writer’s block

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“Poems Hide”


The single most common question posed to poets is this: “Where on earth do you get your ideas?”

One would be tempted to answer, “Poughkeepsie” or “Peru,” but it’s much simpler than that. A working poet who pays no mind to such myths as “block” gets his ideas from those rare bits known as “what’s around him” and “what’s happening every day.”

Naomi Shihab Nye tackled this precept in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which opens with these two instructive stanzas:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.


In other words, the problem lies not in elusive ideas that would germinate into poetry if only we could find them, it lies in the way would-be poets approach their daily lives. If you’re open to the mundane and attuned to possibilities in the quotidian, you will find poems abundant as zucchini in August. You will never lack.


Consider a familiar autumnal sound: the scratch of a mouse above me in the attic. Ah. Winter approaches! I once started writing a poem about (you guessed it) mice in the attic, creatures that, when sighted outside, are actually cute and beyond harmless, but when they become a sound in your attic or walls are worse than ugly–a threat, even. From a humorous angle, it’s amazing how resourceful mice are. Buy a mouser or hire a pest management company and see who wins the game. Right. The whiskered wonders who can squeeze through paper-sized cracks, every time. The Lord works in mysterious (and often tiny) ways!


If you are a “blocked” writer and this all sounds too obvious to you, survey your own published poems (or, if you are unpublished, poems you are proud to have written) to see if Occam’s Razor does not apply. I looked at opening lines of poems in my book, The Indifferent World, and one after the other, they spoke to Nye’s Undeniable Truth: “Poems hide…What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.” Some examples:


“Barnstorming the Universe” opens with a decrepit barn, one I just happened to see while running past a Maine field one summer morning. It sparked a fanciful poem predicated on the idea that a barn might lean not from time, but from a crash landing from outer space:


The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south.


“Crows” comes from the sound of my dark friends on the roof. I was hunting ideas one day when they hunted me, cause for joy:


From my cedar-walled study,
I hear them–the scratch
and claw of tar-colored talons
against asphalt–and consider
the tiny avalanches, schist
granules riding there roof’s slant.


“Momentary” had its inception in the sight of a small boat, the first to appear on the early morning mirror of a quiet lake:


Drone of an outboard,
then, out of the cove, trout-scale
glint of an aluminum boat
unzipping the water.


I even channeled some Naomi Shihab Nye by naming one piece “Hunting the Unwritten Poem,” which begins like so:


You see them in the mercury
light of water, the expanding
orbs of silver where trout
breathe. You hear
them in the sleepy kiss
of rainfall on pine
needles, smell them
as if they were snow
to the west.


You get the idea. First drafts as journal entries, almost. Your daily life, experienced via the five senses, via imagery, becoming the lifeblood of your poetry. Yes. Really. Start there. And excise the entry “block” from that Dictionary of Poetry Terms while you’re at it.


Poems hide not in Poughkeepsie or Peru, but in the not-so-rare air around you.

The Moment vs. Writer’s Block

Some people are fervent believers in writer’s block. They stare at paper. Paper stares back at them. They stare at screens. Screens stare back at them.

Me? I’m rude. I write on paper and type across screens with little regard for their whiteness.

What’s in a first draft, after all? Mostly garbage. So why so much respect for writer’s block?

Whenever I hear talk of writer’s block, I bring up the pedestrian term moment. “OK,” I say, real casual like, “write about a moment. Could be any moment. Could be this moment, even. Moments don’t care. They’re free and, when it comes to first drafts, every one of them is willing — more than willing — to share.”

All of which means you’ll be doing one of two things: a.) checking into stand-out memories and asking yourself the 5 W’s/1 H (who, what, why, when, where, how) and the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell), OR b.) drinking in the moment around you right now, hitting you over the head, practically. Clearing its throat. Waving its arms and asking, “What about me, writer? I’m game for the 5 W’s, the 1 H, and the five senses, too.”

You can bet the poet Evan Boland did a. or b. above when she penned the first draft to the poem below, aptly named…


The Moment
Eavan Boland

A neighborhood.
At dusk.

Things are getting ready
to happen
out of sight.

Stars and moths.
And rinds slanting around fruit.

But not yet.

One tree is black.
One window is yellow as butter.

A woman leans down to catch a child
who has run into her arms
this moment.

Stars rise.
Moths flutter.
Apples sweeten in the dark.


If you’re wondering what words appeared in her first draft, I’m worried about you. Go to the concrete imagery first: stars, moths, fruit rinds, a black tree, a lit window, a mother and child.

