Poet Ryan Collins opens our MWC Creative Writing Primer guest blog series. He serves as MWC Executive Director and is the author of 3 chapbooks, most recently Dear Twin Falls (H_NGM_N, 2013). His poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary; Black Clock; Columbia Poetry Review; DIAGRAM; Forklift, Ohio; Handsome; Spork; Transom; and many others. He plays drums in The Multiple Cat & curates the SPECTRA Poetry Reading Series.
“The slightest loss of awareness leads to death.” –Frank O’Hara
I believe in writer’s block about as much as I believe in the Easter Bunny. I know on rare occasions it is an actual clinical diagnosis, but for the vast majority or writers, what often gets called “block” is actually one of two things: 1. have the desire to write, but thinking that you have nothing to write about; or 2. you know what you want to write about, but feel like you don’t know how to say, can’t find the words, or the words you’re finding are somehow wrong, inadequate & so the writing stops.
These scenarios, by definition, are not “writer’s block” and I think either one of them can easily be resolved by being more open & mindful to the world of words, language & voices that surround us every day. By paying a closer, more focused attention to the language that fills the world around us, we can get outside of our usual vocabularies, and open ourselves & our writing to new possibilities.
For the first case, our minds are constantly ticking away, so how are we ever left w/out something to write about? If you feel the urge to write, do it—nothing will be hurt or lost. The only risk you take is to gain. Maybe you’re not writing about anything you think particularly important—to do lists, the daily commute to work, other daily happenings. But if you give a little more attention to these happenings, if you try to look at them through new eyes, you might find a detail or an image or a scene you can use in your writing. I think it’s best to capture something on paper & then figure out how you might be able to use it after it’s down than to try and judge as the thing is being written what its value might be. Save the evaluation for the revision process—if you rush to judge what you are writing as you are writing, you narrow what you might & limit your possibilities.
In the second instance, writing is continually a process of figuring out how to say things most exactly, most effectively, and I have found one of the best ways to do that is use language outside of us. Think about—on websites & billboards, newspapers & radio broadcasts, tv shows & conversations, the world is packed with language. If we can try our ears to always be listening for musical phrases, odd word combinations, images & descriptions we might never think of ourselves, we can use these things in our own writing to find new vocabularies for characters, enhance a characters manner of speaking, find ways to re-appropriate seemingly unrelated language applications (like using culinary language to describe a lover, for example). We can never know all the ways to say a thing, but we can do our best to find the most effective way for us to say a thing—by opening our ears & our minds & our attention to all of this external language, I think we greatly increase our chances of finding the most effective ways to say the things we need to say, even if we collect a lot of this external language when we aren’t trying to write.
But then that’s the trick of being a writer—we are always writing, always thinking about & collecting language, always maintaining a focused attention on the world of language we live in while also keeping an intense curiously about the world & how we live in it, act upon it, even enact it with how we use the language we collect. This is why I think the O’Hara quote is an essential lesson for any writer—it is only when we cut ourselves off from such attention, only when we judge ourselves too early & too harshly, only when we fence our language off from the rest of the language in the world that we limit, or “block,” ourselves into literary catatonia, that our writing dies. So be mindful, listen close & always stay attentive, and you’ll find you are never without subject matter or something to say about it.
--------MWC Creative Writing Primer Kindle Giveaway June 27-29! #collinsconference