'I Don't Believe in Writer's Block'

John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown showed author Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski that great work can happen when you write without knowing where you're going.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

Only death, Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote, is “the absolute remedy for the most terrible specter of writers: the morning agony of facing the blank page.” Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, author of Painted Cities, was once paralyzed by that fear—but he’s learned to embrace the uncertainty, and find the terror thrilling. He told me that there’s no such thing as writer’s block if you can muster up the courage to write on without knowing where you’re going. As he demonstrated with a favorite passage from John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown, you can uncover powerful, hidden things if you let yourself get lost in the woods.

This is an author so willing to get lost that he worked for more than 15 years without making a concentrated effort to publish. The reason we have Painted Cities at all, Galaviz-Budziszewski told me, is because another person intervened. The writer Peter Orner was so enthusiastic about excerpts he’d read that he sent selections to Dave Eggers’s publishing house, McSweeney’s, without his friend’s knowledge.

Painted Cities takes as its subject the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, where Galaviz-Budziszewski grew up. A largely Latin American community with Polish and Czech origins, where the pierogi factory might be adorned with a glorious Mexican mural, Pilsen was also notorious for rampant drug use and warring gang crews. In partite stories, the book explores how kids come of age in circumstances when death by gunshot lurks on every staked-out corner. Galaviz-Budziszewski is especially attuned to the way fantasy and reality blend for Pilsen’s youth; they pan for gold in the canal and make huge water sculptures out of doctored hydrants as their flights of fancy are ballasted by ever-present violence.

Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski spoke to me from his home near Chicago.

Alexai Galaviz-BudziszewskiTo a God Unknown is not your typical novel by John Steinbeck. Much of his work has this confidence—a story that moves right from beginning to end in a way that’s crisp and flowing at the same time. Take Cannery Row, or “The Chrysanthemums”: He starts with a clear conflict that follows a very smooth plotline, all the while supplying those wonderful naturalistic descriptions he’s famous for. To a God Unknown feels different. It’s less self-assured. It’s disjointed. You can feel him trying to put the story together on the page as he works. You can feel him asking questions about what he’s doing as he’s putting the material together.

The story begins with a premise we might expect from Steinbeck: a young man moving out west. He meets a schoolteacher, brings her out with him. He’s got a couple brothers, too. All of them begin to start a kind of homestead together. Crops are growing, cows are in the field, the young wife then gets pregnant. Everything’s moving along wonderfully. You’re not sure, really, where the book is going. You can feel the author isn’t sure where the book is going.

Then, while the young wife is pregnant, she decides to go off on her own. She needs some freedom, she needs to get away. We have the sense she’s going to find the glade her husband had seen earlier in the novel, deep in a pine grove.

This is where the journey starts. There’s this wonderful description of her trying to get there: She has to push through all these brambles and vines, push through the thick wall of pines. She needs to get there, though she doesn’t know why, and gives her all to moving ahead:

She turned her shoulder to [the vines] and forced a passage through, and sometimes she crawled through the opening on her hands and knees. There was a demand upon her that she penetrate deep into the forest.

Finally, she does reach the clear glade:

Her hands were scratched and her hair pulled down when she came at last through the bramble wall and straightened up. Her eyes grew wide with wonder at the circle of trees and the clear flat place. And then her eyes swept to the huge, misshapen green rock.

There’s a giant rock with a little cave in it: she sees all this and steps in. I think we feel, as readers, a moment of recognition: “I must have known this was here,” she thinks, “else why did I come straight to it?” She starts to reflect on her life, she starts to reflect on who she was as a schoolteacher, prior to getting married—her life in the town she used to live in. It’s almost like an end-of-life moment, where her whole life is flashing before her eyes, just in this glade. The experience is so powerful she becomes frightened. She starts to fear the rock is alive, like it’s crouching and ready to jump at her, and then she escapes, so afraid by her own thoughts that she runs away.

And when I came to this passage, my jaw dropped—because that’s the Steinbeck we all know. I read this section, and felt—well, here it is! I’d been looking for it the whole damn book. The book finds itself— and the sacred rock becomes its dominant image, crucial in the events to come. The last scene of the book happens on that rock. It’s like everything just clicks into place. You can feel the author’s discovery happen at the same moment as the character’s. He went wandering with her in the woods, and both author and character found something they did not know they’d find.

When you sit down and write, to a degree you can forecast what you think is coming next. To that extent, I think that Steinbeck knew she was going to visit that glade, that the exploration would become a part of the story. But I think he didn’t know how it was going to happen, and that surprise is reflected in the writing itself. The language just starts rolling, as she lets all these memories wash over her, and reading it out loud—I’ve gone so far as to read it out loud, because it’s so damn fun—you can pick up the rhythm, it’s so easy to slip into. If that’s not what hitting the perfect moment in writing is, I don’t know what it is.

I must have known this was here, or else why did I come straight to it?

Everyone’s method of writing is different. Everyone’s reason for writing is different. But when I sit down and write, it’s specifically to feel like I don’t know what the hell is going on. I want to lose myself in the woods. I just step into the work, and pray I’m going to get that feeling again: where stuff is happening on the screen and I don’t exactly know what it is, except it feels right. When I’m describing a scene in Pilsen, on 18th St.—the one of the roughest neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago—I might be describing a scene, maybe a mural painted on a wall, when suddenly I get that feeling: something kind of catches you, and the writing suddenly flows. Then, you know all the wandering was worth it—led to a place, maybe, you’d sought out all along. It feels so good to hit that spot.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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