False Starts

by Robert Douglas Friedman

false starts story.png

            Taylor cannot finish anything he starts. His desk is littered with abandoned stories, novels, essays, and poems; the vacuum cleaner lies asphyxiated in the center of the living room carpet; the model airplane that he began assembling last week sits wingless and forlorn on the dirty kitchen table. Taylor himself is looking somehow incomplete, unfinished. He hasn't shaved in days, he is half naked, and his eyes hold the haunted gleam of a television evangelist struck suddenly dumb.

            Taylor is blocked.

block (blok) n. ...Psychol. Sudden cessation of a thought process without an immediate observable cause, sometimes considered a consequence of repression.

            Taylor puts down the dictionary and shakes his uncombed head. Repression? What kind of repression? He has always considered himself as much of a free spirit as the next guy. Hadn't he taken this unpaid leave of absence so he could finally do some real writing? That was daring, wasn’t it? Six months away from scribbling obscure technical manuals that nobody in their right mind would ever read. No more step one, step two. Repressed? He represses the thought.

            Why is he blocked, though? For that matter, why isn’t he blocked in a normal goddamned way? He has no trouble at all with beginnings. The problem is that he then stops dead in his tracks. Even worse, he has now in desperation taken to writing paragraphs that border on the unforgivable:

Dawn had broken and broken hard—countless shards of it were scattered throughout the  long grasses and tangled weeds of the spooky abandoned yard as the darkness of night fled from immediate view—yet still Danny remained in place; naked, dirty, alone, broke, homeless, mildly depressed, and wondering just where he fit into the plot that had been unraveling for the past few weeks like a ball of yarn slapped across a kitchen floor by an outraged kitten.

Not to mention this morning’s gem:

The golden, starry wonders of the dark universe unfurled before the brave interstellar vessel Argus like a black flag of victory with a whole bunch of holes in it as the mysterious mission buoyantly commenced that would one day resolve critical questions about space, time, and the appropriate ratio of nuts to chips in a perfect chocolate chip cookie.


            Taylor takes a deep breath and slowly releases it. He wonders if Jonathan Franzen has ever been in this situation.


            “I'm sure he has,” says Elizabeth, removing her blouse. “Most writers have had problems like yours at one time or another. You know Louis L’Amour, the western writer? He worked out on a heavy punching bag to cure his blocks. Raymond Chandler had to drink himself into a stupor once to finish an overdue screenplay his studio was screaming for.” She smiles and slips out of her jeans. “Then there’s the Henry Miller method.”

            “What's that?”

            “Screwing like a madman.”

            Taylor distractedly removes his bathrobe and shoes. “How do you know all this?”

            “My ex-boyfriend was a writer. He was blocked really badly, so I researched the subject. I mean, there are some advantages to being a librarian.” She kisses his chest, her mouth moving slowly southward. “Sometimes I get to meet talented, sexy guys like you, for example,” she murmurs.

            “So what happened.”

            She pauses at his waist. “What do you mean?”

            “Your ex-boyfriend. What happened? Was he cured?”

            She sits up. “Oh, that. Well, actually, he was, although I don’t think I would recommend his method. Alan finally decided the reason he couldn’t write was economic. I mean, the poor guy was really broke. He was putting himself through school and working full time at a bookstore, which pays shit. He figured all the pressure was holding him back. So what he did was, he held up a 7-Eleven.”

            “He what?”

            “He held up a 7-Eleven. Did I mention that Alan was a little weird? That’s why I wasn’t surprised when he asked to borrow a pair of my stockings. I thought, hey, whatever you’re into.” She laughs. “I didn’t know they were going to be accessories to a crime. Anyway, he goes marching in there with my stockings on his head and he points one of these fake guns that are really lighters at the kid behind the cash register. End of block.”

            “You mean the money cured him?”

            “No, I mean now he has free room and board and nothing but time on his hands. Writing a prison diary, the last I heard. So, like I said, I don’t think I would recommend his method. Hey, what does a woman have to do around here to get some satisfaction?”

