When Words Won’t Come

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My friend Rosemary Carstens asked me how I kick-start my writing day. I don’t know why she needed to ask me, as Rosemary is one of the most prolific writers and editors I know. Check out The Feast, her online magazine, where she features books, movies, and food. She wound up quoting from my response in a blog she wrote for the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Answering her question put me in mind of that famous E. M. Forster quote: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I found that I wasn’t fully conscious of my own writing process, and I surprised myself enough that I was moved to share my full response here.

       Passing Through an Impasse: What I Do When the Words Won’t Come

I hate to admit this, but I’m pretty boring when it comes to kick-starting my day. I don’t have any tricks up my sleeve for that. I get up at about 6:30, do some yoga, eat some breakfast—always the same downward dog and steel-cut oats—then sit down at my computer. I try not to get hung up answering email, and just start to work where I left off the day before. I’ve always believed in the process. No tricks. Just be present and do the work. If I’m stumped by a problem passage, I often open a new file and interview myself, and that is part of the process too. The first question I ask is usually “What are you really trying to say here?” As I do my best to answer, I remind myself, “No one is going to see this. You don’t have to impress anyone.” Interviewing myself and recording the answers removes the pressure and makes me less self-conscious. I also usually ask myself what images come to mind pertaining to the work at hand, then ask why those images? Often, the answers become part of the actual text.

When I went to find a picture of me at my desk, my true secret popped out: It helps to have two cats for company!

When I went to find a picture of me at my desk, my true secret popped out: It helps to have two cats for company!

This is not to say I don’t get completely stymied at times. I often do, but I haven’t developed a conscious method of dealing at times like those. I’m almost afraid to talk about this, for fear I’ll come to depend on a method, which will then be part of the routine and therefore unlikely to yield answers. When I’m stuck, I unwittingly throw myself onto the breast of the universe. I get out of the chair out of pure frustration and, by way of avoidance, might choose to take a walk, which, now that I think about it, has helped many times. Being outdoors and more in my body puts me in a different mode and I sometimes find myself rushing back to the house to scribble down ideas. On the rare occasions when I go back to work in the evening after getting a little tipsy on wine, I’ve written some great stuff that I couldn’t have produced sober. (But I’ve stopped short of becoming a drunk, no matter how tempting, in order to benefit my art.) Many times, my subconscious saves me just as I’m dropping off to sleep or even as I dream. I make myself get up and write the thought or dream down. And sometimes a deadline forces me to get real in a way I’ve been avoiding. I’ve produced some of my best writing at the very last minute.

The same thing can happen during a bath. I’ve been known to take one during the middle of the afternoon. Going to water, for me, is like going to Mama, and when she hands me a line or bit of wisdom, I have to get out of the tub before I wish to in order to write it down. Going to Kansas, where I’m from, is also like going to Mama or Papa. Although my real parents are long gone, returning home awakens my deepest attachments, concerns, and interests. As I go east on I-70 and hit the grasslands around Limon, Colorado, my spirit soars. I am in my element, and I begin thinking the thoughts that matter most to me—thoughts about home.

Throughout, I’ve been talking about the drafting process. When it is time to revise or edit, one thing I have definitely noticed, and often, is that I do my best work late at night when I’m tired and therefore unimpressed by my more flowery prose, which is to say, my attempts to impress the reader without really saying anything new.

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