Overcoming Writer’s Block Brought On By Childhood Trauma: Q&A with Marc Jampole

In this interview, Marc Jampole discusses the techniques he used to overcome writer’s block brought on by childhood trauma, the challenge of not getting bogged down by factual details when writing autobiographically, his literary novel’s path to publication, and more.

Marc Jampole (@MarcJampole) wrote The Brothers Silver (Owl Canyon Press, 2021), Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007) and Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month (Poet’s Haven Press, 2017). His poetry and short stories have appeared in many journals and anthologies. About 1,800 freelance articles he has written have been published. A former television news reporter and public relations executive, Marc writes the OpEdge blog and is president of the board of Jewish Currents, a national magazine of politics and arts.

KRISTEN TSETSI: The Brothers Silver (releasing June 1, 2021 and available for pre-order) is your first novel, but you’ve published two books of poetry—Music from Words and Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month—and have been writing articles and poems for some time. Additionally, you’ve been involved in filmmaking.

In the marketing material I received for The Brothers Silver, you explain that the childhood trauma you experienced, and that influenced The Brothers Silver, is what prevented you from writing fiction for so long. It also stopped you from writing more poetry than you did ultimately manage to write. You say, “Feelings of shame, guilt, or unworthiness served as a dam that held back the flow of words.”

What is it about fiction, in particular, that is harder to write, emotionally, than poetry (which seems to be just as creatively revealing) or stories told with a camera?

MARC JAMPOLE: After a few early highly imagistic and abstract experimental films, virtually all of my film work was journalism, training, or selling products and services—no personal emotional skin related to childhood trauma in any of those games, at least not for me.

Poems hold a number of advantages over novels (and all fictional prose) for those in the throes of a writer’s block:

1) Length. Eugene Onegin and Paradise Lost aside, most poems are far shorter in length than the average short story, let alone any novel. During the brief periods of flowing words that interrupt a long-term writer’s block you have time to plan and complete a short poem.

2) Relative simplicity of writing process. Poems depend on creating an epiphany—an isolated moment when the reader suddenly understands something new, and usually unsaid—which the poet can capture in an inspiration, and then work over in editing; whereas in a novel, you have to string together a series of moments, each of which must be set up and then described. A more complicated process, with more steps, each of which can be halted through any of a number of the artificial barriers people with writer’s block find to throw in their own way.

3) Concealment. You can hide your emotions in obscurities and lush imagery in a poem far easier than you can in a novel. Keep in mind, I’m talking about myself, but I think what I’ve said applies to many blocked writers.

When and how did you decide you had to write The Brothers Silver, and why was it such an important story to tell that you forced yourself to overcome those feelings of guilt and unworthiness?

I have always “had to write” this novel, from the day I decided I wanted to write professionally. I’ve always wanted to tell others what it’s like to grow up in emotionally shattered circumstances and how hard it is to confront and overcome childhood trauma.

If you think you can sweep it under a thick rug of forgetfulness like the brothers in the novel do, you’ll find that it always comes back to haunt you worse than before—panic attacks, feelings of worthlessness, bad dreams, broken relationships, and general unhappiness. But if you accept that you’ve been permanently scarred by your childhood as if it were a disability, you have a chance to learn not only how to live with it, but also how to grow beyond it.

I wrote the first draft of the second chapter and the beginning of the last chapter when I was in my mid-twenties, the first draft of chapter six when I was twenty-nine, and the first draft of the first chapter when I was thirty. All these bits and pieces curated in a series of drawers and filing cabinets until I was ready to confront the material about five years ago.

By that time, three therapists had helped me to overcome my shame and anger related to my childhood. I had also figured out a number of ways to drill holes through the thick dam that was holding back my flow of words. My drill bits consist of little rules and techniques: Make sure you sit at the keyboard for a few hours every day, even if all you do is stare at the screen. Always have a number of projects going, so if you’re blocked on one, you can work on another. Always end the day with something more to write the next day (a tip I picked up from Hemingway). Make artificial deadlines and enforce them.

My most important rule when nothing else works—stare at the blank page and remind myself with my best tough-love demeanor that I’m emotionally crippled and always will be, but that I can’t let my malaise stop me from doing what makes me happy.

I want to mention something else that may have helped. I have always needed an emotional “safe space” in which to write creatively. Through the years, my best creative work has always emerged when I felt most secure in my emotions and emotional relationships. I went almost ten years in my forties not writing even one poem, because I didn’t feel in a safe space (one of the disadvantages of a bad marriage). About 10 years ago, I started living again in New York City after an absence of more than forty years. I have enjoyed every place I’ve lived—and there have been many—but I feel the safest emotionally in New York.

