Erika’s Big Think #4: Dismantling Writer’s Block with Friends

By Erika Grumet

My younger kid has always been a big fan of Snoopy. When she was six months old, my sister gave her a stuffed Snoopy puppet, who became known as Puppy, and became her lovie. Puppy is Real to us, just like the Velveteen Rabbit is Real to his boy. Asking Puppy to help do things was sometimes the best way to get her to do things, seeing her try to teach Puppy things we’d been trying to get her to do told us about her readiness to do them. And when she was four, we were driving through North Carolina and we were hungry, so when we saw signs for a diner in Dunn, North Carolina, we decided to pull off and have lunch. As we exited the highway and crossed the overpass, suddenly, ahead of us, in front of the diner, perched atop a red “dog house” was a giant Snoopy. 

When Snoopy appeared, a wave of excitement overtook the car. It didn’t come only from the Snoopy fan; everyone in the car was excited, some of us at the sight of a giant Snoopy and some at seeing the children’s excitement. There were shrieks and squeaks, and everyone was talking to Puppy about how exciting it would be to see a giant Puppy in the wild and how we would take pictures of them together. I couldn’t do anything but love that moment of pure joy radiating from my four year old. I did not expect to see a giant Snoopy at the side of a road in North Carolina, and I have been equally surprised by what has happened to me with the Ivory Tower Boiler Room.

The Ivory Tower Boiler Room rose up suddenly and unexpectedly in my life, and I have definitely expressed emotions related to it with what I hope are well-tempered shrieks and squeaks. Both experiences brought tremendous joy, but the giant Snoopy did not also bring moments of the same fear that things in the Ivory Tower have. And while I can compare this photo with a similar one taken a few years later and see the child’s growth, there’s no metric like that for comparing what’s changed for me since I found my way into the Ivory Tower Boiler Room. The things I’ve done, the risks I’ve taken, the ways I’ve grown, the new vision I have, it’s all part of what the Ivory Tower Boiler Room has been a part of for me.

A year ago, while Adam and Andrew were getting the podcast going, I was, as we all were,  coping with the collective grief and PTSD of COVID. I was also dealing with all of my new diagnoses and learning to manage life as a disabled person, which for me, means a lot of time spent on what is, essentially, bed rest, in order to keep my feet up to manage symptoms of lymphedema. Everything was frightening and unsettled, everything was chaotic. I craved something stable and consistent when nothing in life felt that way. I’ve told the story before, about how I was looking for something that would give me stability, within the limitations I had (time, finances and of course COVID,) and I’ve talked about how I stopped writing so many years ago. The universe works in mysterious ways though, and for some reason, I decided to take a class on writing feminist midrash–a class would give me a place to be at a set time, and would give me work to do in between that I had to plan for. But writing? I’d given that up. And then I connected with Adam in a summer camp alumni group, and he convinced a rather hesitant me to check out a writing group one day… and I kept coming back, over and over and over again. And then, later on, came the opportunity to collaborate on the mental health episodes, and it eventually grew into where we are now, with a future only constrained by our imaginations and the risks we are willing to take–risks which I am more willing to take because I have the support of of my Ivory Tower team. A year ago I was struggling to put pen to paper, to put words to page. Nine months after I first entered the Boiler Room and I’ve taken a poetry workshop with one of my favorite contemporary poets, I’ve read work at an open mic night, I’m looking at submitting things for publication, and someone asked me if I’d thought about writing a book–someone who is himself a published author. I hadn’t thought about writing a book, but the idea isn’t completely unimaginable either–at least, not anymore, it isn’t. Sometimes I’ll look back at something I’ve written and ask:  “Wait who wrote that?  A writer wrote that; I didn’t”:  

I am sitting here in this broken down body that doesn’t do what I want it to anymore, 
Remembering the power words had the night a lover watched me dance 
And when I stopped to catch my breath and drink the ice cold water spraying from the fountain
He whispered to me “I love to watch you move. You look like you’re at home in your body.” 
He devoured me with his eyes the way I gulped down the water. 
In one moment I understood how words can take up space just like a body.

I have been transformed by my time in the Boiler Room.

