This is a story about the day I quit writing.
It was 1989. I was 32. For the previous nine months, I’d been researching and reporting the biggest story of my early career. That the assignment had been handed to me on a platter by my editor at Rolling Stone was only the beginning of the pressure.
The central figure was a man named John Holmes. Perhaps the most iconic star of the early days of porn, Holmes had recently died, the first known AIDS casualty in X-rated films.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Holmes performed in nearly three thousand adult films. Besides his astounding natural endowment, he is best remembered for headlining the first series of adult movies that attempted a plot line and character development. Playing a hard-boiled detective named Johnny Wadd, Holmes was a polyester-wearing smoothie with a sparse mustache, a flying collar and lots of buttons undone. He wasn’t threatening. He chewed gum and overacted. He took a lounge singer’s approach to sex: deliberately gentle, ostentatiously artful. You didn’t know whether to laugh or stare.
As home video players became ubiquitous, Holmes became more famous, breaching the mainstream, commanding larger and larger fees. But with the rise came the inevitable fall—a copious addiction to freebase cocaine, which robbed him of his money, his dignity, and his ability to muster a serviceable erection.
Eventually, Holmes fell in with a club owner and drug dealer named Eddie Nash, and also with a gang of small time criminals who were later dubbed the Wonderland Gang—after the location of their puke-green stucco rental house on Wonderland Avenue, in the leafy environs just north of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, in Laurel Canyon. Desperate for money and drugs, the gang decided to rob Nash.
After the robbery, one of Nash’s henchmen ran into Holmes in a convenience store. He noticed Holmes wearing his boss’ stolen ring. And shortly thereafter, four of the members of the Wonderland gang were found bludgeoned to death with blunt objects. The crime scene was brutal. The press would dub it the “Four on the Floor Murders.”
I spent six weeks in Los Angeles working the story. There was no internet at the time. Reporting was still a craft that required shoe leather and a way with people—you had to look them in the eye. I interviewed nearly 100 sources. I went from house to house knocking on doors. I found court files buried in a repository four stories underground. I visited a half-dozen porn shoots and spoke to a dozen or more porn stars and directors (I know, rough job). I consorted with convicted felons. Most were behind bars. They were constantly calling collect.
My biggest “gets” were Holmes’ first wife, a former UCLA nurse, and another woman who became his mistress when she was only fifteen.
My biggest shock had been answering the knock at my hotel room door and discovering that the two women were now best friends.
We sat at the cheap dinette table in my rent-by-the-week motel suite. For nearly twelve hours they poured out their tale. The room was a haze of cigarette smoke. I remember boiling more water, making more tea. And I remember changing the microcassette tapes, one after the other, trying not to make too big a deal of the process lest I break the spell. Their story—funny and intimate and tragic—would later become the basis for the movie Wonderland, starring Val Kilmer, Lisa Kudrow, and Kate Bosworth. The larger piece would become Boogie Nights. (Alas, I didn’t own the rights to any life stories. I played no part in the making the movies.)
In time, my office looked like it had been hit by a blizzard of 20-pound bond. There were piles of paper on every flat surface, and on the floor around me, all of them tagged with colorful Post-it Notes, some of the piles reaching several feet in height—a miniature cityscape at my feet: Transcribed interviews, notes, court documents and legal transcripts of testimony and deposition hearings, newspaper clippings, non-fiction books and research papers on the subjects of AIDS and the Reagan Administration’s war on pornography (a period during which porn consumption by the public rose exponentially, I would learn). Not to mention my collection of VHS films—black plastic rectangles, clad in colorful cardboard slip covers, stacked in rickety piles like so many skyscrapers populating my urban jungle of research materials.
Finally, I was done reporting and was ready to write. I sat down I sat in my expensive ergonomic office chair, at my father’s old desk in the bay window on the third floor of a townhouse just off the Washington DC’s notorious 14th Street Strip. One mile from the White House, the trade in prostitutes and crack cocaine was brisk 24/7. The newspaper liked to call it “an outdoor bazaar.”
