Friday, July 29, 2016

Moonlight Musings
















The Dreaded Writer's Block

Some writers say it doesn't exist, it's imaginary. They remind me of those fortunate, infuriating people who boast that they never get sick, and think those who do must be putting it on or being self-indulgent. It's just laziness, such writers say, or lack of discipline. Sit at your desk at the same time every morning, they say, and write for three hours anyway.  Or get down the story you need to tell, even if the words are awful, and fix them later. 

Yes, well, that might be all right for novelists. We're poets.

Ted Hughes, the late Poet Laureate of Britain, spoke of a time when he 'had written nothing for a year or so.' After which one of his most famous and beautiful poems, The Thought Fox, came to him one night, out of the blue. Imagine how thankful he must have felt! If such a dedicated and prolific poet could be blocked for so long, it was hardly a sign of laziness, and clearly was not imaginary. 

Even worse – an old friend, who recently had a new book of poetry published, told me he had an 11-year gap in his writing before producing the poems in the book! He thought he would never write poetry again. How devastating would that be? People don't decide to be lazy and call it writer's block as a kind of excuse. At best, they rationalise to console themselves: 'Oh well, I still have a life. I do other things now.' But if and when the poetry returns, they are not only relieved but overjoyed. They would have been doing it all along if they could.

The first time I experienced writer's block lasted only a few weeks – but I didn't know that at the time. Sitting at my desk and trying to write didn't work. It's a long time ago now, but I don't suppose I stayed there hours at a time. I did return there frequently and hopefully, however, with no result. I was distraught. I didn't know what to do. I had husband, children, work, friends; still it felt as if my life was over – or at least that a part of me had died. A vital part. It was in my early days of getting published, doing readings, and going to Poets Union meetings. Where else would I turn but to my fellow poets?

'I've got writer's block,' I muttered, ashamed and desperate. They pretty much just shrugged. I was astounded and hurt that no-one even expressed sympathy, much less offered helpful advice. It was only later that I realised it was no big deal to them. They'd all been through it and come out the other side – at least once. 

I hadn't thought to mention that it had never happened to me before. And if I had, I don't suppose they would have found much to say, except, 'It will pass.'  And it did. Thank God! One day, poetry started happening again, for no obvious reason. 

Why did it stop, and what made it restart? Come, come, I don't have answers to the great mysteries! I'm just thankful I've not had to wait for 11 years, nor even 'a year or so' like Mr Hughes. It seems to have been just as mysterious to him; at any rate he offered no explanation, as far as I know. He said that, on that particular night, 'I got the idea I might write something' and the poem was finished in a few minutes. Here is the poem; isn't it wonderful? – The Thought Fox. Click the link, do! As well as seeing the words onscreen, you can hear Hughes read them.


Imagine something like that turning up after such a long block! It indicates what I have come to believe – that a block may be a time when all sorts of things germinate underground unseen, like seeds. I have experienced this a few times myself by now, and I notice that when the writing finally resumes, usually some kind of quantum leap has taken place. You start again at a higher level than where you left off. I don't think we can do much to hurry this process. It's organic, and takes place of its own accord.

But sometimes you experience only a few days or weeks when inspiration doesn't flow. In our online poetry communities we are lucky to have prompts to stimulate our memories and imaginations, but sometimes even that doesn't work. You feel that you're in a doldrums. If words do flow – or dribble – you find them completely lack-lustre. 

If you're in that kind of block, you can comfort yourself that it's input time. The well needs replenishing. As I'm fond of telling students, we need some life to put into our art. My advice is to go out and have a good time, or catch up on your reading. Or both. Forget about your writing for a while. Have a holiday from it. Fill the well with experiences, and other people's art. 

If you still feel flat, cranky and pointless; if filling the well isn't enough distraction – perhaps it's revision time, when you fish out all those awful drafts that just didn't work, and look at them with fresh eyes to find a fix. Worth a try! But perhaps the lack of inspiration will apply there too. Then what works for me is to play with form. There's something about tinkering with rhymes and syllables that does it for me, regardless of content. Somehow the content presents itself; I don't pretend to understand how. Or else I do exercises from either one of my two favourite books of poetic tips and techniques: Wingbeats, edited by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen and The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward.

If you don't work in form and you don't like exercises, the last resort is to try one or both of these: 
  1. start with 'I remember', free write for 10 minutes, and turn the result into a poem (or the beginning of a poem – and feel free to write longer than 10 minutes if you find you're on a roll)
  2. write about eating. 
Believe me, both are emotionally charged, and the mind will supply something.

