Some Thoughts on Writer's Block

Nancy writing diligently in her journal.
Nancy writing diligently in her journal.

I’ve heard it from a few different directions this week—women wondering how to deal with “writer’s block.” It seems to be a frequent complaint. Though not one I can relate to well. I wonder, are fiction writers more prone to the “block?” Since I haven’t ventured into fiction yet, I may be the wrong person to comment on a phenomenon that many suffer from. But here I go…

All my life, I have been fed, informed, inspired, transformed by and riveted to the written word. Poets, essayists, memoirists, novelists, non-fiction writers have saved my life, sustained my life, changed the course of my life. At a crossroads I encountered Doris Lessing, Mary Oliver, Joyce Carol Oates, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Virginia Woolf, Claudia Rankine, and countless others. Their words and the messages between their words told me just what to do next.

How did they know they were writing to me? How did they know how much I needed them? How did it happen that what got spun up and spun out from their brains wove itself into a tangible thing that made its way to me like a map to someone lost in the woods? That’s the great mystery, the great power of the arts. it’s in the category of magic, miracle—the impact that words can have on another.

When I sit to write, I imagine a woman out there who’s been silenced, I imagine someone frightened, waiting for permission, looking for a mirror. I imagine a gay teen contemplating suicide, a young woman gathering her courage. I imagine myself at a younger age, before I found my words. I ground myself in that reality. I am writing to myself. I sense the seriousness, the value of the word. And I begin, attempting only to be honest, forthright, a good storyteller.

I believe I might be saving a life, like someone else once saved mine. I believe my metaphors might actually work for someone, might carry them across the dark unknown. Annie Dillard once suggested, “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

In the face of that challenge, where does writer’s block come in? If you were dying, what would you say? If you were with a dying person, what would be important?

Each of us knows a little something that no one else knows. We have secrets that are jewels, things of light, directions someone needs. They live inside our stories, poems, fictions and non-fictions. They are what we have to share with the world. They are what we need to write and what others need to read. It’s as simple as that. You are needed right now. Just get to work

Many years ago, Brenda Euland wrote, “I learned...that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.”

“I want to assure you with all earnestness, that no writing is a waste of time, – no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. Strength to your sword arm!”

I’m with Brenda. Get priming, and strength to your sword arm!

Jan Phillips,

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