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:
- 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)
- 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 Robin 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)