Quantum leaps notwithstanding, I no longer believe in waiting around for inspiration. I think it's fine to chase it. Going to poetry readings can be very inspiring. Or failing that, reading (on page or screen) a variety of good poetry. Again how lucky we are to belong to a poetry community, where that's easy to find. Sometimes we need to encounter new voices; these too can be found on the web without too much trouble. Often we can get to hear as well as read them, via Soundcloud or YouTube. 

Sometimes the trick is to look outside oneself. As I think many of you know, I love the idea of 'small stones', created by husband-and-wife writers / therapists / Buddhist priests Satya Robyn and Kaspalita Thompson. A small stone is a short piece of mindful writing – not necessarily in verse, though most of mine are. Satya and Kaspa explain that it is as if you go for a walk, find a pebble that is beautiful or interesting, pick it up and bring it home, and then polish it. The trick is that you are focused out on the world rather than in upon your own psyche. If you're paying proper attention, it's hard to be blocked for those moments. (They like to have other writers join them. After a bit of a break to focus on other activities, they are doing a month of small stones again, this August – three days away. Here's the link to the facebook group if you're interested. I'm in!)

How about you? Have you ever suffered from writer's block? (You're fortunate if you haven't – yet.) And what do you do about it? What works and what doesn't? What strategies would you recommend?


(Fox image: Dave Bezaire, "Red Fox Coming," Creative Commons license 2.0)

26 comments:

  1. i think 'writer's block' is real. it is always happening to me, haha! i define it as the period when i really try to write something (poetry or a short story)and no words are produced or the output is so unsatisfactory that the work is usually tossed away. it can last for days or even months.
    why do we have it? it's like the flu, isn't it? or those little mysteries in life, like why coat hangers always get entangled, or where do ants come from.
    how do i deal with it? since the muse went AWOL or is drunk (my theory) i will go do some other things like playing video games or sketching. it's lucky i do not make my living from writing! but it's true, when the writing resumes, the output seems to be better, as if it has advanced to a higher level. maintaining that is another matter.

    Thank you, Rosemary, for another Moonlight Musings.
    i am still hesitating about the 'small stones'. maybe i will just carry around a notebook with me for the month, and see what i can write. :)

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    1. Many thanks for kicking off the discussion with this rueful, witty and wise comment! And you have even come up with a reason to feel lucky we don't make a living from it, lol.

      I think a personal notebook of small stones, carried around with you for the opportune moments, is a great idea. (And if you like what you produce, you can always share them with us later.)

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    2. PS I once wrote a poem accusing my muse of having gone off on an unauthorised vacation, lying on a beach in the sun somewhere. It was a very bad poem - but I suppose that's natural since the muse was not helping.

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    3. i spend most of the weekdays working, doing some menial stuff or looking at emails, so i think a personal notebook will be helpful, when that nugget of inspiration arrives.
      writing a poem about writer's block is fun, i guess. it's always a good excuse to blame the muse. :)

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    4. I know many writers (not only poets) swear by the notebook in the pocket. Plus pen, of course. I use my iPad as a notebook sometimes, and usually compose my poems on it too. (I have uploaded the Pages app.)

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  2. Rosemary, how I love your Moonlight Musings! Louise Erdrich likens writer's block to a pregnant woman's period of gestation, much like your underground germination of seeds. I have been in an uninspired slump since the end of April but I know the flow will return...perhaps once I resolve some real life obstacles to ease and fluidity. I would love to write a poem at the end of it such as "The Thought Fox". It is brilliant............Thanks for this, my friend. My favourite of your features.

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    1. Not that I ever COULD write such a poem...I meant what a reward after his time not writing! Smiles. The description ofthe fox's footsteps is simply brilliant.

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    2. And didn't I find the perfect picture to illustrate the poem! I'm so grateful to people who make things available via Creative Commons.

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  3. Funny that you chose this topic. I wrote a poem about it rather recently, being in a period when my words only dribble and drone. ;)

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    1. That's a very creative thing to do about it! *Grin.*

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  4. For me this is a priority issue since I like to do many things in same time...so for now I'm going for short size of haiku/tanka participating in summer retreat at CARPE DIEM HAIKU KAI with it restless guru Chèvrefeuille. It's very helpful to hold the mini-recorder at my cellphone while I'm walking every day 30 min walk. On the way back or early I always find what to talk about in microphone... Thank you, Rosemary for helpful tips and heartfull post.

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    1. That's a very neat idea! I like to walk and look for 'small stones' and/or haiku, but never thought of doing voice recordings as I go. I used to try and scribble things down, either on paper or iPad, but both can be a bit awkward, so now I usually wait until I get home. Now, I wonder if my iPhone has, or can get a recording option.

