A Session with KJ Steele
Have you ever noticed that all living things seem to have some form of movement or flow? It may be physical movement in all of its diversity. Or it could be as subtle as a brainwave or thought. Perhaps it’s as undetectable to others as a feeling. Even a supposedly still body is only a facade encasing a vast network of activity. Life-force is meant to flow, and I believe our creativity is an integral part of that river. When the forward momentum of that river is blocked, however, bad things will happen. Ask anyone who’s suffered an obstructed bowel or a cardiac event. Flow is good; blockage is bad. Creative restriction – while obviously not as potentially life-threatening as a physical blockage – can emotionally collapse one to their knees just the same.
There is no doubt a writing block can be an extremely frustrating, confusing, and debilitating occurrence. Yet, it is routinely accepted as part of the inevitable landscape of the writerly field. But what really is a writer’s block? Does it actually even exist as a separate entity? Or is it simply a variety of symptoms, hiding behind a common name? And how can we diagnose and resolve these annoying symptoms so that we can get moving forward again with what we’d really love to do – write.
Writer’s block. What is it?
Let’s assume for a moment that writer’s block does exist. At least insomuch that many – if not all – will at some point in their career have the experience of showing up at the page, turning on the tap, and having absolutely nothing come out. The well has run dry or at least it is refusing to share its resources. Other times, we may be happily tapped-in, writing our way along when suddenly the road falls away in front of us. Startled, we find ourselves facing a very large, uninviting wall. Heroically, we set out to write our way over it-under it-around it-or through it – all to no avail. Someone once said writer’s block is like coming up against a blank wall with no window or door and being tasked with having to find our way inside. A very apt description.
So, we find ourselves run aground against an impossible task while all we really wanted to do was just write another sentence. But wait – the task is not really impossible at all. We writers are magicians, and that blank page is our stage hat. With creativity as our golden wand, we can pull a rabbit, a cabbage, a cat, or a whole damn galaxy out of it if we want to. But first, we have to learn a few creative tricks to enable our sleight-of-hand.
I was a blocked writer before I even was a writer. I loved the idea of writing. But I had no idea how to do it. Doubts circled like a flock of birds above me, squawking insults and dropping rude little pellets of fear into my mind. Who was I to think I could write something that other people would want to read? What did I know about the sacred art of literature?
Their squabbling accusations seemed to make a lot of sense. I listened to them. Attempting to make myself a more suitable candidate as a writer, I took some literature courses. I read the great Russian masters. I studied their brilliance. Before long, I became utterly convinced that the best use of my own pencil was probably to just stuff it up my nose to see if I could successfully perform a frontal lobotomy. I couldn’t, so, I decided to do something infinitely more rational: I signed up for a writing course, a take-your-pencil-out-of-your-nose-and-let’s-begin-writing, writing course. And that is where my first writing blockage ended and my successful writing career began.
The first writing exercise my instructor, Dona Sturmanis, gave me blasted me out of my inertia. I’m going to share it with you here. Are you ready to get unblocked? Of course you are. I only ask you to remember one thing before we get started and that’s this: put a smile on your face. I’m not asking you to amputate your leg here. It’s important to have fun with this.
Writing-Block Blaster Exercise #1 Create two characters and a conflict and write a paragraph.
Simple enough, right? The idea here is to not think about it. Just do it. If two fictional characters won’t show up on your page, drop back into your life experience and pick two people from your past. It might be helpful to keep those people at arms-length. That is, it may be preferable to write about the lady you saw walking her duck, and the girl at the checkout counter who had a rainbow spectrum of colored hoops spiraling through her left ear than attempting to write about you and your significant other’s last discussion. This will leave you free to have fun, rather than hover over every word with agonizing angst.
It’s important to just keep the pencil moving across the page. Or the cursor across the screen – whichever way you swing. Now, be prepared to crumple up that lovely little darling once it’s done and throw it away. Or simply hit delete. The Buddhists have a philosophy about writing something beautiful every day, then folding it up and releasing it on the water. There is a great deal of intrinsic wisdom in that thought.
