How to Break Your “Writer’s Block”

Writer's Block and Wicker Chairs
I don’t believe in writer’s block. With kids, dogs, work, and Facebook to keep up with, I don’t have time to get stuck. I’ve got to find a way to write when my busy schedule allows.

But what if my brain turns cloudy during my allotted thirty minutes before the bus drops its noisy cargo home from school? How do I write a poem then?

In How to Write a Poem, I offer strategies for getting writing: now. All it takes is a few minutes, a piece of paper or computer screen, and an idea.

According to Peter Elbow, author of the classic Writing Without Teachers, freewriting opens the power of your voice, while “premature editing. . .makes writing dead. Your voice is damped out by all the interruptions, changes, and hesitations between consciousness and the page.”

In other words, you catch “writer’s block.”

Freewriting allows you to get words down on the page without the perfectionism that might cause you to hesitate and stall. It produces surprising phrases and lines you can later shape, rewrite, and, yes, edit through several dozen drafts. Revising means good craftsmanship—unless you grab that red pen right out of the gate. Because self-censorship at the beginning of the process is a word killer. And a blank page is, well, nothing.

But how do you even begin freewriting? You can find plenty of creative, emotion-provoking, and just plain quirky prompts in How to Write a Poem. You can also call upon your friends.

Wanting to write something different this morning, I messaged my friend Nate for an idea:

“Quick. Give me a writing prompt.”

He replied with the following:

“Describe something seemingly gross or disgusting in a way that ‘redeems’ or ‘beautifies’ the subject.”

So I set my timer for five minutes (I recommend anywhere from five to ten) and went for it. Whatever came to mind, no stopping, cross-outs or backspaces allowed.

I won’t share with you exactly what I ended up with. It’s…um, something that even friends might not want to read (definitely not before lunch or after dinner). I will, however, give you some of the cool highlights I could draw out of it if I wanted to shape it into something… readable.

– This morning Esther the puppy

– Lemon yellow, sun yellow, girls in sundresses yellow

– puppy pearl knives in swaying ropes

– garlands of daisies catching the sun from the window just now accepting the morning.

– The day will bake up something, I know, something this pure gold like the swirling, curly leaves that blow across the front years

– October tomorrow. Where do those leaves come from? my daughter asks.

– We don’t have any trees like that anywhere.

Sure, it’s a mess. But it’s a sensory, colorful. Elbow says, “in your natural way of producing words there is a sound–a texture, a rhythm, a voice–which is the main source of power in your writing.” I know there is a voice seeping, so to speak, from this mass of words. Now I need to spend some time uncovering it.

● What surprises me? Entertains me? Makes me catch my breath?
● What words or images jump out?
● Where is the power source of my voice?

And then, with hope and an open mind:

● Can I find any seeds of poems?

What do you see in these words?

Moreover, what do you have to say today? Do you have five minutes? A pen or a screen? Take a prompt–perhaps even the one I used today–and go.

Photo by Randy McRoberts, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

Listen to a Poem: Seamus Heaney’s “The Rain Stick”

Listen to a Poem Seamus Heaney The Rain Stick Rain on Roof
Up in northern Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the soft, silver rainfall of September. These autumn rains signal closing time, tamping the red maple’s leaves to the grass. We want to go inside, drink tea, and hunker under blankets. Our rooftops slick with a steady, sleepy percussion.

Seamus Heaney, one of the world’s most-revered poets, captures the sound of rain—by describing an object that also captures the sound of rain.

His subject, the rain stick, is a hollowed-out cactus branch filled with small pebbles that makes the sound of a gentle shower when tilted. According to NASA’s Climate Kids website, “[t]he origin of the rainstick is not fully known, but many people think that it probably came from a group of indigenous people known as the Diaguita from the deserts of northern Chile.” By playing this instrument, the musicians hoped to summon the rain.

By writing this poem, Heaney summons not only the song of the rain stick, but the mystery and imagination of sound. And that mystery comes alive when we listen:

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

— Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level

In Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins likens a poem’s sounds to a bee hive. What words and phrases buzz for you in this poem?

Cactus stalk?




In a way, “The Rain Stick” offers its own instruction for how to listen to poems. Choose a favorite poem, and read it aloud. Then read it again. Listen and listen more, even if you don’t think you “get” the poem. What do the sounds say? How do they speak? If you read the poem the next day, does it drop its words on your rooftop in a different pattern or mood?

Keep going. Think of your favorite playlist or “mix tape” from younger days. You listened to the same songs over and over, not because you wanted to drain them of life but because they gave you life, perhaps a bit differently, each time around. They became a part of you.

