We’ve all experienced it—the dreaded writer’s block.
According to Wikipedia, “many famous writers have suffered from the affliction, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, British songwriter Adele, and even Herman Melville, who stopped writing novels a few years after completing Moby Dick.”
So how do we, who derive a great deal of satisfaction from the process of writing, deal with this? While there is no simple fix, an array of options and coping strategies exist to help writers move forward. Simply becoming aware that there are solutions can enable those suffering from writer’s block to choose a course of action, and by doing so, become more in control of the creative process.
Perhaps the crux of the dilemma can be found in the question, “Which comes first: motivation or action?” As Dr. David Burns describes in Feeling Good:
If you said motivation, you made an excellent, logical choice. Unfortunately, you’re wrong. Motivation does not come first, action does! You have to prime the pump. Then you will begin to get motivated, and the fluids will flow spontaneously…
So taking action is critical to breaking the cycle. Those who suffer from writer’s block may take solace in William Stafford’s words, from Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation:
We can’t keep from thinking…If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come…If I am to keep on writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards.
Strategies we’ll explore in this course, From Writer’s Block to Writer’s Habit, include automatic writing, the Arts Poetica poem, creating work in a different medium, and addressing prompts. For each adventure, we will workshop and provide feedback for those students who wish to share their writing, though sharing is not mandatory—ultimately, the goal is to free up the source, and therefore, the muse.
Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Automatic writing
This is the most common antidote. A period of time is set by a timer for generally fifteen minutes. One simply writes whatever thoughts come to mind. It can be a rough start. Nonetheless, if you persevere, you may find that the self condemnation gives way to an idea. Ideas are fodder for poems, fiction, creative non-fiction, etc. What we are looking for is to take the focus off the self and generate—even at if at first through self-imposed coercion—an interest in something outside the self. Anything, in fact, that contains concrete, specific details (“no ideas but in things, WCW) may allow a seed to appear on the blank page.
It could look like this for instance:
“What a stupid exercise. I have to put pen to paper and, OK, I’m using a keyboard, whatever, I have to sit here and write about nothing because I have nothing to say. I’m a total loser. I will never be able to write again. Blah blah blah…OK, well, it was cold today…”
The detail at the end of this enforced period of writing, “…it was cold today,” may open up if the blocked writer—myself, in this case—becomes available to change the focus from the self to the cold. How does ‘cold’ feel to the body? Are there ways the environment changes to reflect the state of ‘cold’? Ice, snow, sleet, bone-chilling rain? Anything concrete and tangible may provide an anchor to grab on, and allow thoughts to wander away from the inability to write and into the depths of language. A seed can lead to a draft.
2. Write about writing—the Arts Poetica poem
‘Ars Poetica literally refers to ‘the art of poetry’ (Webster’s New World, 3rd Edition), and, as such, it provides a fairly simple method by which one may fathom an individual poets’ philosophy of poetry, his or her motivation, ambition, background, and poetic vision. The ars poetica form may be regarded as the quintessential poem, in that it distills and exemplifies essential qualities found in a poet’s canon, and therefore lends transparency to an author’s signature—style, voice, and choice of formal or informal verse.
In this class we’ll read Ars Poetica poems by authors including Czeslaw Milosz, Brendan Galvin, Fernando Pessoa, Wallace Stevens, and Christianne Balk; and we’ll try our hands at writing our own signature poem or flash fiction piece.
3. Try a different medium
Before you became a writer, did you engage in other creative pursuits, such as music, art, or dance? Perhaps you played an instrument in the school band or orchestra. Maybe a painting class really got you excited. Perhaps you did gymnastics or ballet or lyrical dance. Maybe you still do! Any of these can become collaborative endeavors to spark your creativity in ways you may not have tapped into before. We’ll discuss these, and we may decide to turn one class into a visual art lesson or a musical session, to get the juices flowing.
4. Write from prompts
Discover Your Process in an Object
Choose an object that has a mysterious story behind it—a story or oral history only you know, which was passed down to you by your parents and/or grandparents. Write that story, using concrete details about the object you have chosen.
Get Your Land Legs
Imagine you have been at sea on a sailboat or other kind of boat—a yacht, even—for a week. The earth feels strangely solid and your body is still swaying inside. You enter your house. Write about the experience of returning from an aquatic voyage, using concrete objects and images from your home. Use your five senses, especially touch.
Writing about Exile
You are an ex-pat living in _________ (your choice of country). Assume that you’ve been abroad for a year and will not be returning home due to ongoing violence and upheaval. Take a minute to ponder your situation and then write about your native land and your previous life there.
Feeling fallow or blocked? Come join us. There are no prerequisites and writers of all genres are welcome.
Judith Skillman‘s new book is Kafka’s Shadow (Deerbrook Editions). Her poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, FIELD, Poetry, and elsewhere. Awards include an Eric Mathieu King Fund grant from the Academy of American Poets. She is the author of a ‘how to’: Broken Lines—The Art & Craft of Poetry. Skillman has done collaborative translations from French, Portuguese, and Macedonian. Visit www.judithskillman.com.