Acton had never spent much time contemplating writer’s block. This had everything to do with the fact that he had never previously found himself its victim. Perhaps everything is too strong a word. Acton had no trouble considering the ins and outs of things and events he had no personal experience with—although these things and events necessarily carried with them some intellectual element that sparked his curiosity in the first place. Writer’s block, as an idea, had never presented such an element to command his attention, and on top of that, it seemed too cliché a notion to even deserve it. Nevertheless, the prejudice of abstraction doesn’t always hold up under the weight of actual experience, and he now found writer’s block to be a fascinating object of examination.
Acton was at his desk, unable to write.
This fascination was a product of the feeling that accompanied his dilemma. One of the most interesting things about language, Acton thought, is how it grants mere sounds their own selfhood through a conceptual union with other aspects of the physical world. It’s obvious that language gives identity to what it describes, but what seems to be more or less overlooked is how a sound, once isolated as a word in the description of another feature of reality, is conversely given its own claim to independence. This act of “mutual selfhood giving,” as you could call it, not only lends itself to the practical function of communication but it can also produce truly original expressions of verbal beauty in the process. However, this feeling of Acton’s—this experience—by its very nature inspired no such function or originality. In the place of function was stagnation, and in the place of originality was the proverbial deer in the headlights. A cliché for a cliché, but the maxim fit. It fit too perfectly to overlook. There had been the recognition of a vacancy in the peripheral vision of his mind. Had he known better, he might have ignored this void and pressed forward with his writing. It’s true that it would have been slightly contrived work, perhaps a not-so-nuanced proverb about crossing a road or something, but at least he wouldn’t have been stuck. Stuck staring directly into the blinding approach of absolutely nothing.
So, Acton was stuck. And big deal. He had been stuck before, albeit not in the realm of the written word. How had he handled these other instances of personal stasis?
“Act on principle, Act-on.”
This was Charles. Charles had been Acton’s roommate in college and his closest confidant at that time. Acton had returned to the journalism school at The University of Missouri—after a self-imposed exile from academia into the “exciting” world of entry-level opportunity and the “romantic” state of young adult cynicism. The former didn’t take, while the latter took a little too well.
In those days, whenever Acton found himself in a state of immobility, he would make his way into the company of Charles, with the hope of finding some measure of stimulation, and thus resolution, to his dilemma. This would usually take place in one of the local bars the two frequented. It’s worth noting that Acton almost never actually asked Charles for help. One reason for this was simply the potency of Charles’ impetuous nature. Acton found that just being around Charles had a cathartic effect on him, and this alone could usually shake him out of whatever funk he happened to be in at the time. The other reason was the aforementioned quote. Charles was much more interested in offering quip than legitimate advice for an old pal, and the few times Acton had actually solicited Charles for advice, the advice had taken the form of this play on Acton’s name. Act on instinct, Act-on. Act on faith, Act-on. Etc.
Acton had grown to resent this word play and would cringe anytime Charles found an opening to break it out. He hated its flippancy, as well as its ever-diminishing originality, but what he hated the most was how it divided Acton into two separate pieces, the way it casually dismissed the wholeness of his name and drew emphasis to the silence between syllables. This silence seemed to momentarily stop time and leave him subjected to the expanding vacuum of a cheap joke. Acton secretly, and absurdly, found this a slight affront to his validity as an individual, an absurdity that he justified to himself as a balancing one-off from his typical emotional pragmatism. And, besides all that, it seemed there must have been a more compelling way to exploit a person’s name, if exploitation happened to be your insistence.
Charles was long gone now—along with his bad joke, thankfully—although so too was the galvanizing power of his persona, regrettably. Acton wasn’t really sure what had happened to Charles—or their friendship, for that matter. It was true that Charles had, at some point, started to rub Acton the wrong way on a more regular basis, but as far as Acton was aware, there had never been a defining moment that had signified the end of their relationship. What there had been was an ever-growing vagueness of familiarity.
It had started with a steady decrease in the details of life shared via text, email, or the occasional phone call. Eventually, following the pattern of their content, these modes of communication, in and of themselves, began to subtract one by one. It was as if there had been a breach of some invisible demarcation between internal and external principles: a trend that was overcoming, that was self-actualizing. The final result was a separation that had no clear beginning and that, by its very nature, could only be recognized in the independent observation of a now former friend.
