I’ve come to some kind of understanding about what it means for me to be in the act of making….If I’m reading a book, I’m not stuck. If I go to an exhibition, a show, have a drink with friends—if I’m out and I’m engaged with the world, I’m not stuck. If I’m staring at a blank page, frustrated that I can’t get a word out, I am still in the act of making—and to be honest those moments where I can’t produce a thing have been valuable to me, because in some ways it gets me to where I need to be. Some days I want to write, other days I just want to get behind my DJ controller.
When my writing gets stuck, I’ll clear time to sit with my last few months of reading spread around me, copying out my marginalia along with the passages I flagged and underlined. I have this massive document of annotations I’ve been adding to for years, a habit I started when I was an undergrad. I write short paragraphs about how I came across a text, what my major takeaway was, what was happening for me personally while I read it, how long it took me to finish, and what else I was reading at the time….
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….
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.
—Ursula K. Le Guin, from a 1988 interview, collected in Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations (Melville House, 2019)