Pause: On Writer's Block and Inspiration

One question I get asked frequently by other writers is how to deal with writer’s block. Writer’s block can be a curse if you’re on a deadline for publications, school, fellowships, etc. However, it can also be a gift if you let it.

Right now in my writing it feels like I never have a shortage of things to say. Am I going to write another poem about the woman that broke my heart even though I said the last time was the last time? Probably. Am I going to spend all night researching the history of going from single-item food dishes to recipes? Without a doubt. There’s a lot going on in my physical and emotional world, so I’m allowing myself the time to ride this wave and see what comes out of it. If you’re not in the same space as me, here are some helpful practices and tips to get things going:

  1. Read

    one of my college professors used to say that the only way to be a good writer was to be an avid reader. I meet a lot of poets now that don’t read other people’s work and that is exceptionally puzzling to me. There is something magic about the life force that comes from diving head first into someone else’s work, it’s an almost instantaneous fix for me. Read other poets, read fictioneers and nonfictioneers, read scientists and chefs. It is all good.

    With that said, the poetry world has been stunned by some recent plagiarism scandals so I feel the need to say this: If you’re going to be reading a lot, you need to read critically. When that wave of inspiration hits you just after you’ve turned the page in your book, sit with it for awhile. Awhile meaning a day, maybe thirty, maybe a year. Sometimes reading something you enjoy shakes loose a feeling that you’ve been trying to capture, and that’s okay. Before you move forward, you need to trace back and see if that feeling isn’t really just a direct line toward someone else’s words.

    If you don’t want to read, you can also listen! There are so many videos of poets reading their work online. Your local universities might have a reading series available to the public. There are even poetry podcast now (I highly recommend VS with Franny Choi and Danez Smith, if not for the poetry stuff, just to hear Danez Smith laugh). The Poetry Foundation routinely puts up great interviews and readings for featured poets. Anything you could want, all at your fingertips, so go.

  2. Eat

    I really like food. I really love to cook. One of the biggest motivators behind the poems that I have written in the past year are my culinary adventures. If you can’t tell by the name of this site, I think about figs often. What they mean mythically, sexually, ecologically; they are really an exceptional species. They also taste fucking good. The feeling that eating a fresh fig gives me is vastly different than the one I get from dried figs. Sometimes I get an entirely floral palate. Other times it’s straight honey butter.

    Engaging your senses, especially smell and taste, is a great way to get your mind working. How do you describe a grapefruit beyond saying it’s bitter and juicy? What does it recall? Take your research a little deeper: how do the seeds of your favorite fruit germinate?

    Right now, I’m eating kettle corn that I got from work as a holiday gift. It makes me think of how as a kid, my father would make kettle corn in the microwave and top the bag with Lawry’s. If you’re a black american as well, you know Lawry’s is a staple in our spice cabinets. See, I just went from kettle corn to the experience of being a black girl growing up in Pittsburgh. If you’re afraid you can’t make the connections, just go there anyway, play around, see what you can dig up.

  3. Form

    Most of the writing I do is free-verse. When I was younger it was all sonnets, tankas, villanelles. As I have uncovered my own poetic voice, I find it hard to engage it within the confines of form, but sometimes that restriction is a good thing. Forcing yourself to ask “what can I say in exactly this way, in exactly this amount of syllables and lines, no more, no less” can yield some wonderful results. If you, like me, find yourself sticking to free verse most of the time, challenge yourself with a form. You can go to the basics or make up your own rules,

  4. A prompt

    The other day after a particular grueling therapy session, I gave myself the task to write one poem about absolute pleasure, and another about extraordinary pain. Being that I had just spoken about it, I wrote about the pain of childhood sexual trauma. Before that, I had written a piece about desire, lust, pure want. For me, those things can be in conversation in ways that are shameful, frightening, and strange. I know other survivors that have had moments of intimacy ruined by painful memories. This writing exercise yielded something that I had known, but never given much thought to: that pleasure and pain are not the polar extremes that we think them to be. Sometimes they are in conversation, as our bodies are in conversation with anything around us, every day. Just something to think about.

  5. Let It Pass

    I bet you don’t like this already, but really, maybe that silence is trying to teach you something. As writers in this moment, there is always something to be said, something to talk back to or yell at. There is definitely a pressure to get your work out to as many publications as possible, to get accolades and awards, to win at this somehow. If you’re finding that you haven’t been able to write lately, perhaps it is because you need to take a moment to find something more to say? Plan a vacation, go fall in love again, go to whole foods and marvel at the misshapen, pockmarked vegetables you’d never heard of. It’s okay to be still every once in awhile. Give your brain and fingers a rest.

    I wrote a poem about three years ago that I let myself walk away from when I hit a wall. Coming back to it this year, I found myself washed over with this feeling of oh, okay, I know what to do now. It might not take that long for you, but don’t be afraid to let time pass.

  6. Talk to Someone

    Cross-discipline contact is an extremely under-utilized tool. I’ve had eye opening conversations with my friends who are visual artists, strippers, drag performers, athletes. You are also probably a multitude of things; it might fair well if you engage one of your other muscles while your writing ones get some much needed rest. There are people out there (some not too far from you) with a great deal to say. Allowing yourself the space to learn might ease open some doors you’ve been wrestling with in the midst of your writer’s block.

To piggy back off number five, patience is also a fairly under-utilized tool. Think of writer’s block like an upset in the body. Is this a tear that you need to work through with a little elbow grease to let the muscle rebuild itself, or do you need to prop your leg up with a bag of frozen peas and call it a night. If you listen hard enough, it’ll tell you.