            A half hour later, Taylor is mortified to discover there is absolutely nothing a woman can do. And it is no comfort at all to learn that Hemingway frequently had the same problem.


            Hemingway. Steinbeck. Faulkner. Those dead white dudes were writers. They started young, they kept working, they won their Nobel prizes.

            Taylor feels he has wasted his own youthful promise. Not that he could ever have ranked such elite company. Still, he may have produced quality work. He wonders what ten years of writing software documentation had done to his skills. Let alone his mind.

            The past is unimportant, though. The problem is what to do now. Taylor decides to visit his old creative writing professor and mentor, Dr. Randolph Spencer. Author of the highly praised novel Spaces Between, Dr. Spencer was a major influence on Taylor. His rigorous standards, his refusal to compromise, his credo of art for art’s sake, had deeply impressed the impressionable young writer. The professor, for his part, had treated Taylor as a gifted protégé. If anybody can help him now, it is Dr. Spencer.


            “Sorry, buddy, what did you say your name was again?”

            “Taylor. Jonathan Taylor.”

            “And when were you one of my students?”

            “From 2001 to 2005. I took seven classes with you.”

            “Jesus, this is embarrassing. Did you have a beard back then?”

            “No. It’s a recent development.”

            “Not fully developed yet either, I see. I bet it’s the beard that’s throwing me. Well, hey, with this bald head and big belly I don’t look the same as I looked back then, either. What kind of stuff did you write?"

            “Short stories.”

            “Grimly realistic or whimsically fantastic?”

            “A little of both.”

            “You weren’t the porn king, were you?”

            “No, that was Vincent Altmyer. I sat next to him in my senior year.”

            “That's right! It’s coming back to me. He’s the one who published those letters in Penthouse. He always wore a raincoat to class. Made me nervous. And you sat next to him, huh? Did you talk much, or were you one of the quietly intense artist types?”

            “I guess I was quietly intense.”

            “That's bad. I can never remember those.”

            “You told me I was your most promising student.”

            “I said that to everyone. It’s why I’m such a beloved figure. Well, anyway, what can I do for you now?”

            Taylor explains.

            “Hey, you’ve got a block all right. Just beginnings, huh? Weird. Look at the bright side, though, maybe you’ve stumbled on a whole new form. It happens. Or maybe you should hook up with someone who can only write endings. You get a third guy to fill out the middle and the three of you are set. You can be the Moe, Curly, and Larry of literature. Sorry, just a little joke.

            “As far as your career goes, you’ve got it all wrong. Look, writing is writing, technical or not. We all have to make a living. You’ve got to have a shtick. Besides, nobody’s interested in quality lit anymore. How else do you explain Nicholas Sparks? Yeah, sure, I could still be writing serious fiction if I wanted. Do you know how much money I made on my first novel? Including the advance? Less than two thousand bucks. And that’s only because my mother bought a hundred copies. Forget about short stories, you couldn’t feed a bird on what they pay for those. Now I make damned good cash for just one potboiler. Need a paranormal romance? Young adult fantasy with dragons and friggin’ unicorns? I can crank the schlock out in less than a month. Romances, horror, mysteries, action and adventure—you name it, I got a pseudonym for it.” He pokes Taylor in the ribs. “Wouldn't want to damage the old academic credentials, you know?”

            Taylor is horrified. “What about art? What about truth?”

            “What about dinner? I could eat a horse. Listen, I have a late class to teach, I’ve got to scarf something first. It was great seeing you again. Always nice running into a former student. So long as it’s not the porn king, that guy gave me the creeps. Stick with the technical shit, it sounds like a lucrative racket. If I ever run into someone who can only write middles or endings, I’ll get in touch.”


            On the way home, it strikes Taylor that everything he looks at is unfinished. The skeletal frame of a new office building, the trees recently planted on the side of the road, even the landscape itself. The world suddenly seems incomplete. He wonders if this is the true natural order of things, if he has stumbled upon some kind of cosmic secret. He also wonders if he is off his rocker.


