Writer’s block is a strange concept. Perhaps it doesn’t exist. If it exists, it exists differently for me than it does for you. It’s a concrete block, perhaps, or a state of mind, or a strange life phase. I have perhaps been in a strange purgatory for several months now. The inability to write isn’t equivalent to the inability to write. Does that make sense? Language yes, but more, the presence, the depth, the journey, the motivation, the physical gesture, the breathing, the sleep, the farewell. Here is perhaps a sort of guide, in dealing with this so-called phenomenon of “writer’s block,” but perhaps too this is only a guide for me and something else all together for you. Let us see.
1. Ask for an assignment.
When I first realized I couldn’t “write,” that, for the first time in I could remember, I didn’t have a “project,” in mind, I reached out on Facebook and asked my friends to give me assignments.
Here is one from Kurt Newman:
As for assignments: how about a mystery story involving the devil that is exactly 666 words long?
And one from Ken Ehrlich:
Response to Baudelaire in the form of an extended angry rant.
And one from Ian Dreiblatt:
pick a big book off the shelf. each paragraph must arise from a random snippet of that book. bibliomancy to find a starting point. from wherever you start, each word has to generate a sentence. the sentence starts with that word, & the remainder is an acrostic forming that word. (example: I turned to page 124 of Nicole Loraux’s ‘the divided city’ & got ‘language of the oath’, which could yield: “Languages lurch aloft, nervily going utopian — a great experiment. Of others’ faces. The time hearing everything. Oath of a tired hermeneutics.” or whatever.) different paragraphs could come from different passages of the same book. maybe best to go in order.
Collaboration takes the pressure off in a strange way. As if what I write doesn’t have the same consequences or carry the same weight while I’m writing, but once the writing is committed carries perhaps a heavier weight in the aftermath. Laura Vena and I worked on a collaboration about time travel where for part of the project I would write for exactly one minute at 11:59 PM every night and she would write for exactly one minute at 12:01 AM every night. Strange modes of traveling through time and space within a collaborative mental spheres. Telepathic residue. Feeling at a distance. The color yellow. Right now I am watching scenes of decapitations in films with Michael du Plessis and writing in 15 minute bursts. Time limits are great impositions and restrictions that are strangely comforting and relieving, the ability to write words without the words being intentionalized before the act.
3. Write in the rain.
Invest in an all-weather notebook. (Rite in the Rain notepads are wonderful and designed for writing in the rain. I mean, that’s a pretty wonderful thing. I just received one as a late birthday gift and couldn’t wait to try it out.) Go outside while it’s raining, and lie down. Lie down on the sidewalk and feel the wet asphalt against your face. Don’t worry about being wet or getting dirty. This is the point. Lie down in the grass and feel the soft wetness against your skin, your legs. Don’t worry about what your neighbors think. They may join you. Bring a glass of 12 year scotch out with you and let the rain water bring out the flavor of your aged whiskey. Now write. If anything, write about how wonderful it is to be sitting outside in the glorious rain with your rain-flavored whiskey and the sound of the rain falling and the color of the sky and the smell of the damp street and the view of the mountains in the distance and the crispness of the air and the sensation of rain dripping down your face.
Get in your car. Pick a direction. Drive. I’m serious about this. Just drive without a destination. Or have a destination but don’t expect to get there. Stop frequently and often. Sit on the side of the road. Stop and sit in all the places you would never otherwise stop. You have all the time in the world.
Even better than driving: walk. Walk for hours. Explore the alleys and side streets of your neighborhood, city. Walk around the mall and smell the strange nauseating air-conditioned air. Hike in the forest and get bitten by mosquitoes.
6. Go to that place.
Go to that place where you are not yourself, are yourself completely, know yourself, don’t know yourself at all. Sit by the tide pools and touch a sea anemone. Walk to the edge of the earth and overlook the black ocean at night. Scale a mountain and feel insignificant and beautiful. Go out to the desert, the Salton Sea, someplace with dead things, live things, ghosts. Visit a haunted place, a sacred place, a forgotten place. Go to church. Go to church where the service is in a foreign language. Sleep under a tree, in a tree, with a dead tree. Visit a cemetery. Visit that place where your mother’s ashes are scattered. Visit that place where you find it hard to breathe. Visit an abandoned building. Break in. Write the narrative that is the threshold of being, the place’s space, your place, your evident relationship with the space.
Remember and write down your dreams. Think about what they might mean. I had perhaps some of the strangest and most significant dreams after my mother passed away. In one, she asks me where my father is. In another, I see and run after her, buildings burning down around me. My brother, in the dream, grabs my hand and pulls me away. “It’s not her,” he tells me. “That’s not really her.”
