“My cures for writer’s block are alarmingly pragmatic and physical. So pragmatic that they arrange themselves in list form! To wit: 1. Get up and walk around. A few years ago, I realized that the solutions to most of my writing problems would come to me in the bathroom. It wasn’t the bathroom itself, of course, that was magic, but the act of getting up from my desk and walking there, getting the blood flowing, and tearing my eyes away from the computer screen. So now, when I’m staring down a huge plot problem, I take a long walk—without a notepad.
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“The very worst times in my life have been marked by silence: times when I wasn’t allowed to write, or couldn’t write, or when language completely failed me. I didn’t write a word, beyond e-mails or Facebook status updates, for nearly two years after I finished graduate school. After I had finished each of my two books, I spent at least six months casting around, writing nothing new. Each time, what finally got me off the block was digging for its root: It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t think of anything new to say, it was that I believed what I had thought of wasn’t any good.
“I do various things to keep the muse going, but mostly, I read, read, read! I make myself the ‘expert’ of the particular form I am attempting. I am a big poetry nerd and proud of it! The history of literature is rich and various. The more rigorous we are in our practice, the more interesting our poems will be.
“In the morning when I walk to work, I try to think up stories for everything I see along the way. Three birds sitting on a bag of trash behind the used record store. A waterlogged ball cap in a parking lot. A turtle gliding past sun-bleached beer cans in the stream that winds its way through downtown. Each has enough story in it to fuel an entire writing career.
"Before Knockemstiff made him famous, my friend Donald Ray Pollock came home from work at the paper mill, rolled a page into his typewriter, and began to copy, word by word, passages by writers he admired. One day Raymond Carver, the next day Cormac McCarthy, the next day Dawn Powell, the next day Larry Brown. This, he told me, was the bulk of his writerly education. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, painstakingly slow, a process not dissimilar to what literary translators do when they bring a work from Japanese into English.
“Earlier this year while I was finishing my novel, I was reading Dani Shapiro’s wonderful book, Still Writing. I swear every page was like another delicious choice in an intellectual, emotional, and creative buffet. I especially love the section on 'Shimmer,' which is what Shapiro calls the unmistakable, indelible epiphany a writer has when she discovers her subject matter. Shapiro says: ‘We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them.
"As both a poet and clinical psychologist with a therapy practice, I tend to lose time in a very cerebral world. Concrete, really physical activities help me emerge from a more linear modality toward an enlivened creativity. I try to immerse myself in things like digging in the garden, exercise, cooking, or art projects like collage. I believe that if we give ourselves over to something wholeheartedly, we enable our art to emerge. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about creative jumpstarts from the psychological construct of flow: I highly recommend his books.
"Sometimes I do this thing where I convince myself that writing is really hard. I bang my head on the desk. I suffer and moan. When I am being silly and insufferable like this, the only remedy is to listen to the Band. More specifically: to listen to Levon Helm, a man I think of as a kind of patron saint for my writing life. Levon Helm sang 'Ophelia.' He sang a cover of 'Atlantic City' that is better than the Boss's (don't argue, you know it's true). He played the drums like no one's business and a mean mandolin. And he was grinning the whole time he did it.
"At a hotel in West Papua, New Guinea, above my bed in room 104, there hangs a painting. Three horses—cream, chestnut, and honey brown—gallop through pinkish-orange shallows. The sky—of a warmer, flooded world?—is goldenrod. Each horse, though wingless, looks as if it might take flight, especially the white one, who rears up with a pained expression in his eyes and bares his baby teeth. All three have steeled themselves, are focused—on what? What lies ahead?