After finishing your first paragraph, create two new characters and a conflict, and write another one. Continue doing so until you begin to feel a sense of release. Creating two characters and a conflict is not that hard. It’s actually fairly simple. If you allow it to be rather than burden it with a sense of importance, the creativity-crushing need for it to be something bigger than itself.
Do not be overly surprised, however, if somewhere during this exercise you find yourself becoming intrigued about one of the scenarios. If it happens, great. If not, that’s fine too. Just like romantic attraction, the chemistry will either be there or it won’t. This is what happened to me prior to writing my first novel, No Story to Tell. While doing the above exercise, I had created two characters and a conflict and written a paragraph. But the characters would not leave my mind. They took up residency, remaining with me until I had journeyed with them through a most tumultuous and expansive time of their lives. The seed of that first paragraph bloomed itself into a 106,000-word novel. The embryo of that first conflict grew into this scene:
“Bobby, you’d better hurry. It’s almost eight o’clock; the boys will be here anytime now.”
“All right, already. Relax a minute, will ya. I’m just gonna have a quick shower.”
“Bobby! You can’t have a shower, they’ll be—” The roar of water crushed her protest mid stream.
Tears stung in her eyes as she whirled around, clenched fists powerless to stop him. Shit! He could be such a jerk. He knew how much she hated it when he came home late on Saturday nights. Hated having to fend off the abrasive, arrogant John Jr., who amused himself while waiting for his friend by tormenting his friend’s wife. Frustration burned up into her throat and spread out to her limbs. She wanted to punch something, break something. Yell. Scream. But she turned her fury in on herself, swallowed her rage as clenched fists drove hard nails into tender palms. Saturday was poker night. No one had planned it that way, it just was. Started the Saturday night of their wedding. Started as a big drunken joke: the boys thinking it would be immensely funny to barge in on the newlyweds at three o’clock in the morning and haul Bobby out of bed to drink whiskey and play poker.
It was not funny, however, and Bobby had sworn vilely into the black bedroom as they thundered on the trailer door demanding in a slurred, howling chorus to be let in. She’d been sure Bobby was going to set them straight in no uncertain terms. She’d even cautioned him to remember that they were his best friends and drunk, and that he should go easy on them. Ignoring her, he’d ripped open the bedroom door and exploded down the hallway like a bullet through the barrel of a gun. But, by the time he’d traversed the short distance to the porch door, his Hyde had turned to Jekyll, and he greeted his friends with good- ol’-boy slaps on the back and an overly loud, upbeat invitation to come on in.
She’d lain awake until morning had pushed itself in around the edges of the tattered blanket nailed across the window. Lain awake listening as the four of them drank themselves into a silent stupor, and then she’d got up to repair the damage. Emptied the ashtrays, picked drowned butts out of glasses, washed the dishes, swept the floor. The first few years she’d even found blankets to lay over the comatose bodies lying inert wherever the alcohol had declared victory and the muscles had failed. The rocker, the bathtub, the floor. After a while she’d just saved herself the bother; they never acknowledged her kindness anyhow, as oblivious to it as though the blankets had just arrived on their own accord. On the good nights, they drank themselves sick before they drank themselves dead, and they could still find their way home again. It was a weekly ritual that played over and over again, like a reoccurring nightmare she couldn’t escape and gradually she came to accept as her life.
Bobby had been repentant, if not apologetic, after the first night. Promised her a real honeymoon once the crops were in. Somewhere exotic. Somewhere neither of them had been, which was pretty much anywhere. But the extra cash was needed for tractor repairs that year and for trailer repairs the next. And each year brought the promise of the next, until she gave up waiting and he gave up promising.
