“If you were to glance over the chaos across my desk—inkless pens, paperbacks, an infant toothbrush—you might miss the object I count most valuable: a plastic rainbow-colored slinky. For years, whenever I found myself blocked, I’d pick up the slinky and toss it from hand to hand while walking in circles around my room. Maybe it’s the repetition of the sound, the shuffling of springs, but my mind burrows inside the world I’m building, unobliged to form an elegant sentence. I like elegant sentences, but my initial attempts are almost always doomed.
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“Above my desk, some talismans: ‘The Floor Scrapers’ by Gustave Caillebotte. I saw it when I was fourteen at the Musee D’Dorsay. The play of light on the floor got my attention, then it kept opening: What are the two on the right saying? Whose apartment is it, and will the people who live there feel the presence of this work when it’s done? Regardless, here are occupied bodies on a given day.
“My reality consists of full-time work, parenting, family, friends, and a laptop full of clients. When to write? One shift I made was to identify my ‘golden hour,’ the most conducive time of day for creative risk-taking, making, and doing. My husband is a night owl, but for me, it’s 4:00 AM to 6:00 AM. Everyone’s asleep, I’m freshly energized and not yet cluttered with the day’s noise. I make a list of no more than three goals to focus on so I can hit the ground running and make the most of it.
“Years ago, a friend told me that she thinks of writer’s block as ‘fallow time,’ the season the farmer leaves the field unsown so that crops can grow more productively (I’m a city girl; I had to look it up). I’ve had some long fallow seasons—months, years—when I haven’t been able to start the story that’s burning inside of me. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t ready. But a writer has to write. So how do you start again after an extended dormant period? These strategies have worked for me: Try this prompt. Have your character reveal a secret she’s never told anybody before.
“At some point I realized that I’m incapable of writing poems unless someone forces me to do it. Revising is easier for me; it can happen even against my better judgment as soon as I open a document. But someone’s got to make me do that first act of writing—I have to feel accountable to real, meat-and-blood people other than myself to make it happen. So I write most of my first drafts as part of a poem-a-day challenge.
“In order to start writing, I need to put myself in a receptive state of mind, which isn't easy when you're busy: ‘Stop, look, and listen,’ as they used to tell school kids crossing the street. It might just mean sitting in a different place, taking my notebook out into my garden or to a street café. The trick (for me) is to be patiently receptive without turning off my critical faculties. Sometimes I take a more active approach and turn to reading for stimulation. In that case, I tend to prefer certain kinds of nonfiction.
“I find that I generate new material via a two-step process. In the morning, I will sit my butt in the chair as close to 9:00 AM as possible. I’ve even contemplated purchasing one of those old punch clocks. Showing up every day is key. I’ll usually bang away all morning. When I’m working on a first draft, what I call 'fresh tracks,' the writing is inevitably bad. I used to be horrified by this and would immediately go back and try to improve it. I’ve learned over time to just let it lie, to be comfortable with the messiness.
"Though it may seem counterintuitive, I find that one way to keep from getting stuck or to find inspiration and new directions for my essays is to write with handcuffs on. Not real handcuffs. That would be weird. But I give myself constraints or limits, and in the case of several of my essays in Ultrasonic, these took the form of language, or specific words that served to narrow the focus of my writing. Focus, for me, is always a challenge, and these constraints became a way to harness my mind's tendency to ramble and digress.
“When I’m feeling dazed and spent, and perhaps even a bit self-pitying, I turn my attention to the gleeful nihilism of E. M. Cioran. Romanian by birth, and a philosopher who wrote in French by choice, Cioran’s short paragraphs (he started writing in short bursts after he quit smoking) are instant jolts out of the narrowness of my own perceptions. He had a grand view of the senselessness and absurdity we encounter every day of our lives. At the same time, there is a dark humor bubbling around his writings, like a raging man who can’t stop himself from laughing.
“I will try anything to break through my own perfectionism and dull literal-mindedness, my need to explain everything, my need to defend. I can be a very slow writer, prone to fidgetiness and second-guesses. What I’ve found helpful recently is to give myself the writing equivalent of stress tests. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but two summers ago I attempted to write a novel in a week, aiming for 50,000 words and managing 35,000. This past Labor Day weekend, I tried to write a novel, a novella really, one hundred pages or so, in three days, and succeeded.