Diary of a Poet

How I Banish Writer’s Block

I like to tell my friends that I never, ever have writer’s block, and yes, I rarely have the full-blown version. I do, however, experience creative slowdowns, periods where I produce less work than I’d like, or my ideas seem stale, or I feel a lack of interest in writing. This is more dangerous than it sounds: lack of energy, interest, and concentration are also symptoms of depression. In order to avoid falling into this pit of despair, I’ve tried to build a practice that anticipates and mitigates writer’s block as much as possible.

History is rife with examples of artists who self-medicated with drugs and alcohol (poets are over-represented in this area) during unproductive periods. Clearly, this is unwise. Writer’s block is always temporary, and there’s plenty a writer can do to address it when it does occur.

Here are a few things I do when I get stuck. 

  • I take a nap. Sometimes I just need a rest. Often, I wake up from a nap in the middle of a “light bulb” moment. As Shakespeare put it in Julius Caesar: “Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber.”
  • I go for a walk. A couple of days ago, I was working on a review and a short piece for my newsletter. After a 45-minute walk, I had solutions for both. Had I stayed home, I would have stared at my computer for 45 minutes, become more and more frustrated, and probably not had any ideas.
  • I turn to my collection of craft books. I pull them out of the bookshelf, grab my notebook and pen, and sit on the floor. Eventually, I’ll find something that kick-starts my writing. 
  • I read. I just finished Margaret Atwood’s latest, The Testaments, and I’m starting Overstory by Richard Powers. For poetry, I have David Ignatow’s Shadowing the Ground, and the books I’m reviewing for Sticks & Stones. I was stuck on the last lines of a poem, and reading Ignatow gave me the inspiration I needed to finish.
  • I reread “How to Become an Idea Machine,” a chapter in Choose Yourself by James Altucher. In it, he urges us to “exercise the idea muscle” every day. Use it or lose it, whether it’s writing poetry, creating reality TV, or farming.
  • I consult the notebook where I record ideas for articles, poems, blog posts, and essays. Sometimes I look at this list and shrug, as nothing strikes me; other times I choose one and get busy. Once in a while, something on the list gives me a new idea. As Altucher says, “Ideas mate with other ideas to produce idea children.”
  • I go to a library or bookstore and play the “bookstore game,” in which I pull books at random from shelves and scan them, seeking some phrase that jangles my brain.
  • I go to a museum. I look at the art, closely, slowly. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not. I immerse myself in an exhibition. What emotions arise? If you don’t have a museum nearby, go back to the library and spend an hour looking at art books.
  • I accept my limitations. I don’t have the stamina to write thousands of words per day, or to sit at my desk for hours and hours. Sometimes I have to be content with whatever I produced, even if it’s just a sentence.

Here are things I try to avoid:

  • Social media and email. When faced with writer’s block, it’s tempting to zone out on social media or refresh my email over and over. I resist these activities, however, because they waste time and make me feel like a loser.
  • Feeling sorry for myself. Just not productive.
  • Wondering if I’ve lost my “muse.” Better not to rely on a muse in the first place.
  • Envy. Like feeling sorry for myself, it’s simply not a good idea.
  • Sitting at my desk and doing nothing. Better to get up, go outside, or call a friend.

Writer’s block is a sign of burnout, unrealistic expectations, and a worn-out brain. Be kind to yourself. Take care of your mind, body and emotions, understand that writer’s block can and will happen, and when it does, try something new. 

Remember, this too shall pass.

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