The pounding of water joined her thoughts. Her hands white-knuckled around a carving fork; she stuck it deep into the roast and returned it to the oven. She wiped her hands on her jeans, struggled for a full breath. Elliot was right. She was uptight. Needed to relax, have fun for a change. But relaxing seemed a foreign word to her, partially grasped but not fully understood. Relax. Have fun. Sure, sounded simple off his tongue. But how could she relax when life kept coming undone, the whole damn thing instantly fraying every time she took her finger off the knot.
She tucked her fingertips into the softly rounded groove of the windowpane and yanked at it several times before it finally relented with a resentful crack and let itself be slid open. More and more often now, she found herself opening the windows to escape the claustrophobic closeness that pressed in on her, hoping to replenish the stagnant air that sat thickly in her lungs. Her hipbones pressed against the edges of the faded orange counter as she leaned across it to catch the fresh air stealing in through the window. Her eyes closed as the crisp night touched her face. Her mind floated backward to the day three weeks previous and began to strum serenely over its perfect chords. Pausing occasionally, she tried to retrace each word, each wink, each touch, and she grew irritated by her mind’s inability to recall the vivid feelings, diluting their red intensity into a dull brown.
A slow sucking sound startled her as Bobby opened the bathroom door and emerged behind her. His towel-dried black hair glistened in a spiky disarray that would have looked boyish had it been able to overcome the ferociousness of day-old stubble.
Writer’s Block. What causes it?
There is no definitive answer for this. Each writer will use their own unique materials to build a dam that best stifles their own creativity. However, I will venture to say that every blockage shares a common denominator:
You need to get out of your own way!
Writing freely is about allowing, not controlling. Control will be needed later on, when you get to the editing. Writing freely sounds easy. Obviously, if that were so, we would not be sharing this lesson. As writers, I believe we all long to release our control-button and just express ourselves on the page. So what is it about ourselves that gets in our way? As I said before, there are myriad reasons. Below, I will address three of them that I think are relatively common.
Reasons Writers Get Blocked – #1
This is a tricky one, because it’s exceptionally agile. It gets all of us. New writer? Probably no good. Established, award-winning writer? Probably never write that well again. Reviewer loved your work? Yes, but that other one hated it. Do you see how this game works? This is not a battle that you can win, nor will it ever end. So it’s imperative that you get yourself out of the ring as soon as possible.
Listening to your inner critic as you try to write will absolutely block you. We’re talking Hoover-dam type blockage here. There is no easy way to dynamite your way out of this one. So here’s an exercise, and again it should be fun. You’re not going back in the ring with your inner-critic. But you are going to drag the yappy little sucker out onto your writing desk and have a bit of a chat.
Writing-Block Blaster Exercise #2 Take a blank page and address it to your Dear Inner-Critic. Then, thoughtfully write down all the things it has had to say over the years. All of the discouraging, blockage-forming, non-supportive garble. Thank your inner-critic for its valued opinions. Do not attempt to disagree or defend yourself. As a matter of fact, you should probably ask your inner-critic if it would like a plastic baseball bat so it can better bop you on the head the next time you try to write. Offer to write the story of its sad little life. Yes, what I’m saying is make fun of your nasty little critic. So here’s a tip to remember. That inner critic that has crippled your creativity with self-doubt and made you miserable – it doesn’t actually exist.
In other words, to blast through the blockage of your self-doubt, don’t take yourself so damn seriously. Have fun. And keep on writing.
Reasons Writers Get Blocked – #2
Another fantastic way we manage to block our writing is by placing the weight of the world on its infantile shoulders. It’s our baby. We want it to be good. We want it to grow up to be great. To be something. We smother every word, sentence, paragraph, and character with our neediness. We check its faint pulse daily for some slim glimmer of genius. Nothing will shut down your creative bowels faster than this one.