What is it about New York that makes you feel safe?

On a conscious level, my answer involves my love of trains; my preference for not owning or driving a car; the cozy joy I get from life at street level (as opposed to life lived in cars, parking lots, and malls with artificial “water features”); my preference for more public space even if it means less private space; and the exhilaration of crowds and beautiful architecture.

But there’s also the irrational nostalgia factor: there is so much I do in New York that hearkens back to the happy moments of my childhood: riding subways to Coney Island and to visit family in Washington Heights; strolling through Central Park, the Village and the Lower East Side; and seeing artwork I’ve loved since I was a boy, such as Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” or Picasso’s “Three Musicians.”

From the time I could travel by myself at the age of 12, New York (meaning Manhattan and the great civic establishments of Brooklyn) was always my escape from the violence, mental illness and drug abuse of my family life. Thus I’m used to the sounds, sights and smells of the city comforting me.

Was writing The Brothers Silver in any way permanently therapeutic? Did it change how you feel now when you approach fiction?

Wow, was writing The Brothers Silver ever therapeutic!

I’m working on a new novel now, and progress is remarkably swift. I do have my bad days—and weeks—but for the most part I am forging ahead. My mind is constantly swimming in ideas about the details of the book—rounding out characters, setting up the jokes and epiphanies of later chapters in the early ones, editing as I write to improve rhythms and precision.

I am not fretting over writing challenges, but analyzing and solving them one by one, and then working through their implications for the rest of the work.

What is it that draws you to writing fiction, in general, and what draws you to writing poetry?

The same impulses attract me to both fiction and poetry: wanting to experiment with language. Wanting to say something in a new way that pleases both the ear and the mind’s ear. Wanting to entertain people in their minds and their hearts. Wanting to communicate my thoughts about life, relationships, politics and philosophy as epiphanies and gradual realizations, rather than as structured treatises. Wanting to make people feel real emotions, to make readers and listeners feel Aristotle’s “fear and trembling” (and Kierkegaard’s, too!).

According to your Wikipedia page, your work—up to this point—“is rarely autobiographical.” But at least the first part of The Brothers Silver, when brothers Jules and Leon are young, is based on your experience growing up. What was it like to put the focus so boldly on yourself when, traditionally, that hadn’t been your practice?

At first it was very uncomfortable to delve into my past. I had to relive the emotional pain of my youth, not once, but many times. I also had to contemplate all the what-ifs, many of which involved confronting mistakes of judgment I made as a youth or the many no-win situations in which nothing I could have done would have been right, since all ways would lead to bad outcomes.

The further I got into the first draft, the harder it became. But once I had the first draft down, I was able to treat the writing as “material” and deal with it as easily as I have always dealt with writing a news release or a television commercial.

The reason my poetry has rarely been autobiographical—in contrast to most practitioners of contemporary poetry, no matter their style—is that my writer’s block was tied up with my inability to confront my past and what I felt about what had happened to my brother and me. It was thus exceedingly difficult to write about my childhood or my current feelings.

What I often did in my poetry was to write about other people who had the same feelings but in entirely different circumstances. Making sure readers and listeners recognized that the writer was not the speaker of the poem helped me to keep those feelings concealed, since someone else was having and expressing them, not me.

From a technical standpoint, what did it take to tell, to the extent that you did, your own story without getting lost in the details of memory? What advice would you give other writers considering stepping into more self-focused writing for the first time?

What a great question. And it is always the central question when working on any kind of creative venture in any artistic medium or genre; “What to leave in, what to leave out,” as Bob Seger put it in his pop ditty, “Against the Wind.”

Many know the story of Hemingway cutting his short story “The Killers” from many pages to fewer than three thousand words, each round of editing slicing away more extraneous detail. I remember reading the wise words of an independent filmmaker whose names escapes me: “You don’t know if a film is good until you cut out a shot or sequence you love.”

I have found that maxim applies to virtually everything I write. Thus, the approach to deciding what characters, plot lines, anecdotes and details from your own past or life you want to put into a piece is exactly the same as when working on non-autobiographical material: keep focused on what you want to say; don’t be afraid to change what happened in real life to honor a higher truth, create symbolism or improve the rhythms; and cut out everything extraneous.

One example of all three of these concepts is my approach to Jules Silver, the character in the novel who is based in part on my life. Time and again in writing The Brothers Silver, I combed through everything involving him in the novel to make sure none of it hinted that he was or would become a writer; remember he’s a character based on someone who has been a professional writer since graduate school, but what I wanted to say was more universal than yet another writer-coming-of-age story could contain.