Apart from writing, one of Acton’s favorite pastimes was listening to recorded monologues. This was mostly due to Acton’s general interest in language, but it was also due to the fact that Acton spent most of his time alone. The voices, while removed from their flesh and blood origins, gave Acton the feeling, the illusion, of company. The internet did more than aid this habit, it overwhelmed it. The amount of recorded content that Acton found at his disposal was dizzying in scope. Where is the right place to start when faced with a seemingly endless array of starting points?
Thankfully, Acton had somehow compiled a variety of go-to recordings that eased his vertigo and provided a gentle transition into the ever undulating sea of online thought. One such recording was a lecture given by the late Zen popularizer, Alan Watts. The lecture was an examination of conventions in language. One question posed within this lecture stood out to Acton in particular. It was what had brought him back again and again and again, what had made this recording a “go-to” in the first place: “How can a noun start a verb?”
This was a comment on the subject and predicate dichotomy of an English sentence. At first, Acton had dismissed this as nothing more than a metaphysical musing—and a stupid one at that. However, this initial reaction, he later decided, was a product of the power of regularity, as regularity always seems to be lulling one’s mind from accepting a norm into embracing an absolute. On further inspection, though, this grammatical absolute began to be stripped of its authority, and the nuts and bolts of its artificial nature became apparent. After all, how can an honest-to-god noun, being isolated in its noun-ness, have the power to start the movement of any verb whatsoever? For such a miracle to take place, the noun in question would, at some point, have to relinquish its status and at least momentarily take on the properties of a verb itself.
Relinquish? Take? The implication of all this was a world without nouns; fundamental reality described as some kind of infinite verb that was “verbing” everything else in existence, an infinite verb that could not be mentioned directly without it falling into the grammatical trap of noun-hood like “infinite verb,” for example. Such a line of thinking left Acton feeling a little uneasy. It also left him burdened with another question of his own, a question of basic personal autonomy that he had carried around ever since: Where was the place for “I” in all of this?
“Gloria speaks; you listen.”
This was Acton’s mother. To fully contextualize this quote would be to get sidetracked in the description of a summer day at a swimming pool in Tampa, Florida, circa 1988. But for current intents and purposes, “Gloria speaks; you listen” is better served now, stripped of context, as one isolated example of a verbal idiosyncrasy of Gloria’s that, in many ways, came to define Acton’s upbringing.
At first, this general construction of speech was used exclusively to control the will of a precocious little boy when the going of single motherhood got tough, like at a public swimming pool, for example. It was a necessary means of coming to resolution through the contrived, when the organic simply could not be found. But as contrived as it was, its effectiveness could not be overlooked, especially by Acton. There was something both maddening and fascinating about how the simple, yet authoritative, combination of two distinct statements could somehow catch hold and leave him no room to navigate for his own interests.
Early on, Acton could only see its immediacy; he could only understand it in terms of how it related directly to his momentary situation, as in the regrettable end of a day at the public swimming pool. What he didn’t notice was the pattern of relation that was developing on a deeper level between himself and Gloria. It was a pattern that found its grounding outside of necessity: a pattern that grew intractably complex through its merely habitual usage in day to day life.
“Gloria cooks; you eat.”
“Gloria washes; you wear.”
Spoken matter-of-factly, and somehow directed at no one, even though “You” was almost certainly referring to Acton, there was no obvious function in this secondary usage. And if there was a personal function that served Gloria, it was forever lost to Acton as an unacknowledged interior ambiguity. It wasn’t until later in life that Acton was able to consider this habit of Gloria’s abstractly, tease it apart, and then integrate it into the context of their relationship.
His point of departure from the simple acknowledgment of a quirk into a sort of half-baked psychoanalysis was his critique of the usage’s second sentence. It was here that Acton thought Gloria had stated what would have been better left implied. An implication that would have left an opening for recognition within Acton: a recognition of trust facilitating the free and the easy. Considering a current and very particular estrangement, he now couldn’t help but see the inclusion of this second sentence as a mechanism that cut off the mutual nature of communication and made language a static thing, as opposed to a movement of union between two people, between mother and son.