I needed the Ivory Tower Boiler Room, only I didn’t know it. I needed a place where people recognized that even in places of high esteem, in places where things seem out of reach, there are people in the basement contributing to everything at the top. In the chemistry lab, the person who washes the beakers has a really important job, but how often are they credited for their role in major scientific discoveries? And what do they know about best-practices that the Principle Investigator would do well to ask their opinion on?

The Boiler Room gives me a (virtual) space where the people with me know how hard it is to learn the art and craft of writing, and of different kinds of writing. It keeps me grounded in that hard work, in the knowledge that I can grow and that with practice, with collaboration, with perseverance, I’ll get to whatever comes next, whether that’s performing a piece, submitting it for publication, or just learning how to craft some other kind of thing I haven’t before. But I imagine it a little like the apartment Laverne and Shirley lived in, in Milwaukee, where the light is coming in, too. I can’t thrive where it’s too bright, and I can’t thrive where it’s too dark, but the Boiler Room is a good place for both. Saul Williams writes in his poem Coded Language:

“We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun.
We are not afraid of the darkness.
We trust that the moon shall guide us.
We are determining the future at this very moment.
We know that the heart is the philosopher’s stone.
Our music is our alchemy.”
― Saul Williams

Williams’ poem talks about how we are filled with possibility, but then we take in the messages around us and don’t nourish our creativity, and so we’re left with what exists now. That nourishment is what I found in the Ivory Tower Boiler Room, and one of the things I’ve said in our discussions as we reflect on our first birthday, is that I want to help build a community where people who come to the Ivory Tower Boiler Room in the future to find the kind of nurturing that I found

My Big Think pieces always tend a little towards the omphaloskeptic. I think perhaps the way I can occupy that introspective space is an asset here, it’s what allows me to exist in the space between Andrew’s optimism and Adam’s skepticism. (The lived experience of “embracing the and ” perhaps?) I find this time of year that my gaze goes even deeper, with the approach of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, the new year, then the Days of Awe, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.). One of the values that comes into focus at this time of year is the idea of “teshuvah” which is often translated as “repentance” but which literally means “return.” Someone who takes on greater observance is called ba’al teshuvah. In many ways that’s what my Boiler Room time has become…a return to a more authentic, and in many ways, a better version of me. And each of my teammates here has contributed by helping me to find things I need in order to do that. With them, I’ve found persistence,as I continue to work on pieces of writing that have been troublesome or confidence, my voice, the legitimacy of my anger, trust. I’ve taken on that idea of greater observance because of the writing group I found here…I write (or at least try to) every day now. I write in more genres than I did before, although I’m finding that I’m most comfortable in poetry and in memoirs and essays. Taking on the label “writer” is still scary, but I am able to do it. When I first got here I was completely overwhelmed at the idea of being around “real writers.” The first thing I said when Adam suggested I check out the writing group was “I don’t have anything to share.” I spent months, showing up every day, mostly too scared to engage much in the conversations about writing or about books, and definitely not understanding the value of my outsider’s perspective. So much has changed. Am I still anxious? Yes. Of course. But the voices now are muffled a little. I sometimes call myself “a writer.” Sometimes. And with a lot of hesitation, and usually only among people who know that until very recently, I fought against that label. This summer I sat alongside Andrew and had a chance to interview an author whose work has had a tremendous influence on me, and have even been able to get advice from him, and as I write this I’m preparing for another turn in the anchor’s chair next week, and a third one later this year. At the beginning of August, I co-hosted the virtual part of our first anniversary open mic event. My co-hosts were one person who is a published poet, and another who is a college writing teacher. There were nerves to contend with of course, but bit by bit, I am seeing myself in the company of other writers and feeling like I have something to add to the discussion. I understand now that the journey to “writer” isn’t a journey to a destination, but it’s about moving forward to a place where I have enough confidence in my voice to be able to share what I do know with someone who is looking, so that the next “not a writer, not a poet” who comes into the Boiler Room can come in and find a space where people say “It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or not. If you love writing, if you want to write, then go ahead and write, and we’ll be here to help you figure out how to do that.”

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