Lights-out had come two hours before, but I couldn’t sleep with the deadline looming. Rising from the squeaky metal cot, I left my cubicle and padded through the darkened corridors of the Black Gate writer’s bullpen. From all sides, the satisfied snores of my fellow writers echoed in the cavernous space just below the boiler rooms. Further up the narrow passage, I saw light spilling from one of the cubicles, and recognized with relief that it was the cell belonging to Ryan Harvey.
Creeping quickly along the narrow passages between the darkened cubes, pausing only to avoid the searchlights that raked the area from above, I ducked through the bead curtain that separated Ryan from his fellows. In the center of the cubicle, atop a small cushion on a richly woven rug, was the man himself. His eyes were nearly closed, his legs crossed, his fingertips gently touching, the very picture of serenity. At the faint rattle of the beads, his eyes opened fully.
“Mr. Harvey, sir?” I ventured.
“I’ve been expecting you,” he said, gesturing to a nearby cushion.
“You have?” I asked, startled and somewhat alarmed. I sat on the small pillow, feeling awkward. Flowing to his feet, Ryan produced from somewhere a tiny brass teapot, from which he filled a small cup with steaming water. One swift whirl of a miniscule drop of dark syrup, and he presented me with the result.
“Oolong?” he offered. Wordlessly, I accepted. The taste was bizarre, but I nodded in thanks. He settled back onto a nearby pillow.
“It is about the blog, isn’t it?” he asked. I wiped my brow, nodding.
“A blog post,” he said, “is like a snowflake. Always remember that.”
“Um, yes,” I said, then hurriedly pressed on. “But I’m having the same problem with the blog as with any other writing. I thought it would be easier! Have you ever tried to write, and nothing comes? Have you ever had…” I hesitated, looking for a polite way to phrase it, but finding none. “…writer’s block?”
Ryan smiled gently. “Does a journey to the west not sometimes bring you east?”
“So you… have? That’s great, because I’m really struggling with the quotas! Am I simply trying too hard? You seem so… relaxed. That’s got to help, right?”
“When one is alone with oneself,” he asked in response, “can one still not long for solitude?”
I breathed a sigh of relief, nodding. “Exactly! It’s like I’ve got this continuous stream of scenes, and ideas, and characters, all running through my head all day! When I’m working in the laundry, pressing Mr. O’Neill’s ties, or scrubbing tiles in the executive baths, I’ve got nothing but ideas flowing through my head, and they all seem so great! But then, when it’s time to write, I either can’t remember it, or it seems a lot less interesting. So I just sit there, sometimes. That’s writer’s block, isn’t it?”
Ryan nodded. “And yet, is the face in the mirror not reversed?”
I considered that, sipping my tea, as Ryan lit a tiny cone of incense. Could I simply be shooting down my ideas because I was tired, or the moment of inspiration had passed? Surely a good idea had more grit to it than that? Could some of my writer’s block be little more than me being too tough on myself? I looked around the serene cubicle. Inner peace, I thought. That’s the ticket. Stop beating yourself up, especially when things aren’t going right.
“So I guess I should just write something, even if it’s not going so smoothly,” I said, as if to myself. “That’s what the second draft is for, I suppose.”
“Have you bonded properly with your crit partners?” Ryan asked. “There are few relationships so sublime.”
I squirmed. “I’m in the Critique-Randomly-Acquired Partner system. Writer3242 seems to really like my output.”
“Ah, yes,” Ryan responded. “A noble idea. Yet perhaps it clouds your ability to see a needed correction. As Cheng Yi once said, The words of friends bolster one’s spirit, but the words of enemies bolsters one’s prose.”
“Did he?” I asked, baffled. “So what I need is an… enemy?”
“Does the deer not need the wolf?”
I shook my head, putting down my nearly empty cup. My hands were sweating, and I feared dropping it onto the beautiful rugs. “Do you have anyone you’d recommend?”
“Have you considered Goth Chick?”
“Are you –” my strangled voice spiraled into uncontrollable registers, and I cut off my response. Scrambling to the bead curtain, I shot a quick glance to right and left. Nothing. I returned to where Ryan stood upon one foot, his sudden tree pose unperturbed. “Are you crazy?” I whispered, and then slumped back onto my cushion.
“I don’t take criticism well,” I admitted. Ryan nodded.
“The cold steel is the most rigid,” he said, transitioning to warrior pose. “Only in the forge does it learn to soften and bend.”
“Are we talking about the slush pile? Because I’ve got enough rejections.”
“One can never amass enough rejection. Only through letting go of the need for publication does a writer achieve satori.”
“So I need to… submit more stories to Fantasy and Science Fiction?”
Ryan chuckled at this, but didn’t respond directly, instead dropping into downward dog. I sat up straighter on my cushion, trying to absorb some of his inner calm. But I had a blog post to write, and, after that, a prose quota to fill before morning muster. With a nod of farewell, and a murmur of thanks, I took my leave as Ryan moved on to a sun salutation.
Some people, I thought ruefully, simply do not understand writer’s block. For them, the mountain that stood in the way was not an obstacle, but a fertile, interesting terrain all its own, ready to be explored.
Hey, I thought as I regained my cube, that actually sounds like a good topic to blog about. But I was so tired, and not really in the mood.
Aaron Bradford Starr has published a number of short stories and novellas with Black Gate, both the print edition (“Mortal Star,” in Volume 8), and in the Online Fiction Library. His online stories include “The Daughter’s Dowry,” “The Tea Maker’s Task,” “The Sea Lord’s Successor,” and “The Highwater Harbor.”