The Word for Writers
The Art of Stuckness
by Lorilyn Roberts
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While I have never experienced stuckness in writing, more appropriately called writer’s block, I have to admit a great portion of my waking hours I am stuck on something; i.e., stuck in traffic, stuck waiting at the red light, stuck standing in line, stuck on hold on the phone, stuck staring at my computer screen, stuck waiting to get paid; or for someone to answer an email, or to get out of the dentist chair, or to get over a cold, or to get the car fixed, or for the stock market to return to transparency; or stuck waiting for free time—to read, write, slow down, relax; or get off the air from captioning. Tonight I didn’t finish till 12:30am. My chair seat and I spend too much time together. I might as well be stuck to it, too.
Recently I took my dog to the vet. She had poop stuck inside her that wouldn’t come out. Talk about being stuck—I’ll spare you the details, but being stuck is part of the fallen world and the human condition from which we can’t get escape. I can’t be spared the stress even in my dreams.
One recurring dream pictures me driving an orange bus. I am sitting in the back seat trying to maneuver it over a road that angles down a mountain at 180 degrees. I always wake up and never reach the bottom. I wonder what the bus represents. Why am I at the very back driving? And why does the road have such a steep incline? Which problem am I stuck on and unable to solve?
The worst part about being stuck is that it robs me of creativity, frustrates me, and puts me out of sorts with the world—and God in particular.
So, to give an example of an ongoing stuckness for this week, enjoy the following. Cry with me or laugh with me—either way, hysterically. Is this really believable?
At the beginning of the year I decided to bundle my cable, phone, and internet accounts with Cox Cable. These services previously had been provided by both Bell South and Cox Cable. According to the Cox Cable representative, this would save me about $30 per month. In these “tough economic times,” I figured even with all the hassle of switching, over the course of time, $30 per month would become significant.
I wanted assurances from the Cox Cable representative of three things: First, how much money it would save me; second, that the switch in phone lines would not affect my internet/email; and third, I would not experience disconnects using their phone service.
Because I use my phone lines to provide live captioning for television, disconnects on live programming causes captions to become disrupted. If a station loses too much airtime, it will be fined by the FCC. Since stations don’t want to be fined, they take it seriously when a captioning provider has too many on-air issues, whether it be poor captions, disconnects, corrupted captions, or no captions at all. Too many issues will likely mean when the contract comes up for renewal, that company won’t be awarded the contract. Contacts with the larger stations like Fox, ESPNews, CBS, and others are multimillion-dollar contracts. If a captioner has too many disconnects, the captioning provider will “dump” the subcontractor, somebody like me, and hire someone else to perform the work.
I was assured by Cox Cable there would be no problem and that the quality of their phone service was as good as what Bell South had been providing me for years.
Fast forward a few days. The technician arrived and spent all afternoon wiring my house. He checked everything before he left, or so we thought, and I believed everything was working properly. Later that evening, I went online to check my email. I discovered while I could receive my email through Microsoft Outlook, I couldn’t send anything out of Microsoft Outlook. I called Cox Cable, and somebody came on the phone right away and fixed it. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, later that evening, I experienced several disconnects on programming I had never had disconnects with before. I ended up having more disconnects in one week than I had experienced in five years. I contacted Cox Cable two days later—I should have called them immediately—after several disconnects and was alarmed by their lack of responsiveness. In fact, they seemed shocked that such a small inconvenience as getting disconnected could cause me such anxiety. After a while, probably more to shut me up than anything else, the Cox representative assured me they would check it out and fix the problem.
But the disconnection issues continued. Within a week I was on the phone to Bell South to switch my lines back with them. I spent about an hour talking to a very nice representative answering various questions. At the end of the call, she said, “We need the information you have given me verified by a third-party.” I was running out of time and needed to finish up to go on the air. I thought I would answer the final questions and be on my merry way; but the third-party verifier said her information showed I was only transferring one line. I said, “No, I am transferring two lines.”
We argued back and forth, and I realized I couldn’t solve this unexpected issue in one minute. I would have to cancel the entire request for the switch in service and redo the process the next day. I couldn’t risk having only one active phone line. I needed two active lines to caption. I told the representative, “If you can’t transfer both lines over, then cancel the order and I will start it all over tomorrow.”
The next morning, I called Bell South again. The woman on the line said, “Oh, it just shows up as one phone line, but it’s really two. The people that do the verification don’t know that.” And she said, “We can just undo the cancellation.” I said, “Great.” I had better things to do with my time than spending it redoing what I had already done the night before.
