By Flower Conroy
Poet Laureate, Key West
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block…
you just need to lower your standards.”
– Peter Murphy
I’ve spent a good portion of the afternoon wracking my brain trying
to think what craft issue could I possibly address this column—which, consequently, has lead me here, to this vast woods: writer’s block and the blank page. Which isn’t to imply I was suffering from writer’s block—rather, I simply hadn’t found a subject I wanted to think about yet. Which got me thinking about how to begin. Where to begin. How does one face the great nothingness and endless possibility the empty page represents? Which did get me thinking about writer’s block. And then nudged me to Google quotes about this so-called “writer’s block” phenomena. Because it is a phenomenon, “a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question” (Oxford Dictionaries). I love the nuance of that definition, “that is observed to exist.” The definition does not portend it does exist, just that it is sensed or felt to exist. You may have deduced by now that I don’t subscribe to writer’s block. “Writer’s block” is the equivalent of me saying I can’t go for a jog because I suddenly have to fold laundry…which I don’t fold because I really need to mow the lawn… which I’ll get to as soon as I dust the thimble collection… Which isn’t to say—I don’t feel crippled sometimes as a writer, staring into the vast and bright abyss; I’m just saying, when that happens, I continue to write and forgive myself for my blabbering utter inane crap. …I lower my standards.
Ironically writers have much to say about writer’s block. Charlie Jane Anders asks, “Writer’s block. It sounds like a fearsome condition, a creative blockage. The end of invention. But what is it, really?” Charles Bukowski wrote, “writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” Walter Wellesley Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” John Steinbeck once gave the advice: “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” Richard Back offers this nugget: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” Jack London observed: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” And Francis Bacon shared: “Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought are commonly the most valuable.”
So what can one do to overcome this temporary paralysis of creativity? (I think it’s important to remind ourselves, that while we feel we are sinking into a “Pit of Despair” never to resurface, this feeling will not last). Nothing cures it for me faster than reading—whether it be great works by my favorite authors, skimming the dictionary, or delving into a completely different genre such as essays or scientific material.
Fold laundry. I know, I know—this is different than what I was saying previously. That was using laundry as an excuse not to do something else. Here I’m suggesting it as an actual act of doing something else. Engaging in mundane tasks that need to be done anyway frees the mind to wander while reinforcing a sense of accomplishment. You are physically getting something under control which your subconscious will yield to.
Many writers suggest going for a walk. But I find that requires I put on pants. And leave the house. No seriously, walking is a great lubricator of the body and the mind. It gets the blood flowing which can get the creative juices flowing.
Revise. Here’s a technique that doesn’t require generating new material… at first anyways. Dig deep into your own slush pile and find about five or six failed poems. On a separate sheet of paper rewrite only the successful lines or moments from this stockpile. Then on another piece of paper, intersplice the lines. Take it from there. I keep salvaged lines of poetry in an Edgar Allen Poe lunchbox on my desk. Literally, I will cut up failed poems and drop the interesting lines into the lunchbox. (If I find two consecutive lines seem contingent upon one another—that they don’t make sense without each other—I especially make sure I cut them away from each other—lest I be too influenced to follow their pre-established impulse). When I get stuck in a poem, I reach in and fish out a line. Usually this helps because it is off-kilter just enough to torque the poem, but not so farfetched because it comes from a personal store of lines that—whether I like it or not—will tend to reflect my quirks, fetishes, obsessions, concerns, imagery, personal lexicon, etc.
Take a shower. I recommend using Whiskey River Soap Co.’s “Writer’s Block” soap. It “smells like regurgitated ideas and probably a vampire.” (This product should not be confused with “Writer’s Tears” Irish Whiskey.)
Establishing a routine or ritual. For me, it is lighting incense and playing instrumental music. If I feel my writing is getting knotted, I get up and stretch—if my mind is getting knotted it usually means my body is already stagnate. In addition to reading throughout the day, I also try to read nightly before falling asleep to allow the words to marinate in my subconscious, and thus permeate my writing the next day.
In the spirit of WCW, eschew ideas for things. Stop trying to say something profound. Instead, describe your current surroundings. List the physical details of the physical world surrounding you. Do not let your opinion enter. Be camera-like; capture the concrete. You may be surprised how much emotional residual oozes out of objects in and of themselves. Then go in the opposite direction and scribble away in a stream of conscious for about five minutes. Set a timer so that you don’t have to think about the passing time. After, see how the two pieces intersect or repel each other. Suture them.
Thus, there is no such thing as writer’s block—this should assuage every writer. Unfortunately, this does not preclude shitty writing won’t happen, or eradicate the fact that a writer may feel lost facing the blinding blizzard of a blank page, not knowing which direction to go. As Peter Murphy soothes, a writer must simply lower his/her standards. The ideal poem is ideal and as ideal is unattainable by definition. It is the adage, one strives for perfection and hopefully attains excellence. Perhaps “writer’s stagnation” is a better term than “writer’s block.” It seems the difference between getting a flat tire and driving the car off the cliff. Or maybe writer’s block is like a monster under the bed. If you ignore it, it isn’t really there.