Hard to believe the 30/30 poetry marathon I’m doing with Tupelo Press is already a third of the way over. That said, this old photo of my kids as zombies is appropriate right now: this far into the month, I feel a little like the walking dead, stumbling around, sniffing out signs of a brain. Any brain will do.
Like so many poem-a-day efforts, this one comes on the heels of what I’d call a creative dry spell (otherwise known as “when you have writers block”). Whether I really was stuck or was simply paying more attention to other things, it certainly felt like I couldn’t write. I leapt into this 30/30 as cry for help LOL. I needed to feel like a writer again before an upcoming writing retreat.
In case it helps prevent future panic, I’ve been trying to pay attention to my process this month. Clearly, at least so far, I am able to manage a daily writing practice. Why is it that I spend months and months telling myself otherwise?
In no particular order, here’s what I have so far.
Notes to my future self when she feels like she can’t write
All the free writes, random lines and strange images you jot in your notebook aren’t a waste of time. They count. In the days when that’s all you write down, you’re still in it. Those bits are fodder. Many of them will fuel poems one day. Time spent gathering material is not wasted.
Read. Read. Read. When you leave the world of regular/conversational language and observations, you enter a space that has a kind of magic. It casts a spell that trains your ear on the strangeness in your daily life.
Turn off the news and listen to poetry/literary podcasts for the same reason. Listening to other writers talk about their work also creates a sense of companionship even if you never know one another in real life. When you listen to what works for other writers, you’re more likely to recognize what works (or doesn’t work) for you, too.
Pay attention. Be present. Be open to the phrases, images, memories, mistakes, daydreams, scents and other bits that float on the air all around you.
Speaking of air, breathe. There’s no reason to worry about any of this nearly as much as you tend to worry about this.
People will understand if you ask them for space/time to write. It’s likely that you haven’t been asking/insisting. People are going to be more patient with you than you think they’ll be.
When you do sit down to write, allow the things that don’t seem to be working (strangeness, leaps, missing pieces, etc.) to be on the page. Plunk the draft down without worrying if the metaphor is exactly right or if the image is the right one for the poem. Don’t worry if anything makes sense. Just keep going.
If you sit down and nothing interesting happens instead, the same approach applies: keep going. Keep your pen moving (or your fingers tapping). Give something a chance to happen.
Considering getting your house in decent shape (whatever that means for you) before you start. If you aren’t able to do this, commit to not letting clutter, dust or dirt be excuses for ending a writing session.
Establish other boundaries, as well. Turn off social media notifications. Don’t answer texts. Limit the sounds in the room if that makes a difference.
Don’t be stubborn about staying in the same spot where you started. If you need to, get up and find a new chair, a different writing surface, a new room, a change of scenery/sound.
It feels better than you remember to finish a draft of a poem.When in a slump, it’s easy to feel lukewarm about the whole writing thing. If we tell ourselves it’s just “meh,” then we don’t have to get so down when we miss out on it. But the truth is that it isn’t just “meh.” It’s amazing. Don’t underestimate how good it feels to be writing.
One reason it’s worth getting in the zone where your writer brain is engaged is that in that space it is possible to look forward to the next day simply because it contains something you will create that you don’t yet know is possible.
None of this, of course, is earth-shattering. None of it is brand new information. At one time or another, we all know these things to be true. I, for one, tend to forget them when I most need them.