            “You may have something there,” says Maureen. She is sitting across from him in the club room of his condo development, where he has stopped in for a needed drink. Maureen, a former philosophy instructor, now sells Mary Kay cosmetics. “Maybe you are nuts. You look like someone who lost a few shingles in the last storm, if you don’t mind my saying so.

            “On the other hand, your theory makes sense in a weird sort of way. Maybe the whole universe is a false start. Maybe God is blocked. It’s a pretty bizarre thought, I’ll give you that. Who knows? Wonder what my man Descartes would have had to say about this. Or Hegel. Can I interest you in some cologne, by the way? We’re running a special on men’s products this month.”

            “No thanks.”

            “Never hurts to ask. If you want my opinion, I think you’re having an early midlife crisis. I speak as an expert, having just gone through my third. How long since your divorce?”

            “About a year.”

            “Well, that could be it right there. I freaked out ten months after mine. I woke up in the middle of the night convinced I was the last living thing on earth. As if they had dropped the big one while I slept and I was the sole survivor. It was terrifying. I turned on the television and watched this Sex and the City marathon for about four hours. I also ate two entire containers of rum raisin Haagen Dazs ice cream and a box of Oreos. I felt better after that.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Except for the vomiting part.”

            “I hardly think about my divorce anymore.”

            “Of course not, you’re repressing the whole thing. How about some after shave? Guaranteed to drive women wild.”

            “No, I think I’ll be going now.”

            “Well, okay. Take care of yourself. I don’t want to read about you in the paper or anything. You know, ‘blocked writer goes on mad spree.’”

            “Don’t worry, I’m sure if I started one I couldn’t finish it.”


            Can Maureen be right? Is he having some kind of midlife crisis? How can he be so certain it has nothing to do with his divorce? He decides to call Anne, his ex-wife, and ask what she thinks. Though their marriage was often turbulent, they had parted on relatively good terms. It’s worth a try, at least.


            “You want to talk about false starts?” Anne shouts. He holds the receiver away from his ear. “We were a false start. Why I married you in the first place is still completely beyond me. No, it isn’t. I had the illusion you were a normal, stable human being. Instead, you turned out to be this writer. And let me tell you, right now I’m thinking there are even more cards missing from your deck than I suspected.”

            Taylor decides that if anything should be left unfinished, it is this conversation. He hangs up.


            If the universe is a false start, Taylor thinks, is it just one of many? He ponders the question while he lounges in bed at 6:00 a.m. watching television and eating rum raisin Haagen Dazs ice cream and Oreos. If God is blocked, how many false starts have already been made? Taylor pictures God chain smoking and drinking cup after cup of coffee, surrounded by failed universes tossed aside like crumpled balls of paper. The image makes him vaguely nauseous. Unless it’s the second box of Oreos.

            Outside his window rain falls steadily. A cold autumn breeze billows the curtains.

            Maybe he is looking at it the wrong way. Maybe the whole deal was set up like this intentionally, each fresh attempt helping to form a final perfect whole. Unlikely, but who is he to say? He can’t answer for the universe; he can barely answer for himself.

            He rises, spreads the curtains wide, views the gray dawn.

            Or what if God really is blocked? So what? There’s nothing Taylor can do about it in any event. Besides, if being blocked and uncertain is good enough for God, it’s good enough for Taylor. The big lug is obviously still making an effort; in spite of everything, Taylor can do no less.

            Anyway, it’s a start.   


Robert Douglas Friedman photo.jpg

Robert Douglas Friedman's short stories and humor pieces have appeared in Story Quarterly, Narrative, The Writing Disorder, The Satirist, Boomer Lit Mag, Bad Pony, and many other publications. He is the founder and president of Raising the Bar Media (www.raisingthebarmedia.com). Robert lives and works in New Jersey.