“When I’m stuck or can’t make headway, I take a step back and reaffirm my commitment to this particular project. Am I really driven this way? Do I have something new to contribute? If yes, I take a few deep breaths to take this in and feel it. I may do a few restorative yoga poses. Child’s pose is so good for embodying humility toward the artistic process. I’ll then maybe cook a simple meal as the physicality of just making can often push my mind forward. Here’s my recipe for roasted potatoes: Slather cut yukon gold potatoes in olive oil and coconut oil.
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“To be honest, writing can be a torturous affair. You have all of these emotions and scenes in your head, colorful and wordless. But when you write them down, in black and white, and look for a language, it often feels wrong. As if the translator between your head and your typing hands has failed. Or as Hemingway once said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ I wish that had changed over the years, but it remains the same with every book, and for me the first draft is the most difficult.
“A few times a year, usually in the dead of winter, I’m overcome by a remarkably strong urge to simply disappear. I pack up my cats and computer, climb in the car, and head to my family’s summerhouse in Rhode Island, which I am fortunate to have, and where I often remain for weeks on end. Once there, I am absurdly habit-forming: I write from nine to three; take long, music-fueled walks along the river; write again from five to seven; and finally reward myself with red wine, dinner, and whatever TV show I’m currently immersed in.
“When I have writer’s block, I feel trapped in a small, airless box. When I watch movies, I feel free, so it only makes sense that I run to movies when I’m stuck. A few years ago, I decided to watch more classic and foreign films. I haven’t suffered significant writer’s block since. Sure, I get temporarily jammed from time to time. Who knows why? I suppose the blank page can be terrifying, and sometimes I don’t feel particularly brave. But great movies remind me that storytelling can be incredibly fun. Having fun is liberating. Liberation is freedom.
“I find that the most useful approach to getting seriously unstuck is to stop talking about the work completely. I do not mean to stop writing, or to stop showing up for a regular practice of writing. I mean to stop bringing it up in conversation, to stop answering questions about it, to stop describing or summarizing it transactionally, to stop seeking mirroring from others in relation to it, to stop letting others in on it (or the self out of it) completely. To enter into an airtight relationship with the questions and the uncertainties of the work.
“Every writer’s universe is a museum—there’s a permanent collection of concerns and obsessions and themes, then there are temporary rotating exhibitions, and then there are inventories of objects and curiosities that the writer has yet to employ. I led a writing exercise once where students listed the themes that pervade their work (their ‘permanent collection’), some present fixations or obsessions (their ‘rotating exhibitions’), and future topics they were interested in (their ‘inventory’).
“When I’m stuck and feeling overwhelmed (or underwhelmed for that matter) by my writing, my thoughts go right to water. I think I’m looking for the equilibrium of simply being whelmed, of being right in the flow of words, immersed in story.
“Staring intently doesn’t help us to see faint stars at night. We can see them better if we use our peripheral vision. This counterintuitive technique called averted vision works because rods—those light detectors in our eyes that allow us to see in weak light—are concentrated at the sides of our retinas. If we avoid a direct gaze and instead look slightly away from a star in the night sky, we involve our rods and thus see the star more clearly. I bring up this technique because it’s analogous to a practice that often helps me come up with creative ideas.
“When I’m deep in the woods of a novel and know I’ve lost my way, which has happened more times than I would care to admit, I look to the light of primary sources to see me back on track. When, for instance, I was some hundred pages into the battle-blasted landscape of my Civil War novel, Neverhome (Little, Brown, 2014), and could no longer figure how to move my character forward, I went for a walk in the stacks of the University of Denver’s library and found crumbling volumes of unvarnished Civil War diaries and letters, some that had not been checked out in fifty years.
“In her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Mariner Books, 2005), neurologist Alice W. Flaherty describes how the brain functions when we write: the temporal lobes deal in raw creativity—it’s the part of the brain we use when we generate new material; the frontal lobe is in charge of the editorial process. We need both parts of the brain working in concert to write well.