People are fond of saying writers have to be willing to write badly until they can write well. I think about that a bit differently. I used to look at my first draft and get very discouraged. Quite frankly, some of it was garbage. But some of it wasn’t. It took me a while to realize that this was part of my process. Not every word that goes on your page initially needs to be good. Some of the words are just going to be the vehicle that unfolds the narrative. Once you’ve told yourself the story, then you can go back over your work and mine it for the nuggets-of-gold. Viewed this way, there is simply no bad writing during the initial stages. I now consider this bad writing to be: My Emerging Path. Instead of railing against and trying to disown it, I welcome it instead as an important, integral part of the way I write. This tactic alone has helped me immensely to break through my own battles with writer’s block.
Writing-Block Blaster Exercise #3 We’re going to play a game with bad writing. Write a single, free-form paragraph about one object. Describe it. Make assumptions about it. Ask questions. Don’t try to make the writing good. Later, you can go back and mine your paragraph for gold. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, but it should not be too abstract. For my example, I chose shoes.
Shoes Something about your shoes stays with me. It wasn’t that there was anything spectacular about them. To the contrary. They were not fantastically shaped or curiously colored. They were instead, very plain. Solid soles. Smooth leather. Tight laces. Tan. They looked heavy, like they kept you anchored to the ground. Is that why you chose them? Something to keep you safely tethered to the earth so you don’t feel the urge to fly free and experience golden fetishes of high-heeled boots and short short skirts. But no, the shoes are too heavy for flight. They reflect your seriousness. Your astuteness. Your practicality. Your resistance. Your desire to safely feel the ground. Those tight laces. The strangulating knots and bows. Deceptive in their order. In their confinement. I could undo those laces, you know. One thought at a time. I could feel them free. Do you understand how dangerous those shoes are? Choking the life out of you. Do they indicate who you are or what you would be like if I got to know you? They fascinate me by their understated plainness. An unusual form of trickery and yet so effective. I wonder about you buying them. Did it take you a long time to choose which exact ones felt the best? Comfort was an issue for you, no doubt. And an absence of showiness. Like yourself, your shoes do not give anything away. But if in fact your shoes are so unremarkable, then why is it that they caught my fantasy and held my attention? Why is it that when I go back to what first turned my head your way, it was something as unassuming as your shoes?
Okay, that was the original pile of dirt. Let’s see what happened to it after I went in and mined it for gold.
Shoes Your shoes are talking to me Telling me what you’re not Stories of tight tan leather Safe solid soles Strangulation bows No curious colors or fantasy shapes No high-heeled fetishes spiked with gold Just corset laces murdering breath I could undo them One thought at a time Because your shoes tell me stories But I don’t believe one word that they’ve said
Obviously I’ve chosen here to create a poem, but this exercise works just as well with prose. The point here is to realize that no initial writing should be considered bad writing, but rather just a vehicle to help get us started moving across the page.
Reasons Writers Get Blocked – #3
You never listen to me anymore!
To write well, it is imperative that you have a great relationship with your creative voice. And, as with any great relationship, open channels of communication are essential. I was once given some very sage marriage counsel: if you want to stay happily married then you must spend time together. Deceptively simple. But not so simply executed. I believe this relationship advice applies to writing as well. First of all, obviously if we want to write, we have to spend time writing. But what if the writing is not speaking to us? That’s a little more difficult. People don’t do voids well. We want to fill the time. To distract ourselves. Telephone, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter. Even quick looks out the window will do. Anything to keep our mind occupied. But I can tell you from my own writing experience, that if we do not develop the discipline to sit quietly and listen to what our creative voice is trying to say, then we will eventually find ourselves suffering from an acute case of writer’s block.
This happened to me while writing my novel The Bird Box. There I was happily writing along. Life was good. I had gotten my character, Jakie, up out of bed, through his morning routine, and over to the door of one of the cottages on the insane asylum grounds where he lived. He carried a basketful of herbs and berries with which he planned to help ease the suffering of some of his fellow inmates. Through the door he goes and begins to strike up a conversation with one of the other patients. Except the other patient is not cooperating. The conversation is going nowhere. I back-up and start over again. I get Jakie back up out of bed, through his morning routine, and over to the same door carrying the same basket. Entering through the door Jakie again makes an attempt at conversation. Not happening. I tried one more time with the same result. Clearly, somebody was not happy about something. I was blocked.
