The Unspoken Subject: Writer’s Block

An unexpected side effect of my mother’s death at the end of June was that suddenly I was not writing. The sadness filled all corners for a while and I suppose I could have powered through and finished projects that needed to be done, but it was like a sore spot that I knew better than to touch. I wanted to heal. I knew I needed to heal. And to be truthful, there are still times when I really don’t believe she is dead, and that is a mental readjustment for sure. I have to write, though, not only for due dates but for my own mental health. Seriously, not writing is not good for me, so I had to find a way around the block that grief put in my way.

My strategy over the summer was to do writing that did not feel like writing first. I had my course prep done unreasonably early, which in itself was something that made me feel good about myself. Next, as part of my course prep, i had to set up some projects for myself in the name of accountability and ethics. I was teaching ENG 551: Preparation for Literary Publication you see, and I honestly could not ask those students to do things as professional development that I was not doing. It’s hard to admit, but I had not sent out poems for three years. It was time to start again. On August 11, I began a fresh database and began sending out packets of poems–five packets at first, building up to ten. Because I believe in the effectiveness of goals, I set a fairly high one that was still possible: five accepted poems by the end of the semester. All of this did not mean fresh writing, but it led to more fresh writing. The count for accepted poems is now up to ten, well over goal, and I ended up writing new poems again in November. I had to! In order to keep ten packets in the air, I needed fresh poems!

Somehow, that return to what is for me my most fundamental writing genre meant that the block for my critical writing crumbled a bit. That writing project that was due when my mom died gained a fresh due date of December 1, so I really had to finish it over Thanksgiving Break. For me, the break was last minute writing, but this semester has been incredibly full on the teaching and service front. So, I went back to the basics. I started on time and wrote a certain number of pages each day because I have no doubt that if I wait until the due date, it will only end in sorrow.

Why? At this point, I realize that I have a time limit for how long I can write; It’s somewhere between two and four hours. I also have a best time in the day to write, which is from 6:00 AM (ewww) and 10:30 AM. At certain times in my life, 10:30 PM to 1:30 AM also worked. I can also combine these times, but it’s awful for my sleep cycle.

When I HAVE to keep going, I take a Diet Coke break and then try again. On my return to the desk, I begin by rereading what I have until I find something I want to change or add. Voila! I’m back to writing. Was it great stuff? Well, I’m not so sure about that. It did get the framework I need in place, so in that sense it was a success. The editors were kind enough to offer to let me turn in a “shitty first draft,” that wonderful concept from Anne Lamott. I did.

I agree with Lamott that it is important to let yourself write badly. My draft may be awful, but I can and will change it to make it better through revision. I think the block is over. I hope it never returns, but if it does, I need to read this and remember.

Posted by

Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s