Monday, April 11, 2005

My Knee and Writing

Many years ago I hurt my knee playing basketball. It had been giving me problems for about a year before that clinching injury. My knee kept “going out,” which was how I described it. Each time it went out, I would bend and extend my leg until the thing snapped back into place. There was an actual sound. But after the basketball fiasco, the knee would no longer snap regardless of how hard I pushed down. I needed to do something. On my outpatient bed, minutes before the nurses pushed me to the operating room, the initial anesthesia started to work. I was happy, looking forward to some deep sleep. I've had problems with sleep since high school.

I woke up a few hours later and greeted a very loud nurse with vomit. She was disgusted. I saw it in her face. She accused me of violating the pre-surgery instructions of no food after six o’clock the previous day. It was a false accusation, for I had not eaten since four o’clock, but just like sleep, my digestion can be slow at times.

Later, I saw the doctor in recovery. He told me that a third of my posterior medial meniscus had to be removed. That was fine. But what he told me next shocked me: my knee snapped back into place as soon as the anesthesia took control of my body. Under the influence of drugs, I was able to relax my leg enough to align things up.

I remember that fact more than the results of the surgery or the letters to the insurance company. (Please take seriously the insurance policy clause about a mandatory second opinion, written in a font size measured in angstroms.) I then wondered about other things that have undetected tautness, not just muscles and joints (non-hemp), but strings of personality and psychology, which anesthesia can’t help.

After some serious inspection, I noticed mental tightness, especially when I sat down to do some writing. I described it this way: "Critical centers inside of me freeze when I get up from a more relaxed and natural position—where thoughts seem to flow with surprising ease and the least amount of resistance. But I turn into a mannequin when I sit before a monitor and keyboard. Internal sensors reject the posture and leave me with solitaire. I suspect that the substance of what I want to communicate is largely founded on the fact that I am often disabled from saying it. But I ignore this and try to go around it. I thumb through books composed by the illustrious free birds like John Gardner, Dorothea Brande, Eudora Welty, Jacques Barzun, Annie Dillard, Brenda Ueland, and others. I would then feel a surge of relaxation and confidence. But when I get up to write and (I now whisper) approach my keyboard, the frogs and crickets in my head drown out my voice altogether."

I had long told myself that the blocks are a matter of technique and habit, which is incorrect. There’s something about the modern Muslim psychology of my era that has inhibition written all over it. And it’s not your average inhibition. I’ll talk about it later, God willing, maybe next week.

I think I understand it now.


Anonymous Jihad said...


I can empathize on many levels right now, as

1) I've managed to pull a muscle next to my shoulder blade which gets inflamed when I type(!)

2) I too feel the unspoken mental block that, to me, represents the 'puritan fantasyland' (Abou El Fadl's term) we kept hearing about inside the mosque yet was at 180-degree odds with the truth of existence in America. I've decided that because of these unreal social constructs I kept hearing for years and years, I find it hard to write about the unkempt frayed edges of real life - harder, even, than to discuss them orally.

Is this what you feel?

Excellent blog, BTW, - no jejune feelgood 'see, I'm a Muslim AND a good guy' overemphasis with apologism - just a well written blog. I've decided that my next book read (after what is already in queue) will be Strunk and White.

4/11/2005 6:58 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Well said, Jihad. Thanks for that and the other stuff you said. I've been thinking about mental blocks for a long time, a good many years, and see them in writing and see in writing a way out, God willing. Being creative and expressive is more than about a particular craft but about being fully human, which is prerequisite for a healthy spiritual life, no masks, no fake ambassadorial decorum. Thanks again. Let me know what you think about Strunk and White.

4/11/2005 8:44 PM  
Blogger Eiman Abdelmoneim said...


Have you ever found that the block is "snapped into place" suddenly similar to your experience with your knee?

4/17/2005 10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blah blah blah ... blah blah blah, ain't nothing worse than writer's block except philosophizing about it, which is it's own form of writer's block. Hmmm, I am trying to write, but, I find, that I cannot, i wonder why that is. Perhaps i should ponder this dilemma ad infinitum. In the meantime, Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The best way through a writer's block is to write your way through it, as Dorothea Brande and John Gardner would say. And that's the best way to "snap it" back into place ... pure, sheer, aggravating, painstaking disciplined writing. That's all it takes. Now get to it.

Your points, Ibrahim, about writng are well-taken ... but ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. Make some already.

4/18/2005 9:52 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Hey, Anon:

Good point. I especially liked it when you said, "Blah blah blah ... blah blah blah." And then followed by your amazing use of one letter, as in, "Zzzzzzzzz." Make words, not war. But seriously, you make a good point. It's the writing, stupid. I know that. Talking about it now is, in part, for others to know that there's a way out. I'm a martyr, I know. And isn't writing about writing writing? And one more thing: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. And then, Ttttttttttttttttttttt, followed by, Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.

Thanks again.

4/18/2005 10:30 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...


If in the middle of the night you hear a loud bony snap, then you know where it came from. For the most part, it's snapping now. So watch out for falling cartilage.

4/18/2005 10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Readers block?

5/22/2005 3:50 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

"Readers block" is real and frustrating. I've had skids of it for long periods and when I get out of it and start reading I feel great and grateful.

5/22/2005 9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

any advice on how to get over "readers block." All the interesting books on various subjects are all sitting on my table.

5/24/2005 8:27 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Anon says, "Any advice on how to get over readers block."

Here are the secrets, Grasshopper. First, have mercy on yourself. Don't feel guilty about it. Guilt makes reading a chore and a self-conscious thing which only multiplies the germs that cause readers block. Second, if you start with a book that you find boring, don't attribute this to the malady. Find another book. Third, small goals. Make it ten pages a day (whether at night or in the day, up to you). If that’s too much, then five. Then you'll notice the juices flowing. Your desire to get back to the book will increase. The TV remote will look less appealing. So there you have it, gentle reader. Go off now! Be brave!

5/24/2005 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Advice Master Po. I will give it a shot and see what happens. I'll let you know God Willing.

5/24/2005 3:13 PM  

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