Finally, I remembered to get out of my own way. I put down my pencil, closed my eyes and waited. I visualized Jakie getting up out of bed, going through his morning routine, grabbing his basket, then making his way over to the cottage door and walking through it. What I saw in my mind when Jakie walked through the door this time was quite surprising however. Before, I had had him walking into a communal dining room. His futile attempted conversations had been with one of the female patients. But Jakie hadn’t walked into a communal dining room after all. In my mind, he had quite clearly walked into the dining room beneath the severely insane men’s cottage. Oh, I get it. Quite a different conversation. And immediately, an entertaining cast of characters appeared on my page all eagerly awaiting their chance to be heard, and the novel continued forward:
Grabbing a basketful of herb-posies, he carefully added the blue-bottle tincture on top, stepped into his rubber-boots, and set out across the cemetery grounds toward the tall brick clusters that formed the hospital.
He walked respectfully, and as slowly as time would allow, between the long rows of faceless graves. The disinherited were buried here. Those whose dying had raised no cries of alarm. No remorse, nor any attempt by the living to at least ensure that in death they would be treated with a dignity denied them in life. Society’s cast-offs. Fearful, and feared. Disposable, and despised. Some had just been forgotten. Others had merely, wearily, outlived all those they had known. Each one of them was laid here, in the asylum’s cemetery, for eternity. An eternity spent in a place each one of them had only envisioned visiting for a short time. A brief resting place in the chase of life where they could catch their mental breath. They were boxed and folded neatly away underneath the cover of ground, their meager belongings gathered together, stored in whatever suitcase they had arrived with, labeled, and promptly forgotten among the rafters and rats in the various building’s attics.
Harangued voices arose from the buildings in front of him, and for a moment Jakie thought to turn around. To turn back – turn his back – on the oppressive anger that so often contorted the beautiful asylum grounds. Briefly, he vacillated. And as he did, he felt again the struggle that he knew must occur each day within all of the staff as they walked through that vaporous barrier. Left behind their families and friends, lives constructed on the shifting but accepted scaffolding of love and hope. Crossing over each day some invisible border that diminished them all. Entered into this world of broken beauty. All of them – patients and staff alike – reaching blindly for a stability and answer that eluded them all. Jakie approached a seldom-used door, juggling his basket-full of herbs with one hand while he slipped a rough-hewn key into the lock, admitting himself in through the back entrance of Cottage Five. A functional room, the dining-hall’s low ceiling hung like an oppressive cloud above long rectangular walls. All were smudged the same dull gray.
Running down the length of the room, several elongated tables stretched out like wooden feed troughs.
The efficient clank and clatter of the morning’s breakfast being cleaned up permeated the close air. A few scattered patients still lingered over their crumbs, procrastinating the beginning of yet another day. Two bored attendants leaned heavily against the back wall, chewing over the results of the previous day’s game, sipping cold coffee from cracked mugs.
“Morning,” Jakie offered as he walked by.
“Morning,” they returned, heads bobbing in unison. A large, shaggy hand reached out and caught Jakie by the elbow, reversing his forward momentum.
“Hey! What’s that?”
Jakie looked over at the scarred, jowly face. It was florid. Pimply. In dire need of a good shave. The attendant was new, transferred over from the Brockville asylum. Ethel claimed he’d had quite a reputation among the patients there. One to steer clear of. Having observed the man since his recent arrival, Jakie was inclined to believe her. There was a certain terseness about his perfunctory movements that suggested a latent roughness. A simmering capacity for violence. Slowly, Jakie eased his arm free of the man’s restraining hand.
