What We Write About When We Have Writer’s Block
Oct 05, 2015
by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
Writer’s block. These are two words that any writer dreads, especially in an MFA program, a place where time is not a luxury and where we’re always aware that we’re part of a select few. It creeps upon us like a shadow, lingering for the longest periods of time. I’m no different, having just recovered from the latest bout. It was a long, but fruitful period searching for inspiration. I sought inspiration in every place possible, felt absolute pangs of frustration, and despair. At times, I worried if I was doomed to a certain failure, if there was some mistake when I’d been admitted to Colorado State’s MFA program.
Authors have their varying routines. Hemingway noted that “the best way is always to stop when you are doing good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day, you will never be stuck.” He believed that the subconscious was always working, generating creativity. Karen Russell advised that it was best to write, however badly. Hilary Mantel believed it imperative to “get away from your desk…. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, listen to music…whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem.” This reflected my own sensibility for the most part.
Of course, I tried to ensure that I didn’t stray too far from my routine. I needed to ensure daily exposure to the world of reading and writing. In particular, I read like a madman, studying authors’ techniques, contemplating their craft moves and how they worked to further the story. I dissected stories down to the commas. I studied sentence structure and flow. I conjured pictures in my mind of writers’ own processes, to place the whole struggle in context. I would alternate between reading and writing, writing whenever wisps of inspiration drifted into my consciousness, reverting to reading when the malaise returned.
My techniques did involve a great deal of getting away from the desk. My main outlet was going for long walks, the habit of great artists such as Charles Dickens, who wandered through London for three hours daily, or Tchaikovsky, who wandered the Russian countryside, notebook in hand. It let me drift into a kind of soothing reverie. Walking daily also allowed me to observe the sheer beauty around me and to gain inspiration from the sights, sounds, and smells around me. I sought out a sort of catalyst. I noticed small, seemingly superfluous details around campus and in town.
Over the course of several weeks, I absorbed the scent of the freshly mowed lawns on the CSU campus. I admired the line of streetlamps glowing in the dusk, their blur on the wet pavement. I listened to the whoosh of the sprinklers on a still autumn evening, and of course the train rolling through Fort Collins, blowing its obnoxious horn, sounding its “barbaric yawp” at the expense of sleeping students. Walking helped open my mind to a conducive state, made me strive harder to convey the sheer beauty of the world on the page. It inspired me to conjure beauty and tears and everything in between for my readers.
Ever the inspiration seeker, I also took refuge in the dark comfort of the movie theater and Netflix. Just as walking through Fort Collins loosened a mental curtain, so did sitting in my own little space, engrossed. I absorbed the dialogue, tried to gain ideas from the storylines playing out before me, and let my mind drift.
In trying to open my mind to a certain emotional state, I listened to classical music. Namely classical music that reflected the dark and brooding kind of moods I liked to convey in my work. I’d long figured out that my particular literary sensibilities were subconsciously shaped by my music. That constituted listening to a great deal of Tchaikovsky. Every day and night, I opened my mind to the haunting torment of the Sixth Symphony with its specter of death and torment, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture with its sorrowful longing. I let the music transform my mind, bringing me into that dark state, into a place where I could emotionally touch my characters. I wept for the young boy whose sister was struck by a train. I felt the the frustration and sense of imprisonment held by a pot-smoking, Munster-watching writer in the 1960s.
Writing is a difficult process, a process with which we have a love-hate relationship. Writing is like a little brother, or a difficult parent or lover. There are days when we want to walk away from it, when we doubt ourselves. But this is what it means to write, to be a part of a great tradition. And we have the specters of great artists behind us, backing us up in the struggle.
photo of crumpled paper by turinboy
photo of album by Piano Piano!