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writer's block

What to write when the ideas aren't flowing

Do you love the idea of a writing retreat, but feel intimidated by having to write something on the spot and share with other participants? Me too. What consistently surprises me, however, is most of the time the magic happens--even when it doesn't seem like it. During our last Tuscany retreat there was an evening when I just couldn't come up with a piece -- so instead I wrote about why I couldn't write.


How we find water, stand in it, how we’re drawn there, how it cleanses us both in reality and symbolically. The truth is the cumulative effects of emotion and travel and listening have caught up with me and also I stayed up too late finishing a book and so today don’t know what it is that I want to write but at least I have a lot of new dresses to wear. And even if I can’t come up with the thing I want to say I know I am being filled, that rising waters will one day spill over or break through an inexplicably built dam, hopefully in time for the start of Nanowrimo, because wouldn’t that be cool, to finish a novel in one mad rush, like standing in a river that scares you with its power. I know that water is a thing that restores us but it also can destroy, and the book that kept me awake was about this, in part, the destruction of a city, and also about the destruction of reasonability, of snowballing hubris, of the lack of sense, of stolen lives and the absence of compassion, of bold-faced lies and dead dogs. And the truth is this truth has hung in my mind today like a poisoned haze, and so has the fact that I can’t always say what I want to say when I want to say it. Thoughts and ideas spiral, a tide pool or a tidal wave pushing along small cars that are supposed to roll but instead they float. So if I’m glad to be where the earth is dry and hot salamanders skitter across baked bricks you’ll forgive me, If I like to be where the color of the sun brightens walls and trees and grass and pots of dry flowers, you’ll understand.


It's not a perfectly coherent piece, and it doesn't have to be. The important thing is I wrote something, allowing a stream of consciousness that drew on the experiences and emotions and present-moment awareness of what was going on -- the heat (I finally bought several new sundresses and wore them in succession throughout that day), the book (Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, about an American Muslim family's experience during Hurricane Katrina), the writing prompt (which had to do with water), the parallel thoughts about my internal struggles and the greater world external struggles, the contrast between the place I was physically and the place I was emotionally. Writing is messy, just like us, and that's okay. Come try it out with us.

Writing for Writers

It feels like I’ve got a megaphone up to my mouth when really, all I want to do is whisper in your ear.  I want to tell this story in a way that makes sense, in a way you might relate to, even if you’ve never lived it.  I want to be next to you, ever so close on a crowded train, within inches of your face. I want you to hear me with your heart.  

Mostly, I’d like to think that I am not worried about what you’ll think of me.  But the truth is, the narrator in me is a tiny bit terrified from time to time.  I am afraid that you will think I am a bad person, that everyone will think I am a bad person, that it’s going to be me baring myself to a whole lot of people who get to keep their secrets secret.  But really, I’ve never been interested in keeping secrets.  Not my own and not anyone else’s.  I think it’s far too fun to say our secrets to each other.  Not to say I’m a gossip or I go around telling other people’s secrets.  I only tell my own because those are the only ones that are mine to tell.  Your secrets are yours.  And if you’ve held onto them tightly, for fear of what people might believe about you, well then good.  That makes us even.  The same, even.  And it means that my secrets have something to say to yours that might open something inside your chest that has felt too constricting for too long.  

Am I afraid?  Yes I am afraid.  I am afraid that what I’m writing is shit.  I am afraid that how I’m telling this story isn’t enough.  I am afraid that the future I want so dearly will be unavailable to me because of this story, because of the secrets I will tell.  Here’s a secret: I’m afraid that I left my life to go off and write whatever I wanted and live however I saw fit and then I wrote about it and now that I’m writing about it, I’m afraid who might read it and think lowly of me.  Kind of.  And kind of not.  I’ma little concerned, yes, but also I know that there is nothing more liberating than telling one’s truth.  It puts you in a place of power because no one can really have power over you after that.  Not when you have nothing to hide.  

But having nothing to hide is a scary place to be in.  

I have been misunderstood sometimes.  For telling people the lesser things I’ve done.  They’ve taken my confession as a strange form of braggery.  But that’s not at all what it is.  To declare, claim and own “I did this,” is not to be confused with boasting.  To be able to say ‘this was the choice I made’ doesn’t mean I’m proud.  It just means I’m willing to be honest about it.    

Mary Karr says, “Love the reader, love the reader, love the reader.”  Here I am writing for you but I haven’t actually written to you and addressed you like the real person you are in a long time.  I do better when I think of you, when I place you in my mind’s eye and think about what you are made of or how your heart is shaped.  I feel more connected when I think about the color of your eyes or the lumps on your beautiful body.  Where are you right now?  Why, we haven’t even met!  Probably never will.  And isn’t that beautiful?  That we can be together like this without being together at all.  That I can show you my scars and secrets and you can be there — maybe in a cabin in Oregon, maybe in a hammock at your mother-in-law’s, maybe tucked in bed after a bad break up.  And here I am in London, at this apartment I’ll soon be moving out of — the one where I do everything right here at my desk which is pushed up next to my bed.  This has been this way for as long as I can remember.  My desk next to my bed.  Not much psychic space.  No wonder I can’t sleep.  After last night’s bout of sleeplessness I vowed to start making use of my time.  If I wake up, from now on I’ll get up and write.  I’ll do my work.  I’ll tend to your heart while tending to mine, however wee the hour.   

The other day I walking down near the National Theatre along Southbank and it was seventy degrees outside.  That’s hotter than many a summer day here in London, so the atmosphere was festival-like.  Everyone was out in hordes, drinking, talking, laughing.  I was not doing any of that and sometimes (you might already know this) that’s how it feels when you’re writing a book.  Like everyone’s on an eternal vacation just going about their daily life while you’re sludging through words.  I was overcome with a that dreaded mix of hopelessness and frustration that every writer I know tends to have from time to time.  I decided right then I should give up writing for once and for all, before the world knows my every last secret.  Then I remembered I was very hungry and very tired.  And that’s no place to make decisions from.  Then, this morning, I remembered you.  You’ve unstuck me, dear reader whoever you are.  Maybe you’re nothing more than this very white, very blank page.  And if that is all you are, that is quite something.  Because the page has saved me, over and over and over again.  Is it not true that that which we fear might destroy us has the power to deliver us?  If it is, what else is there to be, besides afraid? 

Grateful, I’d say.  

And thank you, I'd say.