Writers block

Crossing the Sahara:Writing (on Deadline) Under a Drought + Luci Shaw+Jeanne M. Walker

(Greetings to Festival friends and a note to my regular readers. This post is a taste of Calvin and a much-condensed version of my presentation Friday, April 20, at Calvin Festival of Faith + Writing)

Images from Calvin Festival: Luci Shaw+ Jeanne Murray Walker in conversation about Ambition.

Calvin Theatre's brilliant production of The book of the Dun Cow


Years ago I crossed the Sahara desert the back of a truck. No GPS. No roads, no signs---we simply followed the train tracks. We did have a crude map with water holes marked.  We’d get to the hole or the well—and it would be dry. We’d set out for the next one---and it was dry. Our water supply got lower every day and was closely rationed. At one point we were lost for three days. And we were on deadline---we had to get to Kenya before the rainy season started or we'd be stuck on the earthen roads. 

(It still happened, and it looked just like that . .. .)

That’s what the writing life can feel like at times, yes? The stations of usual refreshment aren’t working; we’re getting drier and drier; the manuscript is withering. We’re plain out stuck. Here are some sources of “stuckness,” and suggestions to get you moving back to the watering holes!

  *You’re STUCK because you’ve been seduced by your own luscious language. You’ve followed a trail of language, lured by its sound, rhythm, maybe even its profundity. (This is one of the traps of freewriting.) Soon---you’re sunk. In love. In a trap.  No water. No trail, no way out.

*Get UNSTUCK  by leaving the page. Free yourself by taking your core idea (or character) off the page and walking it out in the world. Wrestle with its logic, its meaning until you can articulate the concept clearly in new language and out loud--apart from the page.

*You’re STUCK  because there’s dissonance between form and content.  Maybe you committed to a form or a genre or a particular structure too soon, before fully exploring your content. (We do this when hurrying under deadlines!) When we externally impose an ill-fitting form upon our material, we’ll soon find ourselves and our manuscript immobilized.  (My humiliating example of choosing the form of 12 loaves of bread for my Spirit of Food essay .  . . )  Form and content must feel organic and harmonious!

*Get UNSTUCK  by returning to the exploration stage and really listening to the work itself, teasing out from its deepest levels the organic  form/genre/structure that best illuminates its meaning. We are often loathe to start again, but sometimes nothing else will do.

*You’re STUCK because of the limits of your genre.
Every genre is an attempt to discover and construct some form of knowledge. But every genre has limits. Narrative finds meaning through sequence, context, causality. By its very definition it reveals order—and potentially meaning---from the disorder of our lives. But sequence and causality don’t tell the whole story. Poetry relies heavily upon metaphor, imagery, the moment, sensation, but poetry may miss the truths that narrative can discover. Each needs the other at some point. 

*Get UNSTUCK by changing genres (for a short time). We need to stay open to new truths as we write. If you’re stuck on the chapter in your memoir about your mother’s death, write a poem about the day she died. If your poem is stalled, try writing a short story or a vignette about a related experience. You will see, hear and process memories in new ways when entering a new genre.

Let’s admit it---writing is an unnatural act. Sitting at your keyboard for hours on end every day is like crossing the desert. You have to find ways to rehydrate and rehumanize  this most glorious of labors.  So I end with these final, deeply wise admonishments:

*Ask for an extension. Believe it or not, most writers do this at some point. There’s no shame in it. Your editor wants you to produce the best material possible. It’s not always possible, but getting a little more time can magically create a breakthrough. (How many times have I asked for an extension? Exactly as many times as I needed to.)

 *Go to bed early. Eat. Exercise. Drink yummy beverages. Be nice to yourself during this dry time. 

Don't do as I have done! Don't kill the body hoping to free some great, brilliant spirit! It doesn't work. 

 (If you're already nice to yourself, skip this step. Work really really hard and suffer some instead.)

That's it---for now. Except for the end of my Sahara story. We made it out, and we did find water, but I never wrote about it—just a single poem---about absence and dearth. What else can you write about when you're thirsty?  

What did I miss, fellow desert writers?