Saturday, September 3, 2016

Blocked? Sort out your files. Buy some pens.


If you’re not a writer, why do you have so many pens?

Writers I know often talk about experiencing block—a concept I’m not sure I fully endorse. But when I worked in hospice, the governing philosophy was that the patient was the expert on pain, and reports of pain were never to be questioned. Likewise, the writer is the expert on this very particular type of pain—the anguish of not being able to produce. It would be insensitive and maybe even ableist, in some cases, to suggest it’s not happening.

Still, I go through dry spells, some of them long ones, so even if I’m not using the same nomenclature, I’m facing the same issue. And it feels awful—whether a busy worklife is keeping me from the page, or whether I’m in front of the screen and can’t think of a thing to put on it.

I tend to think that if I sit down long enough and manipulate the tools—the pen or the keyboard—the writing will come. This philosophy has never failed me. Sometimes the stupidest things scritch out of my pencil—embarrassing things, things I can’t obliterate quickly enough—but if I keep at it, there will be the glint of something: a nugget, a gem. And that something can become the basis of something bigger, or it can be its own thing.

If a million monkeys on keyboards for an infinite amount of time can produce King Lear, this simian surely has a couplet in her. And a couplet is half a quatrain, and one-seventh of a sonnet. Just sitting and working will yield something every time, and even if it’s awful, it’s not … nothing. That’s a start.

Sometimes I tease myself back toward creativity by doing the butt-tinglingly dull administrative work that accompanies the creative life. Just having my hands on my poetry or fiction or nonfiction sort of gives me the itch to do something new.

If you can’t write, you might try this trick. Here are some of the administrative things you can turn your attention to while you wait for ideas:

·      Clean up your files. My laptop files are a mess. Naming is inconsistent; all genres are jumbled together; published stuff looks the same as unpublished. Imposing order on electronic files sometimes has the effect of clearing mental clutter (while reminding us of what we’re capable of).
·      Do select revision work. I know I’m bad at titles, and sometimes I slap a label-type title on top of a poem, with the idea that I’ll return later and make it something brilliant. That poem you labeled “Water” may have a new life as, say, “What Wetness the Stream Can Offer” or some such thing. It may even be more publishable. In lieu of titles, you might comb through your linebreaks or your starts and stops, just to see what kind of improvements you can make.
·      Research markets. There are a lot of good markets out there; see where your favorite writers are publishing, and check out those journals that are new to you. Make notes about submission windows, policies, fees, and the like.
·      Prepare submission packets. Determine what poems or flashes work well together and group them accordingly. Combine them into one file for submission. Do this as you research new markets—or after.
·      Go back-to-school shopping. Hit the office supply store and buy some notebooks, pens, printer paper, tape, toner—anything you need to make the magic happen. This is psychologically reassuring. If you’re not a writer, why do you have all of those pens?
·      Look into grants and residencies. Creative visualization is powerful, no matter one’s field. You can picture yourself at work on your writing in a residency environment, or you can imagine what you would do with the benison of some extra cash. Spend some time looking up these sorts of opportunities, and let your imagination fly.
·      Work on tracking old submissions. Maybe you never heard back from a specific journal, or maybe your records are a bit of a mess. Follow up; organize. Make sure you’re ready if you need to make an acknowledgements page in the future.
·      Put a new manuscript together. You might be far from having a manuscript that’s ready to send out, but if you read your unattached work, or print it out and move it around, you can start to see patterns and themes; what’s more, you can start to see gaps—places where some new creative effort could do some good.

When I tackle the mindless paper-shuffling tasks, what inevitably happens is that I get very sick of them—and I can’t wait to get back to the pure act of writing. Sometimes I use my energy on a different genre to help ease myself back into the flow, and sometimes I assign myself a project or a specific challenge, so that the intellectual aspects of writing temporarily take precedence over what for me is a spiritual practice.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but I have a daily contemplative project that contains a writing component—daily haiku-length poems on gun deaths. Some days I don’t write anything else, but this project is roughly equivalent to turning over the engine on that sports car under a tarp in the garage. You have to move the oil from the pan; you have to crank up the battery. Otherwise, it may not be drivable in the future without serious work.

As a bonus, I never have to say I have writer’s block. I write every day, even when it’s vexing and feels more like math. A journal, as discussed yesterday, can serve the same purpose.


If something has taken you away from writing, I hope you find your way back, and I hope you find your break restorative. Sometimes we quit writing temporarily because we’re gathering instead of producing. Thinking is part of the writing process, even when we’re not spitting out words.

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