Writers' block

The blank page

Pristine.  A field of white, like the first snowfall, undisturbed.  You almost don’t want to spoil it with words.  Especially when you are having an “inarticulate” day, when the words aren’t flowing, for whatever reason (in my case, sheer tiredness, a slight hangover, end-of-week malaise). So why do we force ourselves to write when we have nothing in particular to say? Perhaps out of fear of drying up completely. We are desperate to get something, anything, down on the page. The old writers’ trick of “automatic writing” is supposed to produce results if you keep writing past the banal, the completely obvious. But I’ve never been very good at that. I am an excellent self-censor.  Poetry is about shape, concision; so over the years I have learned to whittle my words down to the essential.  Writing a novel was a painful, prolonged (and sometimes very boring) process, during which I came to this conclusion (one I think I’ve mentioned here before, as if to prove my point): poets have short attention spans. They see the world in phrases, they reduce narratives to one striking scene. They are terrible at telling jokes, because they always leave out a vital piece of information. And famously, they can’t drive, because driving requires linear logic, which poets don’t have (they are always thinking about the road not taken).

I have been talking about writers’ block recently with a few of my students, and ways to shake yourself out of it. My top tip has always been to take a line or phrase from another poet (I see it as more of a dialogue than out and out theft). And anyway Eliot thought it was ok:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

 My other trick is to take an image, usually from my enormous box of postcards that I have hoarded over the years, and just start writing (kind of like automatic writing, but with a visual prompt). For me this nearly always works. I suppose both methods are about accepting outside stimuli; getting you out of your own head, your own broods and concerns. 

One of the reasons writers’ block is so terrifying must be the term itself, which suggests something large and solid and impassable, like a boulder. A blocked entrance, a blocked drain; blockage being the thing that prevents flow, passage. That analogy suggests that during the times when a writer is not blocked, words come easily, swiftly, but my experience has always been that poems move slowly, like giant ancient tortoises, so those moments of simply sitting in front of the computer waiting for something to happen are far longer than the moments when actual writing occurs. And so, I have become fairly relaxed about the times when I’m not writing. I am aware of storing ideas in my brain, filing them away for later, when I will be perhaps more alert to their demands.  

Maybe the block is partly inertia. The news in Libya and Japan feels too vast to take in properly at this stage; in the face of such strange and horrible facts maybe the poem feels too fragile to hold our shock and helplessness.

The image is of works by Robert Ryman.