invisible pumpkins

Something extraordinary takes place in an episode of Hoarders, the long-running reality series about people with hoarding disorder. After getting the preliminaries out of the way, the therapist calls the hoarder’s attention to the gorilla in the room. Except, in this case, the gorilla is a pumpkin.

What pumpkin?” the hoarder replies. On cue, the cameraperson pans down to reveal a rotting orange gourd sitting at their feet. Like, right in between the therapist and the hoarder, there on the living room’s parquet floor.

“Oh. Yeah. How’d that get there? Huh.” Pause. “That’s still good, by the way.”

This isn’t to mock someone with a serious psychiatric illness. I share this moment because of its universal humanity. At this moment in the episode, the hoarder had been in the middle of a sensible-sounding argument in defense of her seemingly problematic behaviors. In her stated view, there was nothing unhealthy about the way she lived. All the expired and malodorous food in her home, for instance, was both safe to eat and properly stored. It wouldn’t take a trained therapist to notice the obvious discrepancy of a pumpkin on the living room floor, sides caved in, flies buzzing around it.

As an editor and book collaborator, I’ve noticed my share of pumpkins—obvious problems preventing would-be authors from getting more/better/any writing done. I consider a writing problem to be a pumpkin if it’s (a) a huge obstacle to the work that is (b) obvious to others but (c) invisible to the writer. While some writing challenges are intrinsically tough to overcome, pumpkins are easily resolved—once the person becomes aware of their existence.

Sometimes, it’s appropriate for me to point a pumpkin out. Other times, not. In any case, calling someone’s attention to their pumpkin isn’t going to help them if they aren’t ready to acknowledge its existence. That winter squash ended up on the living room floor for a reason. As a working writer with a sense of what works, I offer what help I can. I’m not a therapist.

In the end, I suspect we all have a few major problems with our approach that are invisible to us but obvious to everyone else. Or, at least, obvious to other writers. All it takes is a look through a work-in-progress. Or even a glance at a desk.

I’m always trying to root out my remaining pumpkins. I’m convinced I have a full patch. If only I could see them, I’d turn them into carriages and finally be free to exploit my full creative potential. When that happens, watch out, prince.

For lack of a better option, I read about other writers and their methods, or talk shop with my peers. This kind of self-diagnosis doesn’t work all that well. The thing about pumpkins is, you can’t see them even when they’re right in front of you. Even when someone else has one, too. By their very nature, you can’t even conceive of them as problems until they’re pointed out by someone else.

Ideally, another writer would hang out at my desk for a few months and watch me work. Sort of a reverse-internship.

A friend of mine once had a health-pumpkin: unexplained headaches, anxiety, racing heart. Doctors were no help until the umpteenth one finally asked the obvious question: How many of those Diet Cokes are you sucking down in a day? As she soon learned, ten or fifteen liters of caffeinated soda a day are going to have an effect. She cut the Coke and immediately improved.

Writing-pumpkins run the gamut. Here’s one of mine: revising a draft before I finish it. In middle school, I revised a single page of a single story for an entire semester. Every day at lunch, I’d head to the writing lab, and—having no sense of how else to begin—I’d start by reading the page I’d already written. Naturally, I saw all kinds of problems with it, so I’d spend the next forty minutes or so fixing them. By the time lunch was over, I’d have the same amount of text, just a bit more polished. Of course, in making all those fixes, I’d introduced new problems, only to be identified the following day.

It never occurred to me to drive forward to the end of the story before reworking any of it. If someone had pointed that pumpkin out at twelve, I’d probably have written a novel by thirteen.

Now that fewer of us are working in offices, opportunities for this kind of feedback are rarer than ever. There’s only so much a colleague or peer is going to point out over a Zoom call. It’s the wrong context. Too easy to be misunderstood, too easy to accidentally offend. Better to leave the poor bastard to figure it out on their own.

This is why I’m so jealous of those writers who’ve had the opportunity to work in a newspaper’s bullpen early in their careers. It must be a tremendous learning environment, working in close proximity with dozens of other writers, all pros, all on deadlines. Must have been tremendous, anyway, when bullpens still existed.

The solution might be to stream my writing sessions on Twitch. It’s not the craziest idea, nor is it the first time I’ve fielded it. It just strikes me as masochistic. Authors like Brandon Sanderson have written stories during live broadcasts, but certainly not to elicit suggestions on their craft from the peanut gallery. Besides, I don’t want some random internet person’s opinion. I want to hear from a peer.

Who knows? Maybe that’s my pumpkin.

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