In Defense of Writers Block, or How To Advertise a Garage Sale in 1,150 Words
Sometimes, quite often, when I come across any random article, or famous book, or well-meaning how-to blog on the subject of overcoming writer’s block, I suffer a knee-jerk reaction. Overcome writer’s block!?!! I think we should all suffer more.
If I was to run a workshop on the theme, I would strap students into their chairs with a lap belt, set a pen and paper on the desk in front of them, and then slip brightly colored knit mittens on their hands, and forbid the writing of a single word (or speaking) for thirty minutes. If anyone moved their lips silently, as if running lines in their head, or stared in that way an observer can tell something is happening up there in the skull, I’d ring a bell, or blow a whistle, or tap an almost predictable but ultimately never discernable rhythm on my desk, and announce, “Class, you may call me ‘Thwart.’”*
Theater of cruelty performance art whims aside, my reaction is not as simple as snark.**
One of my aesthetic heroes, Mexican poet Jaime Sabines, wrote: “Live and write, in that order.” That seems reasonably simple and obvious–and I agree with him. And yet, even for Sabines, it was neither simple nor obvious. In his work, he readily asks poetry how to do the living part, at times as overtly phrased as, “What the hell am I going to do with my knee?” (Tarumba) The answers poetry offers are not as simple as: “Make more words.”
I have read hugely skilled books, good books, books of merit, validly prize-winning collections, where my first thought upon completion was: “Desk with a refrigerator humming in the background!” Others, remind me of car salesmen: “Slick and inarguable pitches.” A car can get you to a desired destination, and the desk, like any concrete object deserves to be recognized, even honored, but it’s always good to question our relationship to writing and to ask what we’re doing and why.
TS Eliot said, “And they write innumerable books; being too vain and distracted for silence: seeking every one after his own elevation, and dodging his emptiness.”
“Bad” literature is of little or no concern. Stages of growth are a welcome part of the process, and if a particular work “fails,” the first question is always by whose definition. And as for too many books? Pshaw. That reminds me of the “too many notes” line which Mozart received. What’s more compelling than rating other people’s attempts at literature, or berating our own, is searching for how to best welcome, nurture, and foster the most authentic and committed writing we each have to offer the world. Whatever we “dodge” may be what we most need to delve into, even if we are the only ones aware of what we shirk.
Writing can be as avoidant as not writing. A skilled writer can work with any subject, any premise, any starting word, and in short order end up with something coherent, or beautiful, or proficient and competent, even “moving” or “meaningful” or “profound.” Profound—huh? I think of a stick of butter, a pie chart, the sound of two hands clapping.
As writers we have choices: we can wield words; or we can be wielded by words; or we can play in terrain where there is a give and a take, a reciprocity between the skills and insights we bring to the poem and the doors language opens in us. As a writer, and a reader, I appreciate the surprises we are drawn into and may not even be able to comprehend for a decade, if ever…
The dynamic that takes place between language and non-language is symbiotic: writing and non-writing are both of value, each (ideally) complimenting and informing the other, and both ever in flux and dialogue. Frankly, words need the absence of words.***
For me, everything is a matter of balance. I am a huge fan and proponent of discipline, daily attention, getting your skill set, expanding range, honing craft, even experimentation. And I firmly believe writing is a valid and important contemplative process every day, whether freewrite or for publication. Yet, it risks becoming nothing but noise and hot air without time spent not-writing. Without true mulling, space for germination, a physical receptivity to what it means to be alive, words are just more noise-makers, hand-rattles, and back-clappers. Output is lovely, but we need time spent listening or reading or cleaning house or being with friends. Not-writing can actually mean thinking. Perhaps, if lucky, not-writing can also mean active not-thinking. The not-thinking, the attempt to simply be here, may be the part most likely to let us hear why we should bother to open our mouths or uncap our pens.
“Emptiness, which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness, is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibilities.” –DT Suzuki
I believe literature is bigger than any of our aspirations, more mysterious than any author-intent. Part of my goal as writer is to “get out of the way.” So I wonder lately if it is possible to embrace non-writing with as much discipline as writing. I try. (And often I fail, only to try again.) Silence can teach us much, whether our non-writing time is a cup of tea, a stroll, a few hours in each day, a few months or years. With a solid foundation in silence, not overfilled with distraction, time spent emptied enough to be here, now, present, and listening, perhaps then we can truly embrace the act of writing.
In grade school, I watched wheat fields burn after the harvest in preparation for next planting. Shifts and transitions make sense to me and don’t worry me. Sometimes I write daily for a couple years; sometimes I write almost round the clock forty to fifty hours a week for months and months until I get free of whatever has grabbed me; sometimes I edit or tend business issues; and sometimes I will have none of it. So be it. Any use of language happens in time, even though language itself transcends (potentially) our bodies’ transience. Given the presence and impact of time, why would we not expect (and be able to respect) seasons and different patterns of growth cycles and destruction? Right now, I burn the chaff (and the old drafts in a pit in my backyard) and make myself empty enough to be receptive to what’s here and what’s coming. Nothing else would be appropriate.
(Except to announce that Mitch Rayes is also engaged in the decluttering process, literally. He will have a garage sale at the Projects 3614 High Street NE this Sunday 6/23 from 10 am to 3 pm. He’s doing the good work of emptying the big warehouse. His downsizing is our furniture, risers, chairs, sofas, kitchen and household stuffs, toys, even books from his personal library.)
Whatever season you are in this hour, whatever the night or next dawn or next year holds, I wish you a certain consciousness about your own process and needs. May you write and non-write well. And if you are engaged in the decluttering of mind or space, good luck with that too.