The Principles of Unstuck
I found myself stuck the other day.
I’ve been writing responses to a series of prompts I mail out, and I had finally arrived at the one I dread. I’ve been pushing that prompt around my plate like soggy broccoli, just knowing it would stump me. But I had evaded myself into a corner, so I made time one morning of a two-week visit to Europe to buckle down and get through it.
After hours of reorganizing my Drive files, cleaning out my inbox, searching for inexpensive restaurants in the 1st arrondissement, and so much Instagram, I shut the lonely, blinking cursor into my dying laptop and declared myself stuck.
It used to be that this would derail me. Stuck like this, I would find myself lapsing into long periods of silence, months without writing. Every now and then I would sit down to stare at an empty page, only to push it away from me hours later. Somehow, it would seem even emptier then.
It’s nothing so bleak anymore. Frustrating as it is to be wordless on a piece of writing, I know it won’t devastate my work. I know I’ll be able to write; in fact, I was writing later that same day. And while I don’t have a foolproof system or one weird trick!, I have established some principles for unsticking.
First, I try not to call it “writer’s block.”
I find that language matters a lot to me, and the words I use become solid in my mind. This seems to be true for most people, in the way that negative self-talk and self-deprecating humor create real feelings of unworthiness. That’s what a phrase like “writer’s block” can do in my mind; what is really a pause or a stumble becomes a dam.
“I can’t write about that today.” That’s different than saying, “I have writer’s block.” And it’s different than saying, “I can’t write. I can’t write about anything! I have nothing to write.”
“I can’t write about that today, but I can write about this.” This is even better, because it engages me in finding a way forward, instead of stranding myself at the pause. I like thinking about the “this” (what I can write about) rather than only focusing on the “that” (what I can’t).
Sometimes people say you should write about the writer’s block. Sometimes this works for me, but usually I end up dwelling myself into a rut. The pause becomes huge in my telling of it, and instead of taking a breath, I find myself facing the insurmountable. It’s not that big, I remind myself, but it can take awhile to deflate after all my hype.
I give myself space. All kinds of space.
Dr. Sondra Perl, acclaimed professor of English and writing instruction, has focused much of her work on how writers compose. In her “Guidelines for Composing,” she takes writers through a meditative process of tuning into what she calls the felt sense, the physical gut feeling that your writing is saying what you want it to say. Throughout the Guidelines, space plays an important role; multiple pages are devoted to the process, and words are written down and then removed from sight. One step involves listing the obstacles to your writing — whatever stands in between this topic and your words for it — and then turning the page. It’s simple, but that clearing and moving on, with no obligation to examine or delve, and no looming reminder to read and reread, helps me through.
I need big space, too. Rooms away kind of space. Top of a mountain kind of space. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and taking the ferry back and staying out until the streetlights come on kind of space.
Sometimes, I forget that straight ahead isn’t the only way forward. I forget that instead of standing on the edge and wishing for a bridge, I can turn around and walk the other way.
In his foreword to Yrsa Daley-Ward’s collection, bone, Kiese Laymon reminds us what Yrsa Daley-Ward teaches us, that:
bruises give you poetry, and we give you poetry, and you give we poetry, and loveliness gives you poetry, and first days give you poetry, and warnings give you poetry, and emergencies give you poetry, and bones, bones have no choice but to give us poetry.
The trick is accept what’s offered.
Part of that trick is realizing that what is offered will not always be what I want at the moment. I try to accept it anyway. When I sit down to write about the topic I have selected, and my body is telling me a story about something else entirely, I listen.
So much of my writing is listening. Learning to listen to what I’m saying, to my memories, to the drafting and redrafting I am doing in my head. I listen to my process, which doesn’t match the outlines I was taught to follow as a student. That’s why I spent so long trying not to hear it. I thought that if I wasn’t doing the right steps, I wasn’t writing correctly. It wasn’t “real” writing if I did it the way that felt good to me, because teachers and norms said the opposite. But I know better now, and tuning in to myself is the reason.
Writers are always telling me that they don’t have processes, and maybe that’s because they are tying process to product. I know we all want to be productive, and the cult of hustle insists that we work hard and play hard, leaving no room for softness with ourselves, for rest and taking time. These are the essentials — the basics of creative care, the opposite and completing sides — and we actively deny ourselves these needs. We vilify rest as laziness and praise the grind, and when we stall from exhaustion, we feel like failures.
Stop. Breathe. Rest. And listen. This time is not empty or wasted. It’s not what I have to sit through in order to get back to creating. It is creating.
There’s no secret.
There’s no answer that works for everyone. A visiting author told my students that he has a procedure for writer’s block: he eats a banana, goes for a walk, drinks a bottle of water when he comes home, and goes to bed. He has his reasons for potassium and the hydration, but the piece that strikes me, and what I’m always reminding myself, is that he leaves. He doesn’t muscle through, and he doesn’t come back after a trip to the kitchen to stare at the blank page with frustration. He gives himself distance and time, and they are as important to the equation as food and water. Basic needs, not character failings, not enemies.
We can’t all just eat bananas (though they’re among the healthier substances I’ve heard recommended) and release our pent-up brilliance upon the page. But this is how I’ve found myself unstuck, and how many of the writers I work with have made progress: language, listening, and leaving space for ourselves.
Thanks for reading! What questions do you still have about writer’s block or getting stuck? Let me know in the comments.
Priscilla Thomas is a writer and teacher in New York City. When she’s not dealing with the hilarious hijinks of 9th and 10th graders, she is writing and posting photos of her cats on Instagram @anpatha. Her first book, Gathering, is available on Amazon and Kindle now. You can learn more about her work at priscillawhocan.com