“Just some leaves and berries. That’s all.”
“Leaves and berries?” the attendant repeated, grunting as he pushed off from the wall, his buffalo-body energized with suspicion. “What you bringing that junk in here for?”
“To heal the sick, sir,” Jakie replied quietly.
“Ha!” the man snorted explosively. “What you think you are? Some gaw-damn loony-bin medicine man?”
Jakie held his tongue, casting a quick searching glance at the other attendant.
Frowning back a mute apology, he also shuffled free of the wall now and attempted to diffuse the situation.
“Ah, come on, Oswald. Leave him alone. Jakie don’t never hurt no-one. Maybe some of that stuff even does some good. Who knows?”
Oswald grimaced as if he’d been pierced with a hot stick. Tipping his head stiffly to one side, he glared down at the short, balding, pumpkin-faced attendant.
“Holy Mother – Teresa! What kind of place you fellas running around here? No gaw-damned way we ever let them run around playing doctor like that up at Brockville.”
“Jakie just likes helping people, that’s all. He don’t mean no harm –”
“Helping people? Christ, even the doc’s got a hard enough time figuring out who’s real sick, and whose just sick in the head around here. Bunch of hocus-pocus. Can’t help no one feeding them a bunch of rabbit food,” Oswald said, giving Jakie’s basket a heavy nudge with his leg.
The basket tipped sharply, almost falling free from Jakie’s hand.
“Hey!” Oswald accused sharply. “What’s that? Sure ain’t no leaves.”
Jakie and the other attendant looked down to see the spectacular shell-face of a mushroom shining through the leaves.
“It’s a reishi.”
Oswald sneered. “Don’t talk mumble-jumble to me, mister. What is it?”
“Hah! A mushroom,” he repeated, looking over at the other attendant for support. “Well, that just tops the story, don’t it? Just what were you supposing to do with that thing?”
“It’s medicinal,” Jakie murmured.
“Oh no. Absolutely not. You are not going to be feeding that thing to no one. End up poisoning half the ward. Go chuck it in the garbage.”
“Well, just a minute there,” the short attendant began nervously. “Jakie here knows quite a bit about these things.”
“Knows about these things?” Oswald spat, raising himself up straight, shaking his head vigorously.
“Have yourself a look around, will you, Don? You know where you are, right? The looney bin, that’s where you are. And this guy here?” He jabbed a thumb toward Jakie. “This guy he’s locked up in this here looney bin because he’s crazy. And there ain’t no way I’m letting this crazy guy go ’round and poison all the rest of the crazy guys. You follow?”
Don hunched his shoulders up around his ears as he absorbed the onslaught, glancing around self-consciously to see if his tongue-lashing was being observed. No heads turned their way, the routine of the dining-hall carrying on as usual.
As you can see, writer’s block is not the insurmountable monster we’ve made it out to be. That would be giving it more power than it rightly deserves. Sometimes, we just need to be more disciplined about showing up and getting those words onto the page. Regardless of how good or bad we think they are. Other times we may need to stop being too hard on ourselves. Show our writerly-side some compassion. It is not easy to sit alone day after day and be creative. Take yourself out on a playdate. Go somewhere you’ve never been before. Somewhere unusual. And take your writing pad. Observe life as it happens around you. Writer’s block is like having a tug-of-war with the rope tied in a knot. The harder you struggle, the tighter the knot. Practice having fun with your writing. Honor your own creative process. Allow yourself to enjoy doing the exercises I’ve shared with you, and trust that the river of your creativity will once again flow forward easily.
About the Author…
KJ Steele is a writer who has learned that the process is not so much about choosing what to write as it is about having the courage to write what chooses to be written. Having spent the first half of her life creating an amazing family with her husband, Victor, she intends to spend the rest of it creating equally amazing fiction. She is the author of one previous novel, No Story to Tell. She lives in British Columbia, CA. http://kjsteele.com