottomless trough of worthlessly entertaining garbage. The modern writer’s shame-filled escape hatch.
Feeling like I ought to sleep / Spinning room is sinking deep / Searching for something to say / Waiting for the break of day / 25 or 6 to 4
Some people insist that “25 or 6 to 4” describes some drug-filled, LSD-addled trip, with the numbers detailing how to blend heroin with other substances. I ain’t buying it. I think it’s funny and a little sad how anything that came out of the ‘70s gets tagged with some connection to the drug culture.
No, I’m choosing to go with the theory that this song – which became one of Chicago’s most popular and enduring hits – actually resulted from a long, dark, lonely, frustrating night when a guy with a guitar couldn’t think of anything to sing about – so he just sang about his frustrating night, and in the process created a classic.
Searching for something to say? I’d say he found it. So keep on plugging, creative people. Take a hammer to that writer’s block. Make art from what you know, what you experience, even when it’s driving you nuts. You never know when lightning may strike.
That’s what makes the creative life so maddening. And so fabulous.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes