Writer’s Block Tuesday: Russian Style

I spent most of yesterday ineffectually poking at my computer.  Writer’s block–arrggh!  There’s nothing worse than the realization that the words you want to make diligent use of, just aren’t coming.  Your fingers twitch and then lie still.  You become intensely interested in the way the stitching looks on the back of your chair.  This, of course, forced me to spend the day running the gamut of emotions from peevish indifference (“No, that’s OK, I don’t want to get paid.”) to self-loathing (I’m pretty sure “drooling idiot” is the most family-friendly term I called myself).

The upside?  I’m still pretty good at balancing a pen under my nose.  So that’s something.

When left to my own devices…

Anyway.  In the course of my complaining and life-hating and waaaahmbulance calling, my boyfriend said, “You know, the thing you have to do is just write.  Something.  Anything.”  Which, yes, is entirely true but somewhat akin to telling the drowning man, “The thing you have to do is find an air pocket.”  Got it.  OK.

I was falling into a fairly dysfunctional depressive funk and then I put down my Kleenex and platter of Ho-Hos and thought, wait one miserable, despair-ridden second here.  If I’m going to be depressed AND still want to produce something?  Look to Mother Russia for inspiration!  I was a Russian major in college, and one of the things I realized in the course of my studies is that not only is Russia big, but Russians do things big.  They don’t just depose the tsar, they kill his entire family and usher in a relentless totalitarian regime.  They don’t just go toe-to-toe with the US, building missiles in an arms race, they bankrupt themselves doing so.  They don’t just elect a former KGB officer to the presidency; they re-elect him.  Twice.  It was with this view of Russian woe that I made my way to my bookcases.  I still have tons and tons of books…history…poli sci…  But some of the most depressing stuff is purely literary and so, off to the literature section I went.  Tolstoy?  Nah, too epic for my needs.  Dostoevsky?  Too easy.  Agggh, don’t look at Gladkov’s Cement, because not even I can successfully make fun of that ode to the Soviet worker.  Bulgakov?  Mmm…close, but his moments of quirky humor aren’t right today.  No, wait…I know…


Nikolai frickin’ Gogol.  For those who don’t know, Gogol was a Russian author who at one point in his career was hailed as one of the great masters of literary prose.  However, as is all too common for Russian creative types, his cheese slid off his cracker (full credit for that phrase goes to The Oatmeal, but I will now use it forever and ever) and he came to an untimely end.  Actually, Gogol’s end was particularly grim.  One of his masterworks, Dead Souls, was planned as a trilogy updating Dante’s Divine Comedy.  So far so good, yes?  So.  His creative prowess went into decline, which I’m fairly certain was largely due to his growing religious mania.  This?  Not so good.  While that was happening, he reconnected with a “spiritual elder”-slash-religious nutjob he’d known for several years.  Worse.  He became convinced that God no longer wanted to speak through him, burned the back end of the second part of Dead Souls and took to his bed, where he committed suicide by starvation.  Think about that for a moment.  Suicide by starvation.  He refused all food.  It took him nine days to die.

With that in mind–because how can you have more self-loathing than that guy?–I went to Dead Souls, randomly opened it to whichever page I opened it to, and let my eyes wander through the teensy-weensy font (I mean, seriously, an “a” was the size of a single grain of couscous, and not that big ol’ Israeli couscous either but rather the traditional North African type) until they rested on this sentence:

And so this thirty-three-year-old young man spent his time, all alone in the whole world, sitting indoors in a dressing gown and without a cravat.   –Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, p. 265, Penguin Classics.

No cravat?  Good God, man!  That is loneliness indeed!

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular flavor of outmoded men’s wear, a cravat is an ancestor of the modern necktie, a rectangular piece of cloth that gets arranged in a variety of fussy ways, often involving starched collars.  And, apparently, it has the ability to control a man’s moods like the moon controls the tides.  Gentlemen take note: an ascot is technically a type of cravat, it is not something entirely different.  Know all those chandelier-and-cleavage movies (think Jane Austen) in which the male characters all look like their necks are gift wrapped?  Cravats.

Stable, happy men in their fashionable cravats.

But what happens when you’re simply in a robe (a/k/a, one’s “dressing gown”)?

Melancholy plagues the cravatless man.

Little did I expect to find such real-world applications regarding my foray into the world of a gloomy Russian.  At least I have a skill, as evidenced by my picture at the top of the page.  But to face a future full of loneliness, without even a snazzy neckwrap?  Torture.

And so I feel better about things.  I’m going to get back to work now.  But first, I’ll have a sandwich.

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