This history is, if nothing else, a testament to how language, for better or worse, had caught hold of Acton from a very young age. This was why a problem, based in a way on language’s absence, was particularly noteworthy and due its moment in the sun.
It eventually occurred to Acton that the problem of writer’s block could be experienced in either of two opposing forms. What Acton had not yet realized was the illusory nature of both of these forms. How illusory were they? Well, enough so that Acton, paradoxically, overcame them both, long before striking dilemma.
The first form was long ago overcome at Harpo’s on any one of his late-night benders with Charles:
The first drink taken. Merely the idea of consumption. A vision crisp and definite, yet impossibly isolated: abstract and remote. The first drink taken. An idea somehow superseded by the sensation of movement and cold, of depth and integration. The first drink taken. A drink taken well.
The second form was rendered inconsequential even further back, at Bailey’s swimming pool, with Gloria:
The water’s first embrace. Merely the idea of submersion. Once again, the vision, impossibly singular, closed off and impenetrable; once again, the idea, miraculously superseded by the sensation of movement and cold, of depth and integration. The water’s first embrace. An embrace through and through.
But a problem overcome doesn’t guarantee the abandonment of that problem, regardless of how eloquent and satisfying its resolution may be. A defeated problem can easily be revived fictionally through a bit of self-deception, as an aid toward the resolution of a different problem altogether. But the fictions that we tell ourselves, when allowed to remain unacknowledged indefinitely, can cross over into the realm of lived experience. These lived fictions, clichéd or otherwise, never cease to amaze upon recognition.
Acton was still at his desk, unable to write. Acton was unable to think of what to write. Acton was frustrated. Acton was unsure of the correct definition of frustration. Acton was nonplussed. Acton was certain he didn’t know the correct definition of nonplussed. Acton was unable to find resolution. Acton was uninterested in resolution’s definition. Acton was unable to find predicament. Acton was predicament. Acton was a body. Acton was the sum total of parts. Acton was skin. Acton was bone. Acton was hair. Acton was blood. Acton was cells. Acton was the space between cells. Acton was the space between cell and moon. Acton was the sum total of no parts. Acton was a rock in Bermuda. Acton was the lint in the dryer. Acton was the idea of lint in a dryer. Acton was a pixel among pixilation. Acton was pixilation’s partner in crime. Acton was there. Acton was here. Acton was then. Acton was now. Acton was one. Acton was many. Acton was the relationship between earth and sky. Acton was the awareness of earth and sky and their relationship. Acton was aware of it all. Acton was unaware of awareness. Acton was aware of nothing. Acton was you. Acton was me. Acton was interchangeable. Acton was not interchangeable. Acton was interchangeable and not interchangeable. Acton was a story. Acton was a story’s end. Acton was a story’s beginning. Acton was no story whatsoever. Acton was a sound. Acton was a word. Acton was both a sound and a word and neither a sound nor a word. Acton was? Acton was not! Acton was. Acton.
Gloria had sent Acton an email some time back, well before this whole writer’s block ordeal. The email served as an olive branch that Acton had not been willing to accept. Their relationship had come to a halt several years prior. This had been Acton’s decision and his decision alone. He had been proud of this, something to do with independence and causality. Yet, when considering the firmness of his convictions on the matter, it was odd that he kept being brought back to Gloria’s email. Brought back again and again and again. Adjacent to it’s heading was Charles’s email address in his list of contacts.
So characteristic, completely random, yet charming in its overzealousness. It exemplified precisely what had made their friendship a “go to” in the first place.
Acton was momentarily teased out of thought and momentarily teased back in: “Questions for answers; nothing more.”
Banner Image: Pixabay.com
1 thought on “Acton by Christopher A. Dale”
The section about him seeking out Charles and his initial relationship with him is very interesting.
I think that we do seek out certain people in our lives, not so much for advice, in fact it can be the opposite, when we need some grounding.
These friends or associates just need to shoot the breeze with us for us to find some level ground.
Maybe there is hardship from them, or success or just that spark of life or scepticism that we need to kick-start our own outlook.
Your piece of work made me consider all this.