Friday, April 1, 2011

A Sure-fire Cure for Writer's Block

Do you want to know what it is? QUIT WRITING. As far as I'm concerned the only way to avoid writer's block is to stop writing altogether. As in, stop being a writer.

But that's a poor solution, isn't it? Others might say to give it a rest, take the self-imposed pressure off yourself and relax until you're in a better state of mind. Pure wisdom, I'm sure. But I rarely follow that advice, and, when I do, it doesn't work for me. Particularly with poetry--when I take an extended break it becomes even more difficult to get back into a productive groove.

So, here's my experience (as if it matters):

Writer's block, for me, is more like an inability-to-write-well block. I'm rarely at a loss for ideas, either as a poet or a would-be essayist. Instead, my ability to develop an idea--or even finish a sentence--dries up completely. My vocabulary withers; my grammar becomes convoluted; my use of syntax becomes hopelessly stale. I find that I can't even express the simplest of thoughts. Creating verbal imagery becomes impossible.

But do I ever quit writing, even for short periods? No. Instead, I torture myself and continue to write hopeless crap. That's why I started a blog: to give myself another excuse to write crap. But what's the point? Well, to become a better writer. And to become a better writer, you have to seriously critique your current abilities. Even to the point of hating your limitations and working through them.

It's all about drive--and the ability to stop worrying about writing crap. When it comes to poetry, I just keep chugging away, deleting one draft after another, exploring new approaches, reading other poets (preferably from a wide range of styles, eras, and nationalities), pulling my hair out, feeling hopeless. It's an endless cycle. But in the long run, it's strangely productive--particularly when I begin to absorb the work of other poets. New horizons appear and start to develop. I grow as a writer. The process continues.

I have a strange way of reading poetry, though, focusing primarily on the effects of language--how these effects are generated, what they imply, how they build a contextual environment in which every individual element of a poem carries more weight than a brief reading might indicate. Probably the last thing I pay attention to (or ferret out) is what a poem means. I'm looking for a generated experience of poetry, and I want to know how other poets have solved the problem of creating it. And then I want to learn how to incorporate their solutions into my own "tool kit" as a writer.

Essays, on the other hand, seem like an entirely different matter. First, I'm not very good at writing them, so I'm aware that continued efforts to write--successful or not--help me to recognize (and discard) bad habits while also developing better skills. The same principle applies to poetry, of course, but the skill set is different. I read an awful lot essays--always about topics that interest me--but when I read them I tend to follow the concepts, not the technical details of clear writing. I'm interested in how a topic is developed (and complicated) in a good essay, but I fail to pick up on the concise organizational abilities that make the process efficient. Perhaps this will change as I gain experience, but for now "inefficiency" is my middle name. I'm hopelessly disorganized when it comes to writing prose.

In both cases, however, you learn to be your own worst critic. Even a merciless critic. As I told my wife last week (drawing from a lyric by Regina Spektor), "I can write but I can't edit." And that's where I feel the strongest, most debilitating pressure when it comes to writing: how can I finish something when my abilities as an editor have completely dried up? Because editing is not a separate domain: it's still writing. And it's where most of my "inspiration" happens to occur. When I can't edit, I can't finish writing anything.

Which leads right back to writer's block: when everything you write looks like crap, it becomes difficult to even finish a sentence. Editing choices become an exercise in overkill; self-criticism becomes detrimental; your ability to develop an idea shrivels. But, if you acknowledge the fact that this is a temporary condition, you then work through it and eventually write something that is satisfying, even "good."

Incidentally, I'm only writing this post as an excuse to work through my own current blockages. Ex-lax, if you will.

So, my "sure-fire cure for writer's block"? Just keep writing. Stop giving a damn about "success" and just do it. Because if you want to be better at what you do, you have to 1) keep doing it; and 2) recognize, and correct, your own weaknesses. Stop worrying about the frustration. Developing your abilities as a writer is a life-long process, and writer's block is an integral part of that process. It means you're paying attention, that you care. Despite all the hair-pulling, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Though, to be honest, I wish I could.

1 comment:

  1. Jim, I listen to teenagers in poetry communities as they're reading their poems. (We have such a group in my neck of the country.) It's a blast. They'll take you completely out of your regular realm. Perhaps because they shrug rules and tend to adore everything they write. It's intoxicating and contagious just being in the midst of them.

    Anyway, this is what I do to shake off the same-o same-o feelings. Also -> run some of your own writing by the young & fresh... you might be surprised at their take on things, and the input. Invigorating. Sort of like a virtual hair-pulling and streaking with pizazz what I thought was riding on the split-ends (so to speak) of poetry.

    I like visiting your pages, here. Makes me feel less all alone, perhaps. It got me to writing this morning, didn't it??? !

    [I figured out how to post in here today... now I feel like a super-techie!]

    peace - Elizabeth Jill