'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.

It’s my faith in this—of reaching that place eventually—that guides my work. Really, it’s the search for this feeling that guides me more than any discussion of plotlines, or any thought of who a character is or what they’ll do. Plot and character are useful tools—but I’ve always been kind of in awe of writers who say that they write out a plotline, or a timeline, or they write character descriptions. I’ve never been able to do that, even though I’ve tried. It takes away from too much of my brain’s ability to leap into that unknown zone, and let the story go wherever it’s going to go. I trust those sections of unconscious rolling more than I do any kind of that conscious putting stuff together piece by piece. The addictive quality of writing is getting to that point where things are just coming out. That’s the wonderful feeling I look for, and you never know when it’s coming next.

But writing towards uncertainty can be scary, too. And if you don’t know how to handle it, it can be crippling. During my graduate school days in Iowa, sitting down to write was always frightening. I didn’t know where I was. I just knew I had to sit down and write, but I didn’t know what I was writing, I didn’t know why I was writing. I didn’t know what characters I should be writing. It was just sitting down and being absolutely blank.

Terror is a good word to describe how it feels. It’s complete terror of what’s going to happen. But the moment you start to let that terror take control, that’s when the real block comes in. That’s when you get stuck.

After graduate school, I got stuck really bad. I’d worked for three years on some crappy memoir. And I told Peter Orner, “Man, I haven’t sat down at the desk for two weeks. I just can’t get myself to do it.”

And he said, “Well, you’re a writer. What else are you supposed to do?”

It seemed such a simple sentence, but absolutely true. And so, sometime soon after that I put the whole memoir thing away and started doing something that was going to come easier. Just for the sake of it. And that was writing short stories. Just to get the wheels turning. And it worked.

What I started to realize is, the terror is a good thing. Uncertainty is not something to be so afraid of. You just dive headfirst into it. Facing that terror, I think, is a little bit of why writers write: It’s a death-defying thing, a daredevil act, to get up and be faced with that every day. It’s so much more exhilarating to do that then to do nothing.

I think the constant process of sitting down at the same time, every day, in the exact way—which for me is a completely dark room, in my kitchen with my laptop, early in the morning—that’s actually welcome. You can just sit down, and let your brain do, let you emotions do, whatever it is that they want. And sometimes, it really works. Sometimes, you come out of the fear and hesitancy with a beautiful, rolling section—though just as often, you get absolute crap. That’s ok. You have to trudge through some brambles and vines when you don’t know quite what it is you’re looking for. It’s like the rock she sees in the woods: it’s ugly, misshapen, and strange, nothing like what she hoped she’d find in the peaceful glade. But it’s powerful, too, and kicks off all these other memories and associations—so sustained and potent that they verge on frightening. You never know when you’re going to break through all the brambles barring your path, and stumble on something you could never have written on purpose. And to get there, you just have to sit in the chair and try.

I think it’s why Steinbeck famously gave his famous advice to other writers: Don’t edit. Just sit down every day and keep building on what you wrote before. Though I can’t quite get there—I have to do some editing of the previous day’s work each day, in order to go on—I’ve learned to pour myself out, and hope that something catches and starts to flow. You’ll surprise yourself with what you can come up with if you forge on ahead. You’ve got to edit everything eventually, of course—but first you have to sit down and get all that shit out.

You know: “There was a demand upon her that she penetrate deep into the forest.” You have to just push on, keep going, and hope you find the sacred rock.

Sometimes I worry I’ll never find it again.

That’s when it’s grueling. When you know word to word, almost letter to letter, that it’s not working. And for me, that’s where the block threatens to come in. When you’re struggling to get to that lost stage where things start to flow as something you’re writing triggers a memory or image. Any time that I’m not getting that feeling, it’s a struggle. But that’s the closest being blocked that I get. You can never let yourself not write. You have to keep going. You have to keep typing. That’s how I’ve always approached it. It’s really just an unending search for whatever is going to let this next story take off. That’s why I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Writer’s block is a refusal to let yourself get lost in the woods.

For me, pressure to publish also gets in the way of the feeling. Being at Iowa, in a way, encouraged getting something down and having it published—during that time, that’s what I was trying to do. I think it got in the way of me, in particular, creating whatever it was I could have created. I was motivated into writing that memoir because that's what I thought would sell—prior to marketing a short-story collection I needed to get my longer piece published. This ultimately led to three or four wasted years. Although I did come to realization that I couldn't let a marketing plan be my guide—so perhaps not completely wasted

Now that I’m out of that, writing has become a much more enjoyable and terrifying pursuit—terrifying in a wonderful way. I don’t care, necessarily, if something I write gets published. It’d be nice. You want to be read. But it’s so important to me to sit down and know I can get myself to a certain place. That’s what really the great thing. For me, it’s not the interviews, or someone sending you that contract letter—even though those are wonderful, great things. The reason I write is to sit down in that one setting, and to create stuff. That’s what makes me a writer.

There are plenty of writers who are writing things that are selling and are marketable. And that’s wonderful. For me, that’s a secondary consideration. For me, it’s something else. It’s a way of getting myself to sit down and face the unknown. It’s so exhilarating, and no other feeling can hold a candle to that.

I’m always grateful to be published but I’ve never gone into writing with publication in mind. I’ve never been big about sending my stuff out, honestly. It’s a strange thing, but I too much fun writing to think much about it. The reason this book was published was because Peter sent my stories to McSweeney’s without telling me. That’s how all this came about. One day, Peter said, “Hey, they want to see the rest.”

And I said, “What are you doing sending my stuff out?” (But, seriously, I’m grateful.)

The question of writing, for me, has always been more of a personal challenge to get something down on paper than it’s ever been to write something that a magazine or book publisher will like. It’s always been a challenge to myself—that’s a more exhilarating and satisfying challenge. And it’s a more satisfying outcome, when I can write something that sounds so good out loud, or bring a tear to my own eye—rather than “I need to send this out as soon as possible.” Or “I need to get this page done so I can make this submission deadline.” It’s just never been that way for me. I take it much more slowly, and I think I have more fun.

The other side of that, is I get individual stories published and here, at 41 years old, I have one book to my name. And I’ve got 50, maybe 75 stories in my computer—or pieces of stories—in my computer, that I just haven’t been able to get to that place with yet. So you don’t turn out a lot, this way. I don’t want to short-change the fact that I want people to read this stuff. I want people to know what it’s like to grow up in Pilsen. But that’s still secondary. From an emotional and personal standpoint, working slowly, working for myself, it’s very satisfying.

Writing should be fun, rather than a business endeavor. And the fun comes from cheating the terror feeling, cheating creative death every day. From besting the blank page, from pushing past it no matter what. A lot of gray hair and stomach problems, to be sure, but it’s fun. I’m writing for myself. It’s a selfish thing—but I want that feeling, every day, that I recognize in the Steinbeck passage. When my feet are coming of the ground, and I can almost feel—inch by inch—as you’re reading through the damn thing, that you’re floating up into the room, and slowly you come back down. I feel that way when I read this passage. And it’s a selfish thing, but that’s the only feeling I care to chase when I sit down and write.