The Writer's Ledge
By: Ellen C. Caldwell

I am a writer who suffers from writer's block. Not always – in fact, often I can write about everything and anything. But I have found that the more important something is to me, the more my writer's block kicks in. Whether it is because it’s a special passion project, or because I am writing for a publication I love (or both which is even more daunting), it is a correlative relationship – the more I care, the greater the writer's block.

Let me be clear: "block" doesn't actually summarize my scenario. It's not a block like a blank screen or boulder that stands in my path, or anything like that. It's more like a writer's cliff. I am either at the top or the bottom of this steep precipice and I need to take a jump or just start hiking, sometimes painfully slowly at a dramatic incline. One option might sound easier than the other, but I have found that neither of them is.

Two of my more recent experiences with this were in writing a museum catalogue essay for artist Frohawk Two Feathers and in writing a piece about the preservation efforts behind the Watts Towers. Both topics are near and dear to me, as were both publication opportunities, so they were double-doozies (perhaps we can envision me bound at the top or bottom of the cliff in these scenarios in order to demonstrate the dual challenges of these cases).  

In both situations, I persevered after spending a handful of time avoiding the topic and procrastinating. After this, I was able to jump, dive, and fall into the work. Along the way, though, there were points when I felt like I wasn't going to be able to move forward with either project. Part of this is fear: that eternal fear that we maybe can't really do what we have set out to do. Overcoming this fear has become easier for me, the older I have gotten and the more I have written. Now that I have proven myself before, it’s easier for me to quiet those vengeful little fear mongrels that live in our heads and sometimes hearts.

Besides fear, though, I am not quite sure what else stops me. Some of it is laziness. It sounds so much easier to sip coffee in bed, watching an endless TV series on Netflix (yes, this is quite often my favorite and deserved Saturday morning activity). Some of it is that it’s hard for me to grasp and articulate the reach I want my writing to have. Yeah, that sounds strange. But it is hard, when you have big goals and lofty dreams for a piece (whether a short review, essay, or larger book project), to plan out the project in its entirety, to picture the end product in all of its glory, and to instill the piece with your hopes – that it will be informative, smart, humorous, and will even possibly make a reader think differently. Part of this jump or this hike (depending on which direction you need to repel or traverse the cliff at hand) is like a birthing process. I have to envision the life of the piece. What do I want for it? What will it be comprised of (research, interviews, oral history, etc.)? Who do I want to read it? Where do I want it to live? There are all of these questions and then all of these hopes with which I must imbue the little writing seedling.

My most recent and seemingly insurmountable writer's block has been overwhelming and slightly crippling. I was lucky enough to spend a month in Bali as a writing resident at the Yayasan Bali Purnati Center for the Arts. It was sponsored by Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs and I was granted money and time to spend in Bali meeting and interviewing contemporary artists. Simply and succinctly put, this time was precious, magical, and amazing. Upon returning home from this idyllic and altering experience, I hit such bad cases of "reverse culture" shock, jet lag, and writer's block that I felt (and still slightly feel) paralyzed.

The day after arriving back in LA, I was waiting to cross the street in my parents' small suburban town, only I was momentarily too nervous to cross – a laughable thought compared to the moped-filled roads I was maneuvering in Bali just two days prior. I was nervous about looking the right way though, about all of the huge SUV road hogs, and about this tingling, nagging feeling that something just didn't quite feel like home.

As a breeze picked up, I was also caught off guard by the feeling of being cold…not that it was even so cold, but the slight chill felt both refreshing and disconcerting after not wearing jeans for a month. And as the wind blew through and around me, I started to feel the swelling, warm itchiness of mosquito bites on my legs and arms – ones which I had no recollection of actually getting or noticing in Bali, but nonetheless ones that I must have brought back as silent trip presents, only to be activated upon my return.

I ate meals with friends and family as a zombie… or maybe not quite a zombie because I was interested and engaged and happy to be home, but I also felt removed and distant, as if I were watching myself have these conversations. I could not fully immerse myself back into my own body. Truly, I think we leave a part of ourselves in our travels.  And it's like the speed of our air travel discombobulates us and keeps us from remaining whole on our journeys home. This is how traveling abroad has always been for me—the reverse culture shock far greater than any initial culture shock, the jet lag always far greater upon the return, and the rebuilding process far more tedious, slow, and painful than I remembered.

Stepping outside of yourself is easy to do. Or easier at least (see my companion arrival essay Homecoming). Coming back in, cramming back in, and squeezing yourself back into the mold of the life you left behind is not.  This sounds dramatic, but I notice it after short and long trips.  After a particularly fun Hawaiian holiday with friends years ago, my wise friend Tory reminded me that any job, no matter how much you love or hate it, is hell to go back to after a fun vacation… And this certainly remains true. But what about returning to a job, life, apartment, and country that all feel just slightly off?

Besides my re-acclamation difficulties, I have about 200 gigabytes of material to process, organize, and tap for writing. That includes thousands of photos and hours upon hours of interview video footage that I will need to transcribe. I also have a desk full of books and brochures to read, along with piles of articles and websites to sift through to inform my research. This alone feels like a lot to get through physically. Naturally, I spent the past two weekends palling around with my old friend Procrastination, watching Veronica Mars, baking fabulous naan from scratch, simmering day-long marinara sauce, finding fresh coconut water, cleaning my apartment, and visiting with friends. I also spent a lot of time sitting in front of the computer, looking at the screen. 

My writer's block isn't a black block though. I don't just stare blankly at the screen. I am a maniac and I do a ton all at once—respond to emails that have been piling up, import photos off of various devices, make playlists to send out to friends, write new art reviews of gallery shows I already squeezed in during my handful of days back home. And amidst doing all of this, I began to organize my footage, which was my first step in my journey off the ledge and into my writing. This took about two weekends, interrupted of course by my other procrastination techniques.

My very favorite procrastination tool is something random, self-serving, silly, and slightly secret: selfies. Yep, selfies. Specifically, PhotoBooth selfies on my desktop. For the past four years, I have been taking selfies when I am at the writer's ledge. Sometimes I send them to friends I’m chatting with, sometimes they are just for me, but somehow they always help. There is something I love about capturing my mood at these strange tumultuous times. Sometimes I am playful, other times I am distraught, and other times, I am quite simply looking rough. 

These selfies date back to March of 2010, making this a four-year practice, which feels divined in its own right—as if the world somehow knew that I should stop to designate this moment right now as a time for me to write and reflect upon them. In the four years worth of photos I analyzed (and compiled below), I realized and noticed a few things:

  • My hair has changed a lot. I go through an every-two-year grow-and-donate cycle with my hair. The photos made this very visibly apparent and interesting to see.
  • I love a good bandana.
  • Dancing selfies don’t work very well.
  • I love being an aunt. (That one’s a given, but I need to say it when I see it.)
  • Often these photos seem to show that I am on the verge of wackiness—I have what my friend has deemed the "NG" or "naughty glimmer" in my eye and I look like I am both motivated and slightly punchy, simultaneously.
  • These magic and strange times I have captured are often visions of my doors opening to creativity and productivity. This is me on the cusp. You can see it – even when I look exhausted or defeated, there is motivation in my smile and a knowing in my eyes. I have succumbed to the computer, to my day of typing, writing, and researching, and that is me climbing or falling.


Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.