The Brothers Silver is told from ten different perspectives, including a dialogue-only exchange between two people, the boys’ aunt and uncle. Older brother Jules’s perspective is particularly distinctive, though, because in addition to being poetic in a number of other ways, it also dips into and out of rhyme, and often playfully. How did you decide what would rhyme and what wouldn’t?

Every paragraph that Jules speaks in narrating the first and last chapters contains rhymed words. Those rhymes are much more noticeable when they come at the natural pauses of the prose rhythms in these chapters. The rhymes that are harder to find—which means those rhymes that don’t jump out at the reader in the natural flow of reading—are embedded mid-phrase.

I thought long and hard a about setting every rhyme at the end of a natural pause, but to do so would have prioritized this technical element over hewing to the vocabulary of the speaker and the naturalness of the language. If we were to inject line breaks into the prose presentation of these two chapters, we would experience more of these “hidden rhymes” as enjambments.

Rhyming prose came to me as a happy accident of literary experimentation. I wrote the first chapter as a stand-alone non-rhyming poem several years back. After setting it down for a few months, I decided to set it to irregular rhymes, which seemed to give it extra emotional power. I put it down again for a few months, then started playing with the poem. I decided to experiment and set it as a prose piece, and the lines suddenly seemed to soar—at least to me.

This experiment occurred when I was making the transition from writing poetry to writing fiction. Once I made the decision to tell the story from different points of view, I realized that I could create more stylistic contrast between the chapters by having only Jules speak in irregular rhymes.

Was there a perspective that took much more time than the others to write?

The last chapter represents about 40-45% of the total length of the book, so of course that chapter took the longest to write. But the perspective that took the most time to develop was definitely the narrator of the second chapter, who is a devious, brutal, and misogynistic narcissist, but at the same time quite clever.

I found the character thoroughly repulsive. It took much thought and mental energy to develop the language and situations that would let the world know that this despicable creation was an unreliable narrator, without being heavy-handed or having him ever have a moment of recognition or acknowledgement of the monstrosity of his actions and thoughts.

Women authors are often expected to deliver “likeable” characters. How important do you, as a writer, think it is to deliver a likeable or relatable character, and how important is it to you, as a reader, that a novel feature a character you like or find relatable?

I was not aware that women writers are expected to deliver “likeable characters,” but I find it a highly sexist and offensive expectation. And to some degree, it’s untrue. Nobody is really likeable in either Anna Burns’s Milkman or Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, although several characters in both are quite sympathetic and our hearts go out to them; it is hard not to despise every character in Burns’s Tiny Constructions. I have found no admirable characters in fiction by either Anna Kavan or Silvina Ocampo. I consider all of these writers and books among the very best literature since World War II.

Now to the question, which is whether I as a reader want to see likeable characters in the novels I read. Let me answer by revealing that of the five novels that I consider the greatest of all time, three of them—Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and Madame Bovary—have no character that is heroic or sympathetic. There are 108 heroes of Shin Nai’an’s Outlaws of the Marsh, all admirable for their skills and actions, but all butchers.

The likeability of the two main characters of the last of my five favorite novels, Joyce’s Ulysses, is open to deep questioning.

Now relating to a character is different than liking. We can relate to Emma Bovary’s longing for something other than her dreary life or Song Jiang’s desire to revenge corruption in the Chinese state, and I can certainly relate to the self-centered drifting of Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses.

Somewhat relatedly, a writer asked recently on Facebook how readers would respond if a character in a novel used a word known to be offensive to a group of people. Would they decide the book wasn’t worth reading? Would they hate the writer? understand the language was true to the character?

What is your opinion of the notion that writers should be careful not to offend in their writing?

Let’s first discount those writers whose goal is to offend a group of people—all the overt and camouflaged racists, supremacists, misogynists, homophobes, and fascists.

The question for a writer who wants to avoid insulting any group with invectives or ugly stereotypes is always who says the nasty word?

If a distinct character who the audience understands does not represent the author would say something offensive, then let it rip. One of the characters in The Brothers Silver uses the n-word. I would never write the actual word in a letter or a piece of journalism or criticism, but it was as true to this particular character in the given situation as breathing is, so I did not hesitate one nanosecond to type out the word, nor felt any moral constraint in the typing.

What was your path to publication for The Brothers Silver? It’s a literary novel, and literary novels are notoriously hard to sell.

Long and hard. First, I tried to get an agent. Over an 18-month period, I sent my manuscript with what I thought was a strong cover letter to about 180 agents. The three who responded said “no,” “no interest,” and “no thanks.”

I then worked up a list of 200 small and university presses that would accept novel manuscripts not coming from an agent. After about 18 more months, Owl Canyon and two other small presses responded within the same two-month period.

