When the words won’t come, I take my work for a walk. Literally, I put pages in my pocket and take a hike in an unfamiliar place. The idea is that both me and my writing could use the stretch of a new environment. Put your hand on it every day, no matter what, is my philosophy….Most important is faith. Stay close to the story and, ultimately, it will return to you.
When the writing is slow or when I’m between projects, I pull on my boots and head to an art museum. Museums dilate us. Our job is to stay open and look…. What happens as we look depends entirely on the looker and what is being looked at. But something inevitably happens—you love it and look more deeply, you hate it and wonder why, you remember something, your mood shifts, an image emerges, a line of thinking starts to lead you in an unexpected direction….
James Baldwin told a writer’s group in the women’s prison at Riker’s Island: ‘One can change any situation, even though it may seem impossible. But it must happen inside you first. Only you know what you want. The first step is very, very lonely. But later you will find the people you need, who need you, who will be supportive.’
Sometimes, if things aren’t going well, I’ll start reading a book that I both truly admire and, for whatever reasons, can’t get engaged with. After reading for a while, my mind gets pitched into the perfect state for a new creative act. It feels cleansed.
I listen to arpeggios when I need help moving along in my writing. An arpeggio is a musical chord drawn out, note by note, ascending or descending, like a spinning wheel of notes. Arpeggios slow down time, letting our ears isolate and identify each note in a chord….Writers know how to arpeggio. We isolate certain components—setting, character, conflict, theme—and get these notes moving at a tempo. We repeat with slight variations. We complicate. We put these notes into conversation with one another, make them interact.
When I can’t write, I write. I write without expectation. I sit down and make the tips of my fingers touch the cool keys of my laptop, feel the connection, and let the words fall out without judgment. I ask. I explore. I release. I figure I can throw it all away anyway. I write for nothing more than relief. I don’t worry about being stuck in my writing because it is the writing itself that unsticks me.
I mostly write at night when the world around me is quiet. It’s like getting ahead on a lonesome highway. When I cannot make any headway, a long walk usually helps—best of all with music. For every novel I create a corresponding playlist with hundreds of songs. A musical compass I listen to during my wanderings through town or on train rides, to then come up with scenes or think about ones where I am stuck.
A few times a year, usually in the dead of winter, I’m overcome by a remarkably strong urge to simply disappear. I pack up my cats and computer, climb in the car, and head to my family’s summerhouse in Rhode Island, which I am fortunate to have, and where I often remain for weeks on end. Once there, I am absurdly habit-forming: I write from nine to three; take long, music-fueled walks along the river; write again from five to seven; and finally reward myself with red wine, dinner, and whatever TV show I’m currently immersed in. I wear clothes from high school and stop shaving my legs; often, I won’t see another human being for days. I try to give myself permission to falter, to squander whole mornings, and I find that after a few days, almost unfailingly, the words start to well up.
“I remind myself that language isn’t my job. Writing a poem isn’t my job. My job is the human job of waiting and listening, and language is just what poets use—like wind chimes—to catch the sound of the larger, more essential thing. Wind chimes themselves are not the point. The point is the wind.”
—Jenny George, in “Wilder Forms: Our Fourteenth Annual Look at Debut Poets” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2019); read the rest at pw.org!
When I have writer’s block, I feel trapped in a small, airless box. When I watch movies, I feel free, so it only makes sense that I run to movies when I’m stuck. A few years ago, I decided to watch more classic and foreign films. I haven’t suffered significant writer’s block since. Sure, I get temporarily jammed from time to time. Who knows why? I suppose the blank page can be terrifying, and sometimes I don’t feel particularly brave. But great movies remind me that storytelling can be incredibly fun. Having fun is liberating. Liberation is freedom.