In other dreams, it feels like a sick and twisted detective story, if Lars von Trier directed CSI, and I’m viewing these tiny television screens with all of these horrible murders happening on each of the screens. In other dreams I am trying to fly and failing. In others still, I choreograph groups of strange creatures like a video game or twisted version of Kung Fu Hustle.
There’s no feeling—physical, emotional, spiritual—like being able to cry, like completing the ritual of crying, from start to finish, from allowing yourself to feel utter and complete sadness, or devastation, or heartbreak, or joy, or pity, or lost, or found. The crying is painful, you can feel it throughout your entire body, a strange hurt that vibrates through your fingertips. The crying is joyous, you can feel it all, the sensation are sensations and this is glorious and human and beautiful and tender. It is purely your own, you savor it, it doesn’t last any longer than it needs to, but ought to last at least that long. Don’t stop crying until you are done.
There is a very important distinction between sympathy and empathy. Pick someone to empathize with. Completely, utterly, understandably, with the utmost difficult and most conflicted of ethics and morals. Empathize with Stalin, with Hitler, with Che. Empathize with The Cat in the Hat, Garfield, the squirrel climbing the tree outside. This isn’t about acceptance or justification. But understanding. Feeling. Awareness. Breath. This, perhaps, is the most important thing you can ever do.
10. Write a sestina.
You can pick your poetic form of choice. Sonnet. Pantoum. Limerick. But for me, the sestina is the ultimate narrative and poetic device. You can feel the shape of the form, the distinct phenomenon of deja vu in the poem’s subtle and distinct repetition. It is a box to put things in, but the box is that size for a reason. Only this sized box can do this thing. Write a sestina that isn’t a sestina. Write what you remember, what you repeat, what you breathe, what comes out of your mouth when nothing comes out of your pen.
Watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Penny Dreadful or Once Upon a Time or The Vampire Diaries or Nashville or Elementary or Orphan Black. Watch shitty television. Watch television that makes you cry. Watch Bela Tarr’s Damnation or Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker or Wong Kar Wai’s 2046. Watch Oculus or 300: Rise of an Empire or Captain America. Don’t discriminate. Go to LACMA and pick one painting or sculpture to sit with. Sit with it all day. Sit with it for so long the rest of world ceases to exist, becomes absorbed in the world of what you are watching, that world becomes this world and this world becomes that world. Find the alternate reality between the worlds. Insert yourself. Take yourself out. Give confession. Give confession again. Breathe and then forget to breathe and write the words that fail to describe anything it is that you are feeling and seeing. The words are inadequate. Accept that. And write it anyways.
Scenes that have been on my mind lately (potential Spoilers): In Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 Episode 11, when Mike Peterson wakes up in a strange, dingy, yellow room after we’ve been told that he is dead. / In Penny Dreadful‘s series premiere, the recognition of life in the creature that a researcher (revealed to be Frankenstein) has managed to reanimate, the first recognition of sight, then hearing (“Can you hear me?” he asks, then a tear, a smile)… / In Damnation, the single man dancing outside in the rain. / In A Royal Affair, the moments before Johann Friedrich Struensee’s execution, the realization that it is a real execution, those moments of fear and emotion.
12. Listen to music.
Listen to the songs that make you cry, dance, jump up in contentment, the songs that make you feel more than just listen. Right now, it is Elliot Smith more than anything that makes me cry. Sentimental, I know.
13. The sky isn’t blue.
Ponder the significance of this statement. What color is the sky really?
14. Watch something die.
There’s nothing like watching something die. A fish. A spider. A possum. Even a cockroach. Examine and look intensely. Closely. It’s ok if it’s nauseating, uncomfortable, saddening, tragic, traumatizing. These are all feelings. This is how we feel about death. About life. About existence. Fixate on the moment of death until you feel like you are dying too, until you feel so intensely that you are dying that you feel the strongest sense of living, of life, that you have ever felt before. Hold on to the life you have, while you have it.
Forget about the fact that you have “writer’s block.” It’s okay if you can’t write. You don’t need to write every day or every week or even every month. Take a break. Stop. Breathe. So you can’t write today. Instead, go out for a drink. Instead, go swimming. Instead, go dancing. Instead, eat some buns and deep-fried oreos with green tea ice cream. Instead, watch Game of Thrones and complain about it on Facebook. Instead go watch a Star Wars themed burlesque show. Instead go karaoke with your BFF AKA down-ass bitch and sing Savage Garden’s “To the Moon and Back” with as much soul as you muster. Instead watch awesome stand-up comedy. Instead watch shitty stand-up comedy. Instead take a nap. Instead, instead. Instead, of being a “writer,” be a “person.”