"Let us not be ashamed to speak what we shame not to think."
-Michel de Montaigne

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Oh Writer's Block, Thou Art a Black Dog from Hell

What are you supposed to do when the inspiration just sort of...stops?

From March to December 2010, I wrote about 250 poems. That's an average of 27.77777778 poems per month--just shy of a poem a day. We had a good run, me and poetry. This creative burst came after years of neglecting poetry in the wake of endless academic papers, lesson plans, reports, and email. I never made that choice consciously, to stop writing poetry--but being a good little student and careerist, poetry seemed like a selfish indulgence.

But then I attended a writers conference, my first, and I arrived ready to go to battle: with two fully-groomed non-fiction book proposals, business cards, a binder of writing samples, and my best I'm-a-serious-but-hip-writer-glasses a la Jonathan Franzen. I had a couple of promising bites for my book proposals, but it was the poetry that stood out the most for the editors I met, particularly one who was kind enough to actually sit and talk shop for an entire hour. My poetry? But those were the writing samples I had shoved in the binder at the last minute to show "range." I was nominated for the conference poetry award, and while I didn't win, it was an awakening of sorts. It reminded me of who my first love was, and had always been. That was the beginning of our love affair.

Luckily poetry had not divorced me in favor of someone who took her more seriously over the years.

And now, nearly a year after that fateful conference, I find myself writing blog entries during my hallowed poetry time. Every time I've tried to put any poems down the last 7 weeks or so, I've hated them. Hated them. They've felt forced/trite/too-overworked/too aware of themselves/too you're a sad woman with an English degree stop kidding yourself.

So I'm left with the question, what do you do when you hit this wall? Some thoughts:

1) Talk to other writers--I've met some A-mazing writers in the last year. Both in the academic circuit and online. People that I feel privileged to have met, and I know to a great extent that this will benefit me in the long run. Not so much because of the obvious networking piece, but more because I believe when great minds interact a piece of them is taken away in the other. It's a kind of magic osmosis, a blending and rejecting of ideas, aesthetics, and principles that might have never occurred to you, sitting alone in front of your laptop.

2) Go do something other than writing for a bit: This is not to say that you shouldn't continue to labor on your writing in some way daily, but I think it's good to add something new to the mix. Any good trainer will tell you that you will hit a weight-loss plateau after awhile. Usually this is cured by adding new elements to the workout regiment. What will this look like for me? Well, let's just say I have my first session with Sheneka Rosser trainer extraordinaire this coming Saturday. Have you ever seen a morbidly obese half-Asian female poet? Well have you?! No. Not gonna happen here. Facebook/Google images has officially killed the whole illusion that you can be a writer who cares nothing for your appearance. You don't have to be a sex symbol, but you can't look like the uni-bomber either. I know how shallow that sounds, but it seems naive or deceptive to tell a writer otherwise.

3) Get cozy with the business end of writing: Writing is like a mullet, dude. You can't have the party in the back without the business in the front. It isn't a mullet if you take one or the other away. When the muse departs, it's a perfect time to get to business--start studying literary mags you admire, reading articles by their editors, following AND commenting on industry blogs, becoming a part of the dialog in some way.

4) Stay positive:
This is SO easy to tell someone else. I've told my writerly friends, "Hey, you're in a gathering season right now, that's all." Now it's time to put my money where my new-age mouth is. And I will remind myself that you can't write like you're on fire all the time or we'd all be dead by 25. And I will remind myself that I should like to sustain the fire over a lifetime. And I will I espouse the model of Sharon Olds over Sylvia Plath where life-writing-sanity-balance is concerned.

And that is precisely what I will do until inspiration rockets down into my brain like brimstone. In the interim, pass the 10lb weights--I'm busy getting ready for my new purple tankini.

*What do you do when you hit writer's block--I mean, your "gathering season"?


  1. No, luckily, I am still in decent shape..i.e. I look good in my clothes. However, I have a tendency to hide my feelings behind pistachio ice cream or Shiraz. So it's time to be proactive against ye olde chin jello-jiggler. Plus the endorphins are good for gloomy types like myself.

  2. Well, when I come up against a block, in the past I have cut back on the lithium, or made drastic decisions in my life that cause things of an interesting nature to happen. This has not proven effective over the long run for my health, so I have begun a new tactic of just trying to write anything. Listening to types of music I usually won't; going out and doing something other than writing also. However, what's wrong with rocking the unabomber look? I think I pull that one off pretty well...

  3. I just write something terrible until something good emerges. Sometimes it takes a while.

  4. Hey Christeene, it seems that I spend half of my time in a writer's block state of suspension. So, you are doing much better than me in that regard.
    The dreaded block disease recently infested my mind, so this is a timely subject for me to address.
    I FINALLY fixed it by following the suggestion of a Michigan novelist. She said simply, "look to the news." Sure enough, putting aside some time to stare at the television paid off. I can't reveal my subject because it's a secret until the writing is complete. Good luck!