Fast forward two weeks. The disconnects continued, and I was forced to fill out far too many discrepancy reports. In the meantime, while I was waiting for the lines to be switched back, I discovered that my iphone would not let me send out emails. I needed it to work because I was going out of town. I called Cox Cable to verify what the strange settings were I needed for my iphone. The representative from Cox Cable convinced me to reset my settings on my Office Outlook back to what they were before I added the phone lines. I was skeptical about changing them, but I sent myself a verification email which came back to me promptly, so I assumed incorrectly she was right and knew more than I did.
I changed the settings on Microsoft Outlook as she instructed. I then called AT&T to put the settings back to what they were before on the iphone. I had changed them trying to get the iphone to work with the new settings for Microsoft Outlook. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with AT&T. Once this was accomplished, I thought everything on my email would be back to the way it was originally.
Later that evening, I went on the computer to check my emails. Once again, I couldn’t send out emails. It was late at night and there was nothing I could do about it except be frustrated.
Over the course of the ensuing weekend, I talked to several representatives at Cox Cable trying to find somebody who could change the settings to allow me to send emails. Most of them told me, “We don’t support Outlook.” By now I was approaching my limit of “niceness.” But I was going out of town, couldn’t take my computer with me, and figured I could send emails off my iphone; not very efficient, but better than nothing. I would live with the inconvenience until the following Tuesday (this was on a Friday), when my phone lines were scheduled to be switched back to Bell South. With the settings I had, my Microsoft Outlook should work by then. I would be patient, even though I was frustrated.
Tuesday came and went, and nothing seemed to happen with the phones—except I continued to have disconnects. ESPNews had called twice about the number of disconnects during my programming. I had filled out about thirty discrepancy reports for lost air time with various companies for which I worked. I was concerned when nothing seemed different and was getting more paranoid. I called Bell South on Wednesday to ask if they had switched the phone lines and was told, “You cancelled it two weeks ago.” When I told the representative that the woman said she would un-cancel it for me and that the lines would be switched in two weeks, she said, “You can’t un-cancel a cancellation.”
Now, I was angry. All this time I thought things were in process for the switch. Two weeks later, I had to start all over again. I spent an hour on the phone, going through the questions and answers the second time. I thought everything was taken care of now. But an hour later, I got a phone call, “The verification wasn’t done right. We need to redo it.” I said, “Okay,” and redid the verification a third time. “This is the final time,” I told myself, again.
A few hours later I returned home to a waiting message on my phone, “We need to verify the switch again. It wasn’t done correctly.” I wondered which verification was done wrong; the second one, the third one, or both? I called Bell South and told them, “I am fixing to go on the air, so I need to do this quickly.” They put me on hold and I assume forgot about me. I hung up and dialed in for my show, angry at the inability to accomplish something so simple yet so important.
The next day I was headed out of town and had no time to call Bell South. I was still unable to send emails out of Office Outlook. This was a big inconvenience because I receive over two hundred emails on a normal day. I continued to have disconnection issues while captioning. But I couldn’t do anything about it until Monday.
First thing Monday morning I made the dreaded call to Bell South. How many verifications did I need to do to get it right? After going through the whole story once again, the representative told me the switch had already been made on one line and the switch on the other line would be made in one week.
I was still experiencing disconnects on the line that supposedly had been switched so I was concerned. The representative from Bell South connected me with the technical department to see what could be causing the issue. I gave that person the number with which I was having issues. To my dismay, she told me, “That number is disconnected.”
Now I wondered who the blankety-blank was providing my crappy service on that line. I yelled at the poor woman and demanded to speak to a supervisor. While I was on hold, I dialed out to make sure the line was still working. I got a dial tone. Soon a woman who was “Ms. Control” came on the phone and was everything but helpful. Because she wouldn’t listen to me, I asked to speak to someone else, and then I was disconnected. I couldn’t imagine why.
I called Bell South back and got disconnected again. I called a third time (what else could I do), and explained all over again what I had been through to another person who knew nothing. She listened, put me on hold, and came back and told me that the line had not been switched yet. She said, “I was told by the technical department it looks like it’s disconnected because it is still in the process of being switched back.” In other words, they hadn’t received the paperwork yet. This was different from what I was told earlier, which probably explained why I was still having issues. The line was on Cox Cable’s equipment.
Tonight, as I sit here, I hope she is right and that my lines will be switched next Monday, as promised, and I will still have a job.
I was too worried to wait a whole week for my Office Outlook to work properly. I called Cox Cable and demanded they find somebody who could fix it to where I could send emails. I heard the usual run-around, “We don’t support Outlook.”
I gave them my angst, “You said switching the lines would not affect my email service, you made it possible for me to receive emails until your representative changed it to where it would no longer work, and I demand you find somebody to fix my Office Outlook NOW.” I was put on hold for too long, and then told a technical person would call me back shortly.