Things clicked immediately between me and the Owl Canyon publisher, Gene Hayworth. That’s a total of three years, but during that time, I kept revising and perfecting my manuscript.

Because literary fiction usually tends to reach beyond the more easily log-lined traditional plot structure, reducing a literary novel to a “this and then this” description for a query letter can be a lot of hair-tearing fun. Would you be willing to share your successful query letter as a sample for other literary fiction writers hoping to find an agent or publisher?

I will happily share my basic letter, but seeing as it attracted the attention of only three out of 380 agents and publishers, I’m not certain you can call it successful. I imagine, however, it would have been more successful if I had made a few minor changes, such as signing it “Kim Kardashian” or “Edward Kennedy, III.”

Here is the basic letter:

Jules and Leon Silver sit at a dusty Formica table in a cold kitchen drinking warm sugar water. Downstairs in the basement their mother is unconscious, having swallowed hundreds of Librium sometime during the last few days when the brothers were away at Boy Scout camp, her latest suicide attempt. The food cupboards are empty. The phone doesn’t give a dial tone. As the sun goes down, the kitchen grows colder. The boys are frozen in their inability to do anything but sit there waiting for their mother to die.

She doesn’t die, but the guilt and anger the brothers feel that they did nothing to save her haunt them for the rest of their lives. The incident, near the end of the first chapter, stands as the focal point of THE BROTHERS SILVER, the hot center from which the novel’s multiple story lines and voices radiate backwards and forwards in time.

Through the distorted prism of the emotionally crippled Silver family, the reader experiences the second half of the American 20th century. The younger brother Leon drops out and lives a drug-addled itinerant life. The older brother Jules ruins the beginning of a promising career by getting involved with a woman who treats him miserably. The book ends with Jules looking back from a perspective of 30 years at how childhood trauma distorted his view of the world.

The 12 chapters of THE BROTHERS SLIVER unfold in ten voices, each of which has its own vocabulary and literary style, from simple first person and third person omniscient to script dialogue, surrealism, flash fiction and stream of consciousness. The narrator of two of the chapters speak in irregular rhyming patterns. THE BROTHERS SILVER is a tour de force of voices and styles that stands firmly in the American traditional of accessible literary experimentation established by Heller, Pynchon and Wallace. A terribly fat-headed statement, I know, but please forgive my arrogance in advance and judge THE BROTHERS SILVER’s literary merits by the manuscript.

Please note that one of the chapters of THE BROTHERS SILVER, “Hashmal,” has been published in the Jewish Literary Quarterly.

A brief bio: I am a successful writer who has been widely published as a journalist, ghost writer, blogger and poet. I am probably most well-known for my blog, OpEdge, which has about 40,000 followers and appears on the websites of Jewish Currents, Vox Populi and The Progressive Populist. My literary credits include two books of poetry, Music from Words (2007, Bellday Books) and Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month (2017, Poet’s Haven Press), and more than two hundred individual poems published in journals and anthologies. A former television news reporter and public relations executive, I have also written or ghost-written more than 1,800 articles that have appeared in newspapers and magazines. I am president of the editorial board of Jewish Currents, a national magazine of politics and the arts.

One of the requests in the submission guidelines of your publisher, Owl Canyon Press, is “available marketing and promotion.” As someone who for 30 years owned and operated a marketing communications agency (Jampole Communications), you must have had an easy time with that one. What do you find is the best or most effective way to market something like literary fiction?

I won’t know for about a year whether anything I did worked, or what of the things I did worked. I can tell you that I’m pursuing major news media that cover literature and the arts, literary journals that publish book reviews and author interviews, and consumer trade publications that might be interested in my personal story. I also intend to advertise on Amazon and Facebook, work my extensive social media network, and run a number of marketing campaigns targeted directly at the library market.

You said you’ve been working on a new novel. Many writers have either embraced writing during the year of COVID-19 or have been unable to focus on writing because they’ve been too worried or distracted. How, if at all, did COVID-19’s presence in the world impact your writing?

Not one bit has Covid-19 affected my writing. I continue to put in the seven-hour-a-day regime I established when I sold my public relations business five years ago.

Like everyone else, however, Covid-19 has profoundly affected my non-writing life, as we could not go to restaurants, movies, or concerts, could not travel, could only see friends through Zoom, couldn’t ride the subway or bus, and didn’t do any walking outside beyond standard chores.

But because we enjoy an extensive selection of restaurants that deliver near us, have kept in contact with many friends and family members, and have begun to enjoy livestream jazz concerts, my non-writing life has been pleasant enough not to threaten my writing life with a debilitating depression.

I have written a few Covid-inspired poems, like everyone else.

Thank you, Marc.

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