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The Writer's Block Sleeps Tonight

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Alexis stared at the assignment sheet for a second too long. Marcus Jones, who sat behind her, tapped her arm. She blinked and passed the rest of the sheets back so that he and the rest of the row could take one. (Technically, it was a column of desks, not a row. It was another inexplicable mystery of high school lexicography.) For all that Mr. Gomez emphasized the importance of proper word choice, he was lax about naming things in his classroom. Columns were rows, the pop quizzes were anything but -- "Now, ladies and gentlemen, I'm not saying there will be a quiz on Brave New World on Wednesday, but I am saying that themes of alienation and consumer culture are awfully interesting" -- and actual writing assignments were seldom heard of.

Which was just fine by Alexis. Dad had the writing gene, and Mom had -- well, whatever wacky scheme she was working on this week (the last time they'd talked on the phone, she'd been explaining that she was going to start working as a stunt performer). Alexis had music. She wasn't sure she could make an actual career out of it -- she worked hard to be good, but she knew she wasn't ever going to play in a professional orchestra. Every few years, she got the urge to start a band and begin touring seedy, tiny clubs like Ani DiFranco in 1997 -- just her and her violin, and whatever other musicians she could recruit. It sounded lonely and romantic and good for the creative process ... for about five minutes. Then she remembered the panicky look Dad got when his agent announced that he'd be going on a book tour, leaving for weeks on end with only the occasional exhausted phone call. Once he'd gone through Asia for a whole month -- she got a t-shirt covered in nonsensical English phrases that was about three sizes too big for her. She couldn't even sleep in it; it kept sliding off her shoulders.

"Maybe I should go with him next time," Alexis had said to Grams over lunch one day, when the publicity for Storm Front was at its worst. "Keep him company. You know he's not going to eat right if I'm not there."

Grams had smiled over her sushi. "Why not? Some authority figures would tell you not to miss so much school, but you're smart enough to miss three weeks."

And, in a flash, Alexis had seen how the tour would go -- Dad getting more and more tired, his Good Face For The Public wearing thin. Alexis herself, waiting uselessly in the back of bookstore after bookstore, spending nights flipping listlessly through hotel cable channels while Dad went to fabulous and boring parties. Her face must have shown something, because Grams had laughed.

"That's your curse, my dear -- you're always going to be too practical to have a silly adventure like that."

Practical. Alexis made a face as she turned on her laptop and resumed peeling an apple for an after-school snack. Someone in this family had to be the responsible one, and it might as well be her, but she sometimes doubted she even had the capacity to do something as silly as drive across the country with only her music for company. Before she even got a half-decent fantasy of Alexis Castle, Indie Star -- before she even picked a decent stage name -- her brain came back at her with credit card bills, truck stop coffee, and years of languishing in obscurity without a label contract. She opened a new file on her computer and automatically put in a heading for the English paper. Name, due date, subject, teacher's name. [Title goes here], she wrote, increasing the font size and centering the text, and then [Subtitle goes here] underneath. Now that the page wasn't blank, it didn't look quite as intimidating. She pulled out her assignment sheet and reread it.

We have been reading stories with conflicts between the individual and society. Write your own story of an individual conflicting with a society. This story should be no more than seven pages and should incorporate at least two of the literary themes we've been examining, such as the reluctant hero, pressure to conform, religion as a moral force, and inter-societal conflicts. Use your imagination!

The mostly-blank page suddenly looked just as terrifying as Bach's Chaconne in D Minor. Write a story. They wanted her to write a story. Dad is the writer, she told herself. She glanced at the screen again. The cursor was blinking impatiently. She considered a vague idea for a story -- one man, repressive technology-centric society, information as currency -- before declaring it a bad Matrix ripoff and saving the file.

She avoided thinking about the assignment while she did the rest of her homework, gave comfort for two sides of a bad breakup over instant messenger, and threw the salmon marinating in the refrigerator into the oven. It wasn't until she dinner that it caught back up with her.

She expected Dad to seize on the story the way he'd taken over her second-grade Thanksgiving play, reworking it into REVENGE AT PLYMOUTH, a Tarantino-style tragedy that never saw the outside of the apartment they'd lived in at that point but which was still hilarious years later. Alexis loved her dad, but he sometimes resembled nothing so much as a large, cheerful terrier. Once he sunk his teeth into an idea, a character, a person, he didn't like to let go of it. Alexis picked at her mashed potatoes as she waited for the inevitable barrage of questions about the epic saga she should have outlined by this point.

To her surprise, he didn't get Dad-Faced over over it. "You find your own process, honey," he said as she put the dishes into the dishwasher. "I'm not gonna interfere in that."