I waited two hours and no one called. So I took Joy to her gymnastics class. While driving, my phone rang. Of course, it was the Cox Cable technical support, now that I couldn’t talk. I asked him to call me back in fifteen minutes; I dropped Joy off and hurried home. A few minutes later, we connected on the phone. In lightning fashion, even faster than I thought possible, he fixed the issue. It’s amazing how quickly something can be done by competent people. As of right now, I am able to send from Outlook, though, of course, I still can’t send from my iphone.
The almost end of the story is the bill I just received--$250 for the two phone lines. My Bell South bill in December was $154. The plan was to switch to Cox Cable and bundle my services so I could save $30 a month. When I asked the Cox representative about the higher-than-expected bill, she said, “Well, this isn’t a bundle.” I asked her why in the world I would switch from Bell South to Cox Cable if it was going to cost me $100 more per month. No, I am not stupid; even my kids give me more credit than that.
Why have I gone into such detail? Because I don’t think my reality is that different from everyone else. I just took the time to write it all down rather than throw the computer out the window, or throw my cell phone across the room (I do have experience with that), or wring somebody’s neck. I really don’t want to be stuck in jail.
But bringing stuckness back to writing, is it possible to have what is more commonly known as writer’s block? I don’t know about others, but for me at least, I have never experienced it. Any blocks toward writing do not stem from the writing act itself, but from the other parts of living that constrain me from creativity—worry, distraction, or near insanity dealing with issues like the above; the parts of living we long to escape from that consume our time, energy, and resources. Given enough futility, I can be left with zilch desire to write.
We don’t live in paradise yet and won’t until the Lord’s return; so the question is, how do I deal with the stuckness that wraps its ugly tentacles around my emotions and invades my life? Does God even care, I wonder, when I am most depressed?
I fail in ways I would rather not mention in this “G”–rated piece of writing. I have a long ways to go to be like Jesus in dealing with stuckness of most varieties. But I have found the one thing that irks me the most is dealing with incompetence. Even something as simple as trying to unclog the commode or sink can send me into a tailspin of four-letter words a Christian ought not to say.
Caring is not enough. I care whether I can flush my commode, or that my dog needs to poop and can’t. The question, as raised in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is the definition of quality. Quality has much less to do with caring than competence. A person might care, but if he doesn’t have the necessary knowledge, all the caring in the world won’t fix that broken bone or save that broken marriage.
I might care a lot about my writing, but if I don’t know how to build a believable plot, all my caring isn’t going to make me a best-seller. (I tried that, it doesn’t work).
In the same way, almost everyone I talked to at Cox Cable and Bell South cared, but incompetency at various levels made their caring insufficient to fix my problem.
Stuckness always comes back to competence. Quality comes out of competence. It rises above mediocrity and exudes perfection.
As a Christian, quality takes on a far more important meaning. Jesus was and is the Quality, and out of the Quality comes goodness. Taken in the context of a fallen world, we must find the goodness in the world or we will become too despondent with sin.
God commands us in the Bible to look for the good in everything. Philippians 4:8 tells us, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Out of the worst circumstances, good can emerge. In earthquakes, we see “goodness;” from help that arrives in the form of volunteers, food, water and medicine. There is nothing like putting a face to quality. We shake our heads at what one determined person can endure to survive and become reacquainted once again with love and goodness—the quality that makes life bearable and for whom we are image-bearers. We reassess what’s important remembering once again life is precious, and only through love is there quality and reason for careful living.
If we didn’t have the struggles, we would have no story. If we didn’t have goodness, we would have no quality, no benchmark to measure our efforts, nothing worth striving for in writing. We would not be able to find redemption.
Even in my story here, there will be redemption. Why? Because I didn’t give up. I rarely give up, and perhaps that gets into the gumption aspect which I will save for the next writing piece.
I think what is most important is that we focus on process and not outcome. If we destroy ourselves or others to attain quality, we have short-circuited God’s best. As my mother used to say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I must learn how to handle the frustrations of process—impatience, incompetence, uncertainty, worry, and all the less productive ways that tell me I haven’t arrived; if anything, that will end up leaving me stuck on the road to nowhere.
Who wants to stay stuck? We must do whatever it takes. Perhaps it takes years to get unstuck—from a divorce, from depression, from loss, or a host of other unimaginable circumstances. In order to attain quality, we must keep looking up, cease striving, and know where there is Quality, we can find “goodness” that is worth living for—and writing about. Sooner or later, if we are honest in our search, we will find more than competence. We will find quality in ourselves and in others, because we are the vessel of the Holy Spirit, and in that hidden place within us, there is “Quality.”
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