One of the best things about being a Poet Laureate is the school visits! I get to talk to high school kids about poetry and writing—what that looks like in reality, what it means to me, and what it can mean to them. During a recent Frye Festival virtual visit, one of the students asked me, “What is WRITER’S BLOCK?”
So I told her that I think writer’s block is a lot of things. I believe it’s creative exhaustion when you’ve pushed yourself to write for too long and need a break, it’s also stress, and day-to-day life crowding writing time. And self-doubt.
“Oh,” she replied. “I’ve never had any of that. Do you think I will?”
“I hope not,” I said, “But most writers do experience times when they can’t create.”
“So what can you do to get out of writer’s block?” Her teacher asked.
“The dishes.” I replied and everyone laughed. “I’m serious!” I said, laughing too.
And I was. I explained that when they switch their mental load to do something with their hands, such as the dishes, yard work, walking the dog, it resets their creative brains. (Poets Laureate: artfully encouraging children to help out at home for centuries.) I also suggested they put their writing away for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes.
And that naturally led to a line of questioning I often hear from students, “What do I write about and how?” and “Why would someone want to read about ME?”
“Just write,” I said and quoted Alden Nowlan, who said: “You write poems about what you feel deepest and hardest.” I explained that passion in writing is like a compass. It leads us to our inspiration, tangling our tongues and thoughts with the things we love or are compelled to explain in our own unique way.
So, of course I challened them, “Instead of asking why someone would want to read ME, ask instead, why wouldn’t they want to read ME?”
Students are not the only ones who ask me those questions. So do prospective clients, new writers, workshop participants, family, my neighbours, even. However, adults usually follow those questions up with, “Well, what do I really have to say, anyway?”
“I don’t know.” I reply. “What do you want to say?”
That usually circles back to the question, “Why would someone want to read ME?”
“Well, why not?”
What they may not have considered is that the question “Why would someone want to read about ME?” also leads to writer’s block. Narrow definitions of poetry and other literature, elitism, cultural stereotypes about authorhood and even self-worth can hold us back before we even get started or suggest that we have not earned the title of “writer”. To be a writer is to be someone who writes. An author has had their work published. We all start small, writing just for ourselves and there is no shame in continuing to do, to choose not to be an author. But if you want it, it’s time to ask yourself, “Well, why not?”
I’ll tell you what I tell the students I visit, what I tell my workshop participants, my clients, my family, my neighbours, even:
Your thoughts and ideas have value, your perspectives and manners of expression have the power to uplift, inform, and validate others. When you bravely write about YOU—your experiences and identity—when you share what’s true to you, you may find your writing helps not only YOU to be you, but someone you may never meet.
What’s important to you, what fills you with joy or sorrow, is not for someone else to judge. Even you, perhaps. You never know when your poem or short story, your brave little essay may change someone’s life, subtly or profoundly. Especially if you boldy and bravely write your own truth. Jane Kenyon gave some brilliant advice that has helped me out of my writer’s block, she said:
“Tell the whole truth. Don’t be lazy, don’t be afraid. Close the critic out when you are drafting something new. Take chances in the interest of clarity of emotion.”
And when you get stuck writing you, get up and do your dishes.