As Heaney writes, “What happens next/Is undiminished for having happened once,/Twice, ten, a thousand times before.” Good poems, like the sound of rain, never get old.

Photo by Marcus Ward, Creative Commons, via Flickr.

Listen to a Rain Playlist

Read a reflection on Frost’s famous autumn poem: Nothing Gold Can Stay

3 Cool Ways to Increase Your Poetry Reading

Poetry Reading Plan Flame Flowers Gemma Stiles

What’s a Reader to Do?

Poetry makes you a better writer, a better reader, and it fills a space in your life that nothing else can in quite the same way that poetry does.

I know this. But I’ve often struggled with formulating a good poetry reading plan. I’ve watched stacks of poetry collections teeter on my nightstand. I’ve stood frozen in bliss/terror at the hundreds of colorful volumes in independent bookstores. I’ve even struggled with the guilt of not having read “enough” of the classics.

For this school year, however, I’ve developed a plan, and it’s one you can easily adopt for yourself if you wish. These three cool tips for bolstering your poetry reading can provide you with some structure, a sense of accomplishment and, above all, the wonder and beauty of hundreds of new poems in your life.

1) Go all-out fangirl/fanboy, with one classic poet per season.

Carolyn Forche, a wonderful poet whose works include the haunting collection The Country Between Us and the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, suggests choosing one pre-WWII poet per season and immersing yourself in his or her work. You can also absorb any other information you’re able to find, such as letters, biographies, and interviews. She suggests keeping these materials at your bedside or favorite chair–wherever you normally do your reading–and picking up the work whenever you can.

This approach has been liberating for me. At the end of the summer, my nightstand and bedroom floor were piled with books. Many people welcome this “problem,” but for me, the image was a daily reminder of the time I lacked, even a source of guilt.

So I took the books down to the basement office, shelved the ones I suspected I wouldn’t get to for awhile and built a “to-read” stack that would remain safely out of my daily line of vision.

Then I ordered Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems.

While studying creative writing as an undergraduate, I read a number of the famous Stevens poems, such as “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Emporer of Ice Cream,” and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In my book How to Read a Poem, I feature one of his earlier poems, “The Snow Man,” as an example of expert imagery. But I’ve always known I had so much more to learn from Stevens. Personally, I’ve been interested in this insurance executive/poet because, like me, he lives an “atypical” poet’s life.

These days, I keep just one thick book on my nightstand. I take a few moments each night to enter the mysterious rooms of these Stevens poems, savoring lines like “But on the first-found weed/She scuds the glitters” or “Fill your black hull/With white moonlight.” Even if I don’t really “get” the poem (one reason, I believe, I avoided Stevens for so long), I allow the light to shine through and the words to buzz until I feel the poem in my bones.

2) Remodel your bathroom–with poetry

Forche also recommends staying in tune with contemporary poetry by always keeping a current volume in one of those other popular reading spots, the bathroom. The choices are endless. Where do you begin? Word of mouth is always my favorite way to pick up ideas for new collections of poetry. When I start to recognize a fresh poet’s name from Facebook or Twitter, I pay attention. Reviews from Tweetspeak Poetry or The Poetry Foundation also abound with interesting titles. Sometimes, the best approach is to just pick a book you’ve never heard of from the poetry shelf at your library or local bookstore. That’s how I discovered Li-Young Lee and Sharon Olds as a college student–I closed my eyes and picked.

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve had Andrew Hudgins’s selected poems, American Rendering, in my upstairs bathroom. In fact, it was the first book I grabbed from that basement “to-read” pile. I’ve always enjoyed his work, including Tree, which I use to teach line breaks in How to Write a Poem. This book includes many of his best poems from six volumes that cover a twenty-five year period. His voice is fresh, dark, and funny, but I often get through just one stanza at a time.

“If you can’t finish a slim volume of poetry per week,” Forche says, “you’re not spending enough time in the bathroom.”

Duly noted.

3) Get poetic, by email

You can subscribe to a poetry delivery service that sends daily poems to your inbox. I suggest Every Day Poems, sponsored by Tweetspeak Poetry. Poets and editors lovingly curate a variety of classic and contemporary poems paired with beautiful artwork, exploring a monthly theme. Consider the daily poem as important as any of your other emails and take a few minutes to breathe and read (and find a little inbox peace!). With 260 weekdays in the year, you will have read the equivalent of several more books of poetry by the time next autumn falls again.

Photo by Gemma Stiles, Creative Commons, via Flickr.