Thursday, January 3, 2008

Homeopathic Treatments for Writer's Block

The chief way in which I have responded to writer's block has been denial. I just keep writing. Maybe stubbornness is a better descriptor than denial in this case. Being involved with or interested in several kinds of writing helps, so if you find yourself unable to write one thing, you can shift to another. But I try not even to take that exit, and if poetry, for example, isn't going well, I just stick with it; sometimes the results aren't pretty. But I refuse to acknowledge the block, and I keep the pen or cursor moving. No one ever said the job of a poet was going to be easy (wink).

A digression with(one hopes) a point: when I was attending U.C. Davis, I tried to go to as many poetry readings as I could, but I missed one by Denise Levertov, unfortunately. I didn't get another chance to hear her read, as things turned out. One of my classmates reported not just that the reading was good but that Levertov suggested that poets should not force themselves to write. As reported by my classmate, Levertov's view was that writer's block was a self-imposed neurosis. I take her point, if indeed that was her point, but at the same time, poets (for example) often teach or have other day-jobs, and/or they have families to take care of, and sometimes the opportunities to write aren't abundant, so simply waiting out the dry spells or the writer's block is not always an attractive option, and often neurosis isn't the problem; it's just that you had set aside this hour, day, or week to write, and the writing's not going well, so what might you do?

Here, then, are some homeopathic treatments (in addition to denial and stubbornness) I've found helpful for poets' writer's block:

1. The list. Make lists of anything and everything (I exaggerate, of course). Words, phrases, things, memories, peeves, names. At first, you can even do this like a robot. Your heart doesn't have to be in it. Rather quickly, however, you will become interested in, intrigued by, or fascinated by this or that list. You'll "get into it." The list or an item, word, or phrase on the list will suggest a poem--or, if you get lucky, the list will turn into a poem, or at least a rough draft of same.

2. Official language. Use what normally would be regarded as inappropriate language to write a poem about a given subject. For example, write a love poem in the form and language of a memo. Or use the language of a late-bill-notification to write about birds or a garden or a capitalist. The contrast between the language and the subject sometimes creates a productive, poetic "torque." Sometimes something witty, uncanny, or at least surprising occurs. W.H. Auden was extremely good at borrowing official language and using it in poems, as in "The Unknown Citizen." He even slips some into his grand elegy for W.B. Yeats, when he is "talking" about the temperature outside.

3. Be literal. (Part of my background is Scandinavian, so this comes naturally to me, as does stubbornness.) Write about your own personal writer's block. Writing on the Edge, a journal published at U.C. Davis, has a continuing series of one-panel cartoons featuring the image of a literal writer's block--a cube. Is your personal block made of wood, granite, plastic, post-consumer fiber, iron, or glass? Where do you keep it? How big is it? Do you try to camouflage it? Do you call it a "nightstand"?

4. Homage. Write an homage-poem for anyone or anything you think deserves the honor. A dead writer--or a living one. The one honest politician you met in your life (as if). An aunt. An obscure actor. (I would probably choose Warren Oates, R.I.P.). A film-maker: my choice might be Preston Sturgess, R.I.P.

5. Report. Write down things you hear people say, signs you see, everyday oddities, and so on. Today I went to the pharmacy, and I overhead a woman say, "Go home, take drugs, and get in bed: that's all that I can do." I thought that might work as a first line for a poem. There's a nice rhythm to the phrasing, for one thing. . . . My brother-in-law, who is something of a free spirit, once said, not as a boast but merely as a casual observation, "I don't believe I've ever owned a house-key." He's owned lots of houses, but he never carries a house-key. Think of the implications! Think of the possible poems!

6. Write a poem that is imagined voice-mail from, well, anyone you like. It's your poem, and it's your voice-mail. Richard Nixon, Paris Hilton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Kafka, or Napoleon (I guess you'd need an automatic translator for the latter two, or you'd have to write the poem in Franz's and the Napster's native language.) The sister or brother you never had. The person who taught you to drive a car. God.

7. Poets stress sound and image so much that sometimes focusing on odors suggests a fresh way to write a poem. Get some spice-bottles out, open them, and take whiffs. What comes to mind? Any memories? What is the worst thing you've ever smelled? What were the famous odors of high school? Of your worst job?

8. "Why did we think that was normal?" Maybe your family or your friends used to do something that, back then, seemed normal, or at least unremarkable--routine. For example, because we lived in a remote canyon in pre-cable days, our television could receive only one channel, and if a snowstorm came--forget about it. Routinely, then, my father would go outside, often in freezing weather, and rotate the antenna. One of his children would be posted at the open door (cold wind rushing in), yelling reports to him about whether "the picture" had improved. It was all futile, farcical, and--in retrospect--absurd. But at the time, we thought of the activity as a routine way of "watching television." And later it made for an okay poem as well as for some astonished, embarrassed wonderment.

Block that block!

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