If that list doesn’t look like much to you, then you don’t understand the writing process. Yes, even a list counts as a first draft in my book, and even a list brings the mighty writer’s block to its knees (assuming blocks have knees, which I do because I have a poetic license as good as any Harry Potter “Creativido!” wand spell).

Consider this: The wonderful simile “One window is yellow as butter” no doubt started as a lit window. Then, in subsequent drafts, the poet asked herself what that soft yellow color looked like as it softly punched its shape into the night. Butter, of course.

Is this a lesson? Probably not. Unless there’s something to be learned in the obvious: Writer’s block doesn’t stand a chance against the moments we live every day.


Breaking Writer’s Block


What inspires a poet to write? And why do some poets throw up their arms and say, “That’s it. I’m dry. No more ideas. All written out!” when such sentiments are logically impossible?

Inspiration and ideas hew closely to mood. Thus, a lack of ideas or inspiration is often the writer’s way of not admitting he or she is feeling down and out (whether in London or Paris matters not). Writing your way out of a funk is no fun, either. It probably cannot be done through poetry or your chosen genre, but it certainly can be attempted through journaling.

Journals, like dogs, are good listeners. Also like man’s best friend, journals don’t judge. They reflect and sometimes allow us to see more clearly, especially in hindsight (a few days or weeks later) which, as everyone knows, is 20/20. The hope is, with the passage of time, the idea-deprived can reread his or her rambling from “higher ground” and not fully recognize that despondent journalist who claimed to be drier than Death Valley. This separation is a start.

After that? Read poetry. Define yourself as a reader instead of a writer, at least temporarily. Some may argue no, that reading others’ talent only emphasizes our own shortcomings, but I see the glass half-full. Often, when reading good poetry, I kid myself that certain successful lines or techniques look easy. This gentle deception is inspiration by any other name.

Getting active is another strategy to inspire creativity. If you don’t worry about writing, but make a goal of getting out for a run, a walk, a workout, a project, some volunteering or whatever, you’ll often stumble upon ideas while doing the “opposite” of writing (just don’t tell anyone the “opposite” is actually brainstorming in sheep’s clothing).

If your feelings conspire against your muse, seek to define those feelings in a figurative way. This turns “writer’s block” against itself. Write “Not having ideas is like…” ten times on a page in the journal with a what-the-hell and nothing-to-lose attitude. In the end, it can only reward or prove harmless. Win or draw. That’s it. No lose.

Finally, I advise two tablespoons of music. Whatever it is you love to space out to, turn it on and turn it up. Music takes you to a muse-y place where nothing quite looks the same as the real side of your blues-colored universe. It’s your Alice-free Wonderland, and that’s a geographic advantage. Jotting notes to music drives moods such as regret and nostalgia and (dare I say it?) joy.

Wherever it takes you, it’s the next station up from where you stand now as a frustrated writer. Punch your ticket, then. Give your mind permission to board the musically-inspired train of thought and leave your inner judge on the platform waving a hankie. In time, as you listen to the gentle rumble of the tracks, the groove will return. You are a writer, after all. Writing’s what you do.


Living on the Writer’s Block


The crutch. It’s a mighty symbol, one I see frequently in the lives around me as well as in my own. But when it comes to writing, the crutch must be reckoned with.

Let’s start with Tiny Tim. The little guy needs his crutch. For him, it is a powerful symbol generating sympathy and tears, especially after he’s gone and only the crutch remains for Christmas dinner. But Tiny Tim wasn’t a writer. He was a God-Bless-Us-Everyone-er. Writers write. So why are they so fond of the crutch called “writer’s block”?

Living on the writer’s block is a choice. You don’t crash there like a plane that has lost its engine. I learned that by staring at my share of paper (once upon a time) and Word doc screens (once upon a more recent time) over the years. It was nice blaming the Muse-jamming equivalent of white noise, but who’s kidding whom? I was kidding me, that’s what.

Truth be told, writing something, writing ANYthing, is better than limping along on crutches feeling sorry for yourself. If you have mastered the pencil and / or the keyboard, voilá. Writer’s block has gone the way of the dodo bird (South, my friends… DEEP South).

Writing garbage (read: a first draft) is the ticket. Because in every dump the writer in you will find some treasure. Some shiny bauble. Something calling out to your eye. And how much easier is it to write from something as opposed to nothing? Rhetorical question.

So, yeah. I gave up writer’s block once I saw it for what it is. A fraud. No, I won’t lecture fellow writers who play that well-worn card. I won’t cry “Crutch!” like some know-it-all. But inside I’ll wonder. I’ll wonder, “Why doesn’t he just write?” Revision is where writing is at, and if you haven’t written something than you’ve got nothing to revise.

Nothing but a crutch, that is.