"Really?" she asked suspiciously. "You're not gonna pop your head in every two minutes and ask me how I'm doing, or bug me with story ideas, or come up with your own version?"

"No, no, and no. You just work on your process."

And that was part of the problem. Dad thought she should have a process. She didn't need a process, she just needed to write this stupid story. Real writers had processes -- one of Dad's favorite ways to deal with irritating reporters was to make up long and complex answers for how he wrote. The story was never the same -- sometimes, like Roald Dahl, he retreated to a private cottage covered in his work. Sometimes he kept to a strict schedule, rising early and writing a certain number of words before the sun rose each day. Once, Alexis had been making a snack in the kitchen while Dad, over the phone, spun out a four-minute yarn about the precise mix of cocaine and terror that was necessary for his writing. "Oh, sorry, did you want my writing process, or Sorkin's?" he said, his laugh taking the sting out of the joke. Alexis could practically hear the reporter frantically crossing out her notes.

Dad's real process, of course, was a constant stream of words. He could jot down scenes, or dialogue, or ideas, or things that popped into his head throughout the day, and then assemble them like a jigsaw puzzle. Alexis had seen him assemble stories from notes written on napkins, parking tickets, crossword puzzles, and wet newspaper. Although even he had a hard time reading his handwriting on the wet newspaper, which had dried in odd curlicues.

A week later, Alexis hand't made any progress on the paper. She pushed it to the back of her mind, and then further than that when her brain insisted that working on it now would be practical. Every day, she opened up the file, realized she had no ideas, and closed it again. The Sunday before it was due, Alexis woke up early, and got ready to spend all day hammering the paper out. And then she looked at her planner, and remembered that Grams was taking her to see The Lion King that afternoon.

They'd gone to Sunday matinees since before she could remember -- one last weekend hurrah before she dived back into school and the multitude of activities she kept herself busy with. Grams had a whole spiel on the importance of the matinee -- how they gave a chance for understudies to shine while the stars were hung over, the romantic joy of going into a theater with the sun out and coming back to an evening -- but mostly, Alexis liked them because it kept Dad from lazing around all Sunday afternoon. He didn't go with her and Grams most of the time -- "Girl bonding," he said, "not something I'm gonna get in the middle of," -- but if she was headed out that meant he'd at least get out of his pajamas by noon.

"I still can't believe that my own grandchild hasn't seen The Lion King," said Grams as they got into the cab.

"Well, Dad was touring when it came out, and you know how hard it was to get tickets after the Tonys."

"That, darling, is no excuse. You should have called me -- I met Julie Taymor when she won her genius grant."

"But then I couldn't have seen it now, with you." Alexis smiled extra-sweetly and batted her eyes.

"Oh, you." Grams shook her head and smiled.

As they sat in the darkening theater, Alexis glanced around. Everyone was making one last check of their cell phones before turning them off. The man directly in front of her seat didn't bother actually turning off his iPhone.

"Did you see?" she murmured to Grams.

"Oh, yes." Grams was notoriously creative in her punishments for people who used their phones at the theater. "There's a special level of hell reserved for people like that," she'd told Alexis once. "Besides being terribly rude and distracting -- to both the audience and the actors, mind you -- if you don't care enough about the performance that you're willing to ignore everything else, then why are you there in the first place?"

"Revenge at intermission?" Alexis suggested.

"Bet your ass -- shhh, it's starting."

Alexis burrowed happily into her coat as the show began. She couldn't help her gasp when the elephants walked up the aisle of the theater. Grams chuckled, and Alexis elbowed her in retort. If I'd seen this as a six-year-old, I probably would have screamed, she thought. Or wanted to buy one.

For the next three hours, she didn't think about the blinking cursor and blank page waiting for her at home. Beyond the elaborate revenge scheme Grams had cooked up for intermission -- it involved a sympathetic usher, Grams throwing a fainting spell, and closing the balcony bar -- all Alexis cared about was the action on stage. This is what stories are supposed to be like, she told herself.

They stopped at Shake Shack for dinner before going home. She and Grams stole french fries from one another as they reignited a happy, old argument about the Spider-Man musical.

"Well, for you and your father it's different. You two like all those superheroes and comic books."

"Not all of them. That Wolverine movie was a terrible idea and should never have been attempted."

"Yes, yes, but superheroes and movies work together. The only man who should fly onstage is Peter Pan, and he's a woman anyway. I just don't think it's going to work."

"That's the same thing you said about putting Mel Brooks onstage."

"And I was right! Look at Young Frankenstein!"

"Aww, Grams, do I have to?"

Grams threw a fry at her in revenge. She ate it triumphantly.

