Just Keep Swimming: On Overcoming Writer’s Block

A few weeks ago, during my residency, I was able to catch a lecture by critically-acclaimed poet Marie Howe on the subject of creative production.

Courtesy of figmentdotcom

For writers, it is easy to fall into the trap of writer’s block. We are constantly searching for the next great idea and pushing ourselves to expand our imagination as far as we can before mental fatigue and disillusionment set in. I personally don’t believe in writer’s block and perhaps this is fueled by me being in my early twenties, which is arguably a peak time for inspiration, since I’m idealistic. I think that we as artists are constantly thinking of different ideas, but whether or not we have the will to begin exploring them in greater depth is up to us.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments when I don’t pressure myself into finding the most original idea, or if I’m already in the middle of a project, stressing over how to write a scene exactly how I pictured it in my head. We all go through this, don’t we? We’re perfectionists, and a writer’s life is not for the faint of heart.

It came to my surprise that Marie Howe, despite all of her accolades, did not come to snowy Vermont to teach us about how to be prolific or innovative with our work. Instead, she focused on the art of surrendering. She stood at the podium, took a brief pause, leaned into the microphone, and earnestly said, “Give up the intention.” I cocked my head to the side, confused at what she meant. How can a writer give up his or her intention? We intend to write a story. We intend to connect with our readers by revealing certain themes, character motivations, and so on. If we give that up, what happens? Well, I thought, we have nothing. There’s no reason for any of us to write anymore.

But then Howe went on to say that prose is an experience. We can spend so much time focusing on the evolution of our characters that we neglect the transformations that we endure along with them. Any experience in life changes us. We should not be on page 160 who we were on page two. Something has to happen. And just like life, we have to be receptive to whatever comes to us. It’s not passivity, but openness. It requires discernment and alertness (but never extreme preparation, or we may miss the lesson altogether).

As artists, we are creators, but also agents. Art has to move through us like a channel in order for something enlightening to transpire. Then it dawned on me: That’s it. That is the antidote to writer’s block and perfectionism. As long as we try to say something, that “thing” that art is trying to do through us can never emerge, Howe argued. When we are trying or forcing a scene or sentence to be constructed in a certain manner, we’re only limiting ourselves.

When we don’t know how to write, build a character arc, or solidify a scene, this is the greatest spot to be. Just because you have a pen in your hands or a keyboard underneath your fingertips does not mean that you must treat your prose as if you are its dictator. It’s a constant interaction that may be both disruptive and mind-boggling.

This is why surrender is the most beautiful act. It’s when we don’t know how to write that we are forced into this place of “not-knowing.” Our expectations are shattered, but our hopes should never be dashed. Once our minds demolish these limits, we are receptive to our surroundings and that stimuli can make its way to us much more easily than before.

For my most recent manuscript, I decided to abandon my habit of meticulously plotting every single action that would occur in its chapter. Instead, I placed one word in front of the other, obviously afraid that one day I’d just stop because I had no where else to go. But I did. I kept moving. A page became many pages. One word became tens of thousands.  If you asked me how I did it, I’d probably respond, “I don’t know. I kept writing. That’s all.”

As should you.

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