Write it Out
Talk about writer’s bloc. Just thinking about drafting this post made my brain stand still. What can I add to what you already know? MAW’s recent Facebook thread on writer’s block was full of good ideas—exercising, reading, going outside, watching old movies. Most writers have come up with their own solutions to this perennial problem, but learning what works for others might suggest new approaches.
My own trusted answer is, well, writing. Writing anything—a list, a limerick, a note to a friend, an ode to writer’s block. At least, that’s what works for me, and I’ve racked up a score of otherwise unremarkable poems that illustrate the point. A few sample lines:
Between me and the poem is a silence or thought of silence
so loud I cannot hear what the poem is trying to say
Somewhere in the everyday of life are the shape and sound of my poem
the words that will unlock the box and let the meaning out.
Sometimes, clearly, inspiration just doesn’t come, or when it does, it dries up mid-stream. It helps to have a good stock of tidbits and notions to draw from. Like most writers, I carry a notebook with me to jot down things I overhear in line at the grocery store or in the doctor’s waiting room or wherever. A little creative eavesdropping often turns up good fodder, and so does simple observation. Afternoons spent people-watching at Starbucks, for example, led me to a series of vignettes snapshotting moments in the lives of others.
Here are some other tried-and-true writer’s block busters, plus a couple of my own:
- Writing prompts. A quick Google search on the term turned up 13 million links, but a few stand out for me. One poet I know swears by Robert Lee Brewer’s daily Poetic Asides, a blog from Writer’s Digest. Another popular source is The Time Is Now, weekly prompts for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from Poets & Writers And then there’s 30 Writing Prompts for National Poetry Month from writer Kelli Russell Agodon, many of which would work for stories and essays as well as poems.
- Reverse writing prompts. Consider the possibility of opposites. If the prompt calls for writing about a food you like, write about one you can’t stand. Or go off on a tangent. The Time Is Now prompt for February 4 suggested writing about Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on February 8. That got me thinking about other February topics and led to a leap year poem that begins, In the fourth year the calendar / cracks open and out leaps / an extra day.
- Do-it-yourself writing prompts. Call it the 10-word challenge. When I was first getting serious about poetry, I played a sort of game with a couple of friends. We’d take turns opening a book, picking 10 words at random, then emailing the list to the others. The challenge was to write a poem using at least seven of the words. It was fascinating to see the wholly different paths the three of us would take with the same 10 words as our starting point.
- Word games. Bananagrams, Haikubes, Boggle, Magnetic Poetry. Games like these and others too numerous to mention can get unexpected words rolling around in your head, diverting your attention from the problem at hand and possibly suggesting new directions or new topics altogether. I especially like the offbeat haikus that sometimes result from a roll of the dice: Gentle clear water / touches her pale open hand. / Dreaming, she whispers. Hmmm … maybe I could write something about the clear waters off Hawaii’s Big Island, where we went snorkeling years ago.
- Dream journaling. Even the prolific Graham Greene apparently had bouts of writer’s block. His solution, according to a fascinating article by Maria Konnikova, was to keep a journal of his dreams. Konnikova’s New Yorker article addressed the psychology of writer’s block, a topic I’ll leave to the professionals. But the idea of dream journaling is intriguing. “If one can remember an entire dream,” Greene is reported as having told a friend, “the result is a sense of entertainment sufficiently marked to give one the illusion of being catapulted into a different world”—just the kind of world that can unblock creativity.
- The amazing sentence generator. I’m not sure whether this is my own idea or someone else’s, but I used it in a story once. Molly, the main character, has run smack up against the dreaded block when she recalls this exercise: Make three numbered lists of random words—nouns, verbs, and anything else. Then pick three numbers, find the words that correspond to them, and write a sentence using those words. On Molly’s list, for example, 14, 18, 5 yielded, The botanist finds natural order in the apple; the poet finds an intricate universe. And 31, 11, 25 produced, To read age by the clock is sometimes to mistake midnight for noon. I know, I know, composing a sentence doesn’t mean you have anything to say about it. But the sentence just might tickle your ingenuity bone and jump start a little something.
- Revise, restructure, reconceptualize. I keep files of what I’ve written, of course, but I also keep files labeled “Ideas/Notes/Fragments” and “Drafts/False Starts,” plus one called “B-Grade Poems”—the also-rans that aren’t quite ready for prime time and, truth to tell, might never be. But these are the files I head for, not just when I’m staring at a blank screen but also when I trip over that invisible roadblock midway in a piece and have to set the work aside. At a recent Writer’s Center workshop on revising your poetry, Sue Ellen Thompson said writers sometimes resist revising their work because they don’t really believe in a piece and are afraid to discover how far from done it is. But in my experience, most poems are never done—there’s always room for another tweak or two or maybe even major surgery. Axe the second stanza. Kill the lame metaphor. Cut the last line and use it to begin a different poem, and so on. Revision deserves a whole new discussion. Suffice it to say here, works that don’t quite work can still reach out helping hands when you’re struggling with writer’s block. I’ve found whole new poems lurking between the lines of old B-grade pieces.
My mother—who ran a house, raised kids, cared for her aging mother, and worked as an editor—wrote historical novels for young people in her quote-unquote spare time. Actually, she’d take the Smith Corona to the bathroom at night and hammer out a page or so. I never thought to ask her how she handled writer’s block, but my guess is she handled it by ignoring it. She simply didn’t have time, so she kept on writing.—Sally Zakariya
Our columnist: Sally Zakariya’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Tishman Review, Apeiron Review, Broadkill Review, Edge, Emerge, Third Wednesday, and Evening Street Review, and has won prizes from Poetry Virginia and the Virginia Writers Club. She is the author of Insectomania (2013) and Arithmetic and other verses (2011) and the editor of Joys of the Table, an anthology of poems about food and eating. Zakariya lives in Arlington, Virginia, and blogs at www.butdoesitrhyme.com.