A Craft Essay by Kristin LaTour
Writer’s block is like constipation. Writers know they have ideas and thoughts up in their brains, but they won’t come out onto the page. A search on the Walgreen’s website for a cure gave me no help. CVS was a little better but only because it changed “writers” to “whiten” and suggested a deodorant pen. Writers do use pens, and sometimes their writing stinks, but I don’t think this tool would help. I’m not sure it would even help stinky armpits. I wouldn’t want a pen tip going across the sensitive skin of my armpit. And how effective can something so thin and defined be? Anyway, I usually don’t have issues with writer’s block, as one can tell from my copious thoughts on deodorant pens. However, my students do, and I know other writers do too. Luckily, I have the brain laxative, or solution, to help.
I should start with some things not to try. Like being constipated, any health care professional will tell someone not to sit on the toilet and try to force the situation. In the case of writer’s block, the toilet is a blank computer screen or journal page. While the brain won’t get hemorrhoids, it’s as frustrating and unproductive as sitting on the pot for over an hour. Waiting for something to happen by ignoring the problem and doing other tasks will also not help. Again, the repercussions in the health arena are much more serious. Please do not wait days or weeks to poop. This will lead to a hospital visit and very unpleasant treatments. In the writer’s world, it just leads to nothing being written, which wasn’t the goal. One who is not trying to write doesn’t get writer’s block, the same way people who don’t eat don’t get constipated. But the latter will die. The writer will just be a sad sack who is a bore at parties full of other writers.
Now for some concrete solutions. Read. Reading is the laxative of the writer’s brain. Read work that is inspiring. Read work that is frustrating. In the case of the former, you might be inspired by the writer’s style, word choice, or tone. In the case of the latter, you will likely be frustrated and think you can do better. Then do it. Make that person’s ideas even better. Don’t publish this, and don’t share it with that writer. It’s best left in the journal on computer file unless you’ve made it uniquely your own or unless you’re into making other writers sad.
Mimic and steal. If you’re claiming you have no ideas (which isn’t true if you’ve been reading or you are a thinking human being), then take someone’s writing and mimic it. Write a poem using the same theme, line length, and rhyme scheme. Take a short story’s first line and, use it as your own first sentence.
Get a prompt. I know some writers poo-poo prompts. “Real creative writers don’t use prompts,” I’ve heard at least one fellow writer say. Fuck that. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein after being prompted by Lord Byron that she and he, along with Percy Shelly, should each write gothic ghost stories. Also, creative writers use current events all the time in their writing. I Googled books on Hurricane Katrina, and the first five results are “best book” lists. On a side note, I can’t say “fuck that” to my students. Also, all my students are assigned prompts. This is mainly because if I let them write about anything they wanted, I’d be inundated with essays on legalizing pot and students so overwhelmed with their choices they’d have writer’s block.
Remember two important things: you are writing a draft, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. I tell my students this all the time. “I can’t write my ideas well,” they say, or, “I’m afraid what I write will be awful.” Therefore, they write nothing. I had a student once who had this problem through the whole semester and ended up failing because he never wrote a word. This is a psychological problem. I am not a therapist, but I can tell writers that you have to write the shit down to make it no longer shit. I can’t say “shit” to my students, so I call it the “crappy draft.” This aptly fits my metaphor of constipation and writer’s block.
Banish the thought that you have nothing to add to what is being written. I just went to GoogleScholar and searched for Shakespeare. Over 1.4 million entries came up. You can add to what is being written about anything. You can also assume that a lot of what is written isn’t good, in your opinion or someone else’s. Then you get a chance to write it better. You get to write it in your style, in your words. Someone will love it. Someone will hate it. Who cares? You got it out of you. That’s what’s important.
With all that said, banish the thought that no one will ever read it anyway. Poets, with the exception of Maya Angelou and Billy Collins, all know that hardly anyone in the large scheme of things will ever read our work. Most novelists will never reach the sales of Stephen King. Still not convinced? According to Wikipedia, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sold 107,000,000 copies. It seems like EVERYONE read that book, right? Not even close. The world population had grown by about 2 billion people from 1995 (Harry was published in 1997) to 2017.* So roughly, 5% of the whole world has read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Write for yourself. If you decide to share it, that’s great, but unless you are doing it for a living, it’s not what’s important.
Don’t label yourself. Here is a list of things I’ve heard writers say about themselves that keeps them from writing:
- I don’t write poetry/essays/stories.
- I only write in _______ style/genre.
- I’m a reader, not a writer.
- I’m an ideas person, not a writer.
- I stink at writing.
- I am not smart enough to write.
I have been through many years of cognitive behavioral therapy for my depression and anxiety. When a therapist told me to practice “positive self-talk,” I laughed. I didn’t believe I could just say things to myself and overcome years of believing I was unattractive, unworthy, and unintelligent. My therapist asked me what I would tell a friend who said things like that about herself. She asked me to imagine my best friend sitting next to me, saying those things about herself. What would I say to her? Of course, I’d say none of those things were true! What would she say to me if I were saying those things about myself to her? She’d say the same. So I started, slowly, telling myself nice things about myself or correcting my negative thoughts. When I thought I wasn’t looking my best, I’d picture my friend in my head saying I looked great. When I felt dumb about something, I’d remind myself I am educated and have experience but I’m still learning new things all the time. It started working.
If you tell yourself you’re not a novelist/poet/writer, then you won’t be. If you tell yourself you can’t write because all your teachers said so, you had awful teachers. Terrible human beings. And they don’t know you now. People change. I used to be pretty weak in math skills, but as I’ve aged and my brain has changed, I’m pretty good at it now. I used to say, “I can’t do math.” Now I say, “I can do a lot of math.”
If you think you stink at writing, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It’s the same as playing an instrument. Pretty much everyone stinks at it when they first start, but with practice, and learning, they get better. Not everyone gets to be a professional bassoonist, but adults who played bassoon in high school band can pick it up again with practice and enjoy it. They are going to have a hard time getting back into the swing of breathing and fingering, and reading music, but they will get better. You will too. Also, revisit paragraph 6.
Finally, I am reminded of the small bottle of stool softener in my medicine cabinet. I don’t use it often, but when I need it, I’m glad I have it. I’m also glad for Pepto-Bismol, but that’s a different problem and a different metaphor for another essay. Writers need to remember there are so many tools available through Google searches, books on writing, and online and in-person writing groups. My favorite website for help when I’m writing is called The Sunday Whirl, which gives a set of words every Sunday that writers can use to jump-start their writing. When I’m feeling dried up, I read a favorite poet. There’s never a reason not to write. There are so many reasons it’s good to write. Write your words. You need to let them out.
*data from Population Reference Bureau
Kristin LaTour is a poet and professor living in Aurora, IL. Her book, What Will Keep Us Alive, and forthcoming chapbook, Mend, are both published by Sundress. Readers can find her in journals all over the web and in print. This is her only published essay. She wrote it in a few weeks. She didn’t procrastinate in writing it, but she did forget she had it done and to send the damn thing in.