Once she was back in her room, she put the program for Lion King next to the Nutcracker program from the production she and Grams had seen last year. She sighed and fired up her laptop. I need a good story, she wrote -- words on a page counted as words on a page at this point. I need any story. She finished a cup of tea as she typed a one-page manifesto of exactly what should be in the story, how it should sound, what a stupid assignment it was in the first place, and how much she just wanted to be done with the paper.

She stared at the screen. It stared back.

She wrote half a page of how sick she was of the assignment, the words set to the tune of "Copacabana." She wrote a limerick about lukewarm tea. She wrote a letter to the editor of a fictional newspaper about how irritating instant message bots were.

Alexis stopped writing, and checked the time. 11:37 PM. She stretched her arms above her head and reread the letter. There might be something there -- if the bots were conspiratorial, and not just full of spyware porn ... maybe the technocratic government was behind it? She pounded out a rough outline -- government conspiracy, information lockdown, keeping tabs on citizens through the internet. Two paragraphs later and she had an actual plot. Alexis scrolled to the top of the document, and changed the subtitle to Wil Wheaton And Summer Glau Take Down Google, and started writing in earnest.

She glanced at the clock again. 2:14 AM. Her fingers felt like they were about to fall off. And, by her one-page-an-hour rule, she had forty-five minutes to get through this one. She sipped her tea, but could barely swallow the now-cold unsweetened beverage. Alexis saved the document again and stood up, arm and leg muscles protesting their treatment.

She padded downstairs to the kitchen and made another cup of tea. The apartment was dark, and only the light from the microwave (currently heating water for her Earl Grey, hot, something Dad still mocked her for) cast a steady beam. She glanced into the gloom in the rest of the house. The streetlights outside made everything weirdly orange, except for the bright yellow light still on in Dad's office. She grabbed her tea from the microwave and walked towards the office.

"Knock knock," she said.

"Alexis? That you?" In one smooth motion he saved his story, closed the laptop, and pushed it to the side. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," she said, trying for a smile. When she could tell it wasn't going to work, she held the mug to her lips and took a small sip.

"What are you still doing up?"

Alexis padded across the floor and sat down next to him. "Working on some stuff for school."

"That story for English," he said, nodding knowingly.

She blinked. "Yeah, how did you know?"

"If it were a science project, you'd have told me about it, and be dragging all sorts of weird chemicals into this house. If it were a history paper, the living room would be covered in books and highlighters. And if you were up this late worried about something in math, you'd be blasting your homework playlist."

"I'm that predictable, huh?"

"Nah. But I'm your dad -- I have to know that stuff."

Alexis gave him a look. "When does my winter break end?"

Dad pouted. "C'mon, you can't expect me to keep track of the boring stuff."

She smiled, and relaxed into the couch. "How did you figure out your process?" she asked.

"I always write stuff down -- did ever since I was a kid. One day I figured, put everything together and see what happens."

Alexis nodded and blew across her tea -- it was still just this side of too hot.

"How many pages left?"

She took a small sip. "Two. But the double agent still has to reveal himself, and they haven't snuck onto the space shuttle yet."

"Sounds like you have a ways to go."

"Yeah." Alexis wrapped her arms around her dad and relaxed for a moment into the hug. But her brain, finally a part of this exercise, explained that hugs were nice, but they weren't practical when she still had a story to write.

"Night, Dad."

"Night, honey. I love you."

"Love you too." Alexis picked up her mug and walked out of the office. She glanced back and saw Dad picking up his own laptop, typing a few words as he tried to get back to the right spot in the story.

She stopped writing at 4:26 AM. She assumed she must have slept at some point, because the next thing Alexis knew she was hitting her alarm clock over and over again in an effort to shut it up. She sat up and grabbed the printout of the story, sticking it into her backpack, throwing on clothes, and getting her hair into some kind of order within ten minutes.

"Morning," Dad said cheerfully when she stalked into the kitchen.

Alexis narrowed her eyes. "Why are you so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?"

"Because I've been doing this longer than you. And, because I know something that you do not."

"You're not left-handed?"

"Close!" He handed her a mug, and she took a sip unthinkingly. "Espresso," he said, "is way better than tea."

Alexis glared at him. She could feel the caffeine rush going straight through her fingernails. She glanced at the clock. "Oh no, I'm gonna be late!" she cried dramatically. "Sorry, Dad, I have no time for your demonic beverages!"

He grinned. "One day, you will see the light."

She grinned back and kissed his cheek. "Sure, but I really am going to be late if I don't head out."

"Bye, sweetheart," he said as she grabbed a banana and headed out the door.

"See you tonight!" She started unpeeling the banana as she walked toward the elevator, humming Bach's Chaconne in D-minor.