I’ll never forget the woman. She was impeccably groomed, everything about her pulled together. She slumped back against the wall of the writing conference room in Phoenix, tears streaming down her face.
“Can you help me?” she said. “I’m blocked. Can you please tell me how I can find 15 minutes in my day to write?” A young guy next to her, his hair in road-dusty dreadlocks, nodded. “Me too. I’m supposedly on my big writing adventure and I’m so busy there’s no writing — and no adventure.”
I was teaching a workshop on Writing From Place — in a college classroom so far from real place that I’d resorted to setting a chunk of obsidian, a pine bough, and a glass of water in the center of our circle. “Imagine,” I’d said, “that you are in a place in which there are minerals and plants and weather. Start with the weather and write from what is around you.” The 50 or so students had written steadily.
I asked the group how many of them had the same question as the woman and the young guy. All but three hands went up. I knew in that moment that it was time to explore more deeply the bedrock for writing: As a writer is in relation to her or his life, a writer is in relation to their writing. I began working with students not on fire or syntax, but on their dammed-up lives.
Here are five ways to blast the block apart. They look easy — kind of the way a sneaky route up a low-angle rock face can look easy, or that bubble line sweeping by the big boulder on the Colorado looks easy. If you have the guts — or the desperation — to try one, you’ll find out the real meaning of adrenaline rush.
1. Set an alarm for 20 minutes. Write steadily for the entire time.
Use this as an opening: “I have a story to tell.” Your writing could look like this: I have a story to tell. No I don’t. Oh fuck. Nothing’s coming. I feel like an idiot. Why did I start this? Okay go back. I have a story to tell…about…nothing…about the time I fell in love in the middle of the worst blizzard in Northern Arizona…
This tactic works. One of the students in my writing circle wrote blah blah blah for three pages. A year later, she beat me in a national writing contest.
2. Sharpen your equipment.
“If the literature we are reading does not wake us, why then do we read it? A literary work must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” – Franz Kafka
You hold the ice axe of your stories, your knowledge, your memories of beauty, rage, and hope in your hand. You hold the axe of your road time. Begin with this prompt: “I will break through.” Write for 20 minutes without stopping.
3. Do nothing.
One of the best series ever to air on television was Northern Exposure. And one of the best episodes was about doing nothing. In it, the Tlingit medical assistant, Marilyn Whirlwind, challenges the young greenhorn doctor, Joel, to sit and do nothing. He leans back at his desk. A millisecond later, the camera zooms in on his hand — tapping frantically on the arm of his chair. I’m Joel. You’re Joel. The world we live in taps on us constantly.
Do nothing for 10 minutes. Do nothing without any drugs in your system. Don’t meditate — that’s doing something. When the time is up, write for 10 minutes. You won’t need a prompt. Reward yourself by hanging out with Marilyn and Joel (not the finger-tapping episode, but just as valuable.):
4. I can’t believe the colors.
You’ll need specialized equipment for this game: a notebook and pen or pencil. Leave your computer and go out into the world for at least 20 minutes. Pay attention to every shade of red that you see. Once you have finished your exploration, write down each red that you can remember. Close your eyes. Run your finger down the page and stop. Use whatever color you have touched to begin your 20 minutes of free-writing.
My free-writing can look like this: Garnet ribbon of light above the western mountains. Wait, I used that image before. Stop thinking, Mary. Stop censoring yourself. Okay. I’m hungry. I want to play a video game. Okay. Garnet ribbon of light about the western mountains. Jake remembered how She always saw poetry in everything. She was still “She”, as though She were the only woman in the world.
5. Meet the ghosts.
Ghosts hover between any writer and their stories. I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t haunted. The ghosts may never go away, but to meet and name them is the first step in no longer being ruled by their presence. The ghosts can be a person, a judgment, an invasion of your private words, an expectation, a prediction. The ghosts are anyone or anything that moved in between you and your writing.
Most of our ghosts come from our childhoods — the parent with whom you could never get it right; a mean teacher; an older brother or sister who was the shining star; the parent who read your private diary; the English instructor who read your writing to the class as an example of how not to write; the family in which secrets were never told; the parent who meddled in not just your writing, but your hopes for your writing; the parent who mocked your dreams of writing.
Later in life, the ghosts surround us, seemingly not the childhood hauntings, but the editor who loses the manuscript, the seemingly endless array of rejection letters, the agents and editors who, buried under impossible workloads, take a year to get back to the writer. But our more contemporary ghosts are only echoes of the messages of our childhoods.
Set your alarm for 10 minutes. Close your eyes. Let your imagination drift into your first meeting with your ghosts. At first you may find nothing. Then, perhaps a shape will begin to form. Be patient. When the ghost’s outline is recognizable, introduce yourself. When the meeting time is up, write for 10 minutes. Note: I might have lied about this jumpstart — it’s not easy.