Monthly Archives: January 2013

Writer’s Block: Habit

Students who suffer from writer’s block often describe writing as an abstraction or a mystical trance that occurs unwittingly and without explanation.  Understandably, it’s that sense of writing being outside of one’s direct control that seems to provoke the greatest anxiety and frustration for them.  Will the trance come mercifully before deadline and keep them from a failing grade?

So many writing teachers talk about the necessity of making a commitment to the habit of writing: to sitting down and writing every day—even if only for a few minutes.  But each time I have passed along that bit of wisdom to my students, the next question has always been the same: “What if I have nothing to say?”  The emptiness of the page peers back at them, well beyond their direct control.  The idea of developing a writing habit in the context of this looming vacancy, then, is akin to sitting around and waiting for Godot.  (And we all know how that ends.)

The word habit usually makes us think of things we do repeatedly or even unconsciously: the habit of eating lunch at noon every day, or the (bad) habit of smoking.  But another, earlier meaning of habit refers to clothing, clothing that was worn ritualistically or symbolized a person’s specific role or position; for example, a monk’s habit.  I find it useful to think of the habit of writing in this latter sense—not as something I do, but rather something I wear.

The habit of writing is like a pair of gloves I slip on or a shirt or a jacket.  Writing is a presence, a thing, not an abstraction that hovers in the near distance.  It’s neither mystical nor dependent on something “outside” me, but rather concrete and palpable, something that I “put on” each time I sit down to write. So try thinking of writing as something you already want and have, something you have already slipped into, and see if it isn’t easier to work from that sense of abundance.

Writer’s Block: Perfectionism

Ironically, the best student in class is all too often the one who suffers from writer’s block.  She is often the student who arrives prepared and on time, who takes notes and asks insightful questions.  When this student misses a writing deadline, the behavior seems completely contradictory, and yet when I stop to ask, this student has lots of ideas and made lots of genuine connections between the material and herself. After talking at length with this student, what I hear is something like this: “It’s not perfect.”

I identify deeply with this student who seems to be sitting by the side of a stream waiting for the precise and singularly correct moment to step in and . . . what?  My analogy falls apart because what the student wants is for the stream to stop flowing, for life to stop.  And to complicate matters, her ability to write the perfect sentence, the perfect essay, is all tangled up with her confidence and self-esteem to such a point that she ends up dropping the course, which is self-defeating and very sad to observe.

There are writers who write and write and write in order to discover what they think.  But the writer who suffers from perfectionism does not belong to this category.  She knows what she thinks.  Her idea is as densely packed as a rebus, so she has to be convinced that writing is a process.  “Tell me the last time you made an honest mistake,” I’ll say.  “Did you go back and begin your life again, or did you learn something and move forward?  Did you sit down in the middle of the path and refuse to take another step?”

The student who suffers from perfectionism has to unpack each individual idea and allow herself to pursue that idea through drafting.  That’s hard to do.  It demands trust.  The writer has to trust that, after drafting the trajectory of each idea, she will be able to put things back together coherently.  She has to trust that unpacking her idea is not the same as running out of ideas.

As she begins to learn how to draft, this student often judges herself harshly for the amount of time it takes her to move from first to last draft.  She is convinced that she should be able to draft rapidly, to learn all of these technical skills immediately, as if anything that matters in life is an “instant mix” concoction.  “When you were learning to walk, did you enroll in a marathon that same week?”  Of course not.

In trying to help this student in her struggle to accept the unique value of her thoughts, the humanity of putting the stream of her consciousness onto paper and recording her perspective in this moment of her life, I realize how the classroom seems more and more to be a counter-cultural space in which, to develop intellectually, students are asked to do exactly opposite of what they see around them.  “Move slowly and thoughtfully,” I tell them.  “Multi-task,” the world shouts back.  “Keep writing,” I whisper.  “Keep writing.”

Julia Alvarez and the Role of Story

In a recent essay in Parabola (37;4 Winter 2012-13) titled “The Older Writer in the Underworld,” Julia Alvarez reflects on the importance of story not to the listener but to the story-teller, and how, at different points in her life, she has identified with different characters.  “As a younger writer, the story I repeated over and over to myself was that of Scheherazade in the sultan’s court,” she begins.  Now, at this point in her life, “The story I keep returning to for guidance is that of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades.”  I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Alvarez in 2009.  Her discussion of her Dominican roots, thoughtful and passionate, is relevant to her more recent reflections in Parabola, as well as the mythological bedrock of the immigrant story. She is a wonderful story-teller—at any point in her life.    Interview with Julia Alvarez.



Best Advice

Unbridled Books asked its authors: “What’s the best piece of writing advice you have ever given or received?”

The best advice I ever received about writing bridged the great divide between talk and walk.  It came from a wonderful writer and teacher, Maxine Clair.  Author of October Suite and Rattlebone, Clair’s work has that same quality I admire in Virginia Woolf and Michael Ondaatje: her prose balances on the edge of poetry, her writing cadenced, rich and deep.  

Of course, I didn’t know any of this on that autumn afternoon when I squeezed into her workshop at the last minute, on the last day of a literary conference.  Her classroom felt more like a meditation space than anything else.  She commanded attention with a quiet intensity, a softness that shaped a very different relationship between speaker and audience and, as I would come to understand, between writer and page.

Clair asked us all to imagine a character and answer a long list of questions.  Then she gave us a phrase and asked us to write about the character we had just fleshed out.  I sank into a very deep, relaxed level of concentration.  I don’t know how much time passed, but when she spoke again, I had completed several pages. 

“You don’t need a special pen, a special notebook or place,” she explained.  “And you don’t need enormous blocks of time to write.  Look at what you’ve just written.  It’s all  in you.  Tap into it.”  I wrote her words down.  I typed them up, printed them out, and glued them to the cover of a most ordinary notebook.  This gentle Buddha had just made the impossible, possible.