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    2. Rosemary, I did download the free application on my Windows cell phone, and its name is "Mini Recorder".

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  5. Absolutely there are times when I sit to write and the words are stuck ...unripe and unwilling to flow...maybe they come in bits so I write those. And I keep my thoughts, and bits in a notebook. And once a week I sit to see what germinates, ripens and is ready....what words flow. And when they do, it is a rush of a harvest....but I guess I have never been too worried if they don't flow as I know they will when they are ready.

    I love your ideas Rosemary...I go and garden, take pictures, read and enjoy others waiting for the ripening to happen. I feel in good company when I know we all have blocks, waiting for the words to be ready again!

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    1. Oh, that's an excellent practice, keeping that notebook! I also like your ideas of what to do when waiting.

      I no longer worry when blocked, as I too have realised the words do return. But I do still feel lost and cranky when it happens. Someone once told me poetry is my addiction. It may be so – and I don't care! (There are worse addictions to have.) Overall I think I'm lucky. I was very young when I decided I wanted to spend my life making poems – and that is what I have done, and continue to do. It's true (as per my discussion with dsnake1, above) that few if any of us can earn a living from it, but we can do it alongside whatever else we do in life, and that has to be a blessing.

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  6. Great to re visit "The Thought Fox". Writers block feels absolutley desperate, I suffered with it last winter, only for a few weeks, but that seemed like an eternity. I feel lucky though for when this times happen I can concentrate on my music. and as Donna says wait for the harvest to begin. I shall try your ideas Rosmary, as and when writers block rears its head. Thanks for an interesting article.

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    1. It's one of my favourite poems. And I also love the story behind it, which he recorded in a book based on his radio talks to schoolchildren, 'Poetry in the Making'.

      Yes, you are indeed lucky to have music to turn to. Friends who are multi-talented tell me it tends to go in phases – for a few months they'll write like mad, then that will dry up and they'll be impelled to paint (or whatever). You are doubly lucky if you normally make both poetry and music all the time.

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  7. A very interesting read Rosemary. Inspiring. Recently I was reading an article on Tagore where the writer says how the poet dealt with an internal crisis of a writer's block after winning the Nobel Prize. The poet Tagore bled in agony as Tagore the celeb took over. However he was also very ill at that time. "For a whole of 13 months he hibernated until a three-day creative frenzy set the ball rolling."
    I think reading and music help a lot when we get stuck. We, who are onliners are quite lucky to have the prompts do the inspiration for us most of the time. In a barren period it's really wonderful to notice a thought fox leap into life.

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    1. Oh, poor Tagore! Well, I suppose one cannot altogether pity a Nobel Prize winner, but still, I don't envy him what happened next.

      Your closing sentence made me smile!

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  8. Hi Rosemary,

    I am a dreamer and keep dream logs, so even if I am not writing a poem I am still writing. I tend to have a mind where the gears are always in motion. Maybe, someday I will take those dreams and create something worthy. Thanks for the interesting conversation.

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    1. Interesting tip, Trudessa! Yes, dreams have lots of poetic possibilities. Unfortunately I seldom remember mine on waking. You may come across a few dream poems this week, as some of us have written them (or resurrected old ones on the subject) for Sanaa's Prompt Nights, and also shared them in Poetry Pantry #313.

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  9. Though I have little to add to this discussion, these musings are timely for me. My spring retreat had me writing a mile a minute. I got 130 pages! And since then? Maybe 5. I call it research time, but truth is I've "returned home" from surgical recovery and from retreat. The "home" responsibilities and leadings of Quakers and Black Lives Matter and Core exercise at the gym and Poets United have me running from appointment to appointment. In between I watch TV. I should throw out the TV as many Quakers have, but I am addicted, I think, and turn it on to fade out when I could be writing. And I am not writing. And guess which activity I reduced? Poetry! Poets United! Hah! I call THAT reduced free/joy time! Let's call it research. I expect I'll eventually return.

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    1. It kind of reminds me of when I was so much in debt that no matter how I tried to manage $$, there just wasn't enough of them. What helped then and might help now--tho it would change the content of my poems in major ways--is to simplify life and sloooow down.

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    2. Sorry, Susan, didn't see this immediately. Busy chasing my own tail! I think, with all you've had going on recently, a little 'rest time' is in order – what little you can find amongst the responsibilities. I find TV a wonderful way to take time out, even be a bit mindless (NOT in a Zen kinda way! LOL). I had the opposite problem recently – so much focus and time on things poetic that I was unbalanced in other ways, letting things like housework and exercise slide.

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    3. Ha, I too thought about simplifying and slowing down! And am still wondering how.

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