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.

Elizabeth Bishop Collides with Mockingjay

Autumn Trees The Hanging Tree To a Tree

The other night, I took Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems and a glass of red wine upstairs to the bathtub while my kids hung out in the family room with their dad. I call this combo my “mom medicine.”

I started off with some of Bishop’s well-known pieces, like “Filling Station,” “The Armadillo,” and “One Art,” inhaling some of the beautiful, witty lines I hadn’t visited since college. Then I flipped back to a section titled, “Poems Written in Youth ”– poems, according to the volume’s Publisher’s Note, that Bishop “would not have reprinted. . .for she was too severe a critic of her own work.”

Of course, that note made me want to read them all the more.

I began to recite some of the lines Bishop wrote when she was a teenager (still exquisite, of course). Then the marching began.

Two weeks ago, I had taken my middle schooler to see Mockingjay, Part 1. At one point in the movie, Katniss, the main character played by Jennifer Lawrence, sings the haunting “The Hanging Tree.” My daughter sat transfixed. And she wasn’t alone. The song quickly moved up the charts upon the movie’s release.

That night, my daughter taught the song to her younger sister, and now, to my annoyance, the two were singing the dirge-like tune quite aggressively, marching throughout the house. Their pounding feet sent waves through my bathwater.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out
For his love to flee.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

And so forth, for several more stanzas. It is a disturbingly beautiful song, but now I wanted to keep reading the Bishop poem open before me:

To a Tree

Oh, tree outside my window, we are kin,
For you ask nothing of a friend but this:
To lean against the window and peer in
And watch me move about! Sufficient bliss

For me, who stand behind its framework stout,
Full of my tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves,
To lean against the window and peer out,
Admiring infinites’mal leaves.

Of course. I was getting distracted reading a young girl’s poem about a tree because my two young girls were marching and singing about a tree.

But then the connections began to hit me. One scene is haunting and one comforting; however, both capture the intimacy and mystery of our relationships with trees–how the young are drawn to them irresistibly as places to love, grieve, and imagine. As places to find oneself or lose oneself. Trees are our mirror selves of growth, change, and loss, limb by swaying limb.

I won’t get into any mystical theories about how or why these poetic connections happen, but they seem to happen for me all the time. Most people would probably say they are coincidences. Fine. I can accept that. But even with coincidences, why not have a little fun? Pick up a book of poems, and start reading them aloud. Don’t read with a goal to “get” the poems. Enjoy the sounds and images and see how they touch on the events, experiences, and feelings in your own life. Write these connections in the margins. They may change tomorrow or the next day. No matter. See how the poems speak to and reinforce your day now. These connections will make the poems more real. And perhaps your life.

Reading poetry. Strange things do happen here. And that is sufficient bliss for me.

Photo by pslee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.