Inside, on my computer screen, things were not so lively. Even though I knew where I wanted to start the story—with the Wonderland gang planning the heist—I couldn’t start. There was just too much information. Too many moving parts. Too many notes. Too many proper nouns.
I started the first sentence again and again. And again. And again.
Deep in Laurel Canyon… Deep in Laurel Canyon… something.
By the second day, I was becoming more and more agitated. More desperate. And then depressed. And then really depressed. Holy shit, I thought, I’m Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Deep in Laurel Canyon… Deep in Laurel Canyon… something.
Finally I wrote this: They gave me a story about a guy with a 14-inch penis. How did I fuck this up?
I imagined myself dead in my fancy Aeron chair, my carcass desiccated and covered with cobwebs, rats chewing through the cityscape of pulp and plastic that occupied my hundred-year-old wood plank floor.
Finally, by late afternoon on the third day, I’d had enough. I said it out loud to myself and anyone else within earshot, though there was no one else:
Writing was too fucking hard. And it wasn’t worth it. I’d worked for nine months on this fucker. I was due to collect $2,250 for this story. I had borrowed money to renovate my house, but was spending it on the mortgage and food and electricity. All for a chance at what…getting my name in Rolling Stone?
Maybe I need to find a new line of work, I suggested to myself. Maybe I’ll go back to law school—I wasn’t too old for a change: Plenty of people switched jobs in their early thirties, did they not?
I shut the door behind me on my way out of that room.
I took off walking.
Dusk was gathering and the earlybird hookers were just hitting the streets for the evening rush of homebound commuters. There was the usual tang of want, need and expectation swirling in the air, along with the smells of car exhaust and fireplace woodsmoke.
It was the media who’d labeled this area the 14th Street Strip; the pimps and hoes called it the “Track.” The flashier women were posted up beneath the street lamps along 14th Street NW, which was lined with storefronts, laundromats, auto shops, Chinese carryouts, and a number of liquor stores. One block over, 13th Street served as the back stretch. Darker and more residential, lined with overhanging trees, it was the provenance of welfare mothers, drug dealers and thieves. The johns from Virginia approached from the south, from the north came the men from Maryland. They circled round and round.
As I walked thought this usual evening tableau, I felt my mind begin to clear, and I kept moving at a swift pace. Soon, I left the strip altogether and reached the National Mall, hung a right, and walked on the grass toward the Lincoln Memorial. Climbing the steps, I paid my usual respects to Honest Abe, then turned around and grabbed a seat.
Spread before me was the familiar landscape—the Reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, the great dome of the Capitol, as thrilling as ever in the gathering loam, the lights beginning to twinkle.
And suddenly it hit me.
Deep in Laurel Canyon, the Wonderland Gang was planning its last heist.
I learned that day that writer’s block had nothing to do with writing.
No matter how many sources I consult, how much information I collect, how many e-stacks of paper I build, or search windows I open, my story is not going to be found in my notes.
And neither is it lurking somewhere in the shadows of my blank screen. (If only we could rub with a quarter and have our work revealed?)
Don’t expect your best stuff to suddenly appear by magic. You can noodle the germ of an idea into something concrete—you can fiddle and try things and edit and throw stuff up against the wall until somehow the fairy dust of your creative gift is released by the gods and floats down over all.
But before any of that can happen, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say.
For me that usually happens outside my office. Walking up a hill or chopping vegetables or taking a shower. Driving places. Staring out the window.
And yes, the people who are close me take notice of the times I’m not really there, the many times I’m not really there, the days or evenings when I’m walking around distracted or I forget that I had plans. But hell, I’m an artist. I’m making something beautiful in my head. I’m not supposed to be a norm. Maybe that’s why there aren’t a lot of people in my life day to day? No matter. It suits me to be lost in my thoughts. Because that means the next time I’m at my keyboard, I’m going to take a crack at making something sing.
No matter what your genre, it’s probably the same. When you sit down to create something out of nothing, it’s best to have an idea of where you’re going: What, exactly, are you trying to create? Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Can you hear it playing like a song? Flickering like a movie? Can you smell and taste and feel?
Only then can you make it real.