Here's one last post on the subject of creative blocks to end the week.....
In an interview on the late, lamented Bookslut site, Luís Alberto Urrea (an old friend of mine from our respective Tucson days) was asked if he ever got stuck as a writer. He answered:
"I do get stuck! I think everyone gets stuck! Here's the thing: this is a part of my belief system that continues to grow over the years: I have to thank the ancient Chinese poets and writers, and especially the Japanese haiku poets. Writing is not a product, but a process. Writing is a life style, a life choice, a path. Writing is part of my process of sacredness and prayer even. What I do is writing; that's how I've chosen to understand and process the world, as a writer.
"When I feel stuck, then that season has taken a bit of a pause. The garden has already grown many different blossoms, and my task is to know when not to force something more. It would be a mistake to do battle with the writing spirit. Writer's block is like a stop sign; it's a warning. So sometimes I just think for a while, sometimes I drive cross-country, sometimes I read something. That's the time to do something fascinating that's outside of myself, and there's always something fascinating going on. If I get all wrapped up in myself, I'll grind to a halt eventually. If nothing else, I'm just not that interesting.
"The world is full of hilarious, upsetting, entertaining, disturbing stuff out there – that well just never runs dry. That's a great gift for all of us. We just have to go out and look."
Malcom Gladwell offers these wise words:
"I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent -- and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise."
If you are young or energetic enough to produce good work as hares (i.e., running flat out till the project is done or you drop from exhaustion), then good for you; but for most of us it's not a sustainable method of making art over a life-time. I was a hare in my youth; I'm a tortoise now, and grateful to be one. All hail the tortoise.
In her encouraging book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life, Dani Shapiro notes:
"When I'm between books I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me, everything I understand and feel and know and remember, and...that's it. There's nothing left. A low-level depression sets in. The world hides its gifts from me. It has taken me years to realize this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I've spent everything. And so I must begin again.
"I wait. I try to be patient. I remember Colette, who wrote that her most essential art was 'not that of writing, but the domestic task of knowing how to wait, to conceal, to save up crumbs, to reglue, regild, change the worst into the not-so-bad, how to lose and recover in the same moment that frivolous thing, a taste for life.' Colette's words, along with those of a few others, have migrated from one of my notebooks to another for over twenty years now. It's a wisdom I need to remember -- wisdom that is so easy to forget."
Storyteller and curandera Clarissa Pinkola Estés advises:
"Be wild; that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down."
"If you get stuck, get away from your desk...don't just sit there scowling at the problem," says Hilary Mantel.
Tilly is good at reminding Howard and me when it's time to put down the pen, put down the brush, get off of Zoom, turn the computer off, lest we spend all day in our heads and work and not in the sensory world. We follow her out the door and down the path to the river, the woods, the hills, the moor...where the movement of wind and water helps to dislodge that "stuck" feeling...sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly with a sudden bright burst of release.
But let's end with a different take on creative blocks by Douglas Rushkoff that is also worth pondering:
"I don’t believe in writer’s block.
"Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written -- even when I may have wanted to -- but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.
"The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond. That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.
"Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise -- even if he happens to be in your own head."
Do you hear that, taskmaster in our heads? Begone! And take the background hum of judgement, guilt, and anxiety away with you! As Luis puts it so perfectly above: creativity is a process, not a product. Inspiration returns, it always does. But it will take the time it takes...and often be all the stronger for it.
Words: The Luis Urrea quote above is from an interview by Terry Hong (Bookslut, December 2011). I can't remember where I scribbled the Malcolm Gladwell quote down from (possibly The New Yorker?); my apologies. The Dani Shapiro quote is from her book Still Writing (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013). The Clarissa Pinkola Estés quote is from Women Who Run With the Wolves (Ballantine Books, 1992). TThe Hillary Mantel advice is from "Hillary Mantel's rules for writers" (The Guardian, February 2010). The Douglas Rushkoff quote is from "A Reason to Get Your Heart Unbroken: Unblocking Creative Flow" by Maria Popova (The Atlantic, October 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Candles in Babylon by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The illustrations are from Les Fables de la Fontaine illustrated by Gustave Doré (1832-1883); they are: The Hare and the Frogs, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Hare and the Ox. The photographs were taken on a walk with husband and hound by the River Teign, where it flows through Chagford. Tilly loves to swim (and so do I).