An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.
Writer’s Block is every poet’s worst nightmare. It takes advantage of the times you’re too busy or happy or miserable to think about sitting down to write, and then it digs its claws in. Sometimes, it only lasts a week or so before it gets bored and wanders off to find another victim – other times it sticks around for months, preventing you from putting pen to paper in any kind of meaningful way.
As you can probably tell, I like to visualise Writer’s Block as a small, annoying, fanged, furry creature. Why? Because that way, I feel more like I can beat it, squash it, call in my imaginary pest-control. I can get rid of it any time I want – and so can you. In fact, if you want to, you can write a poem – and a good poem – RIGHT NOW.
I say this all the time – in fact, everyone says this all the time – and it may sound like a cliché, but it is the most important thing you can possibly do as a poet. Reading other people’s poetry teaches you to write better stuff, but it also gets you fired up and gives you inspiration when you need it. When I want to write but can’t find the ideas, I read other people’s poems until I find a line that makes me think “I could expand on that,” or even “I could’ve worded that better.” When I want to write but nothing sounds any good, I turn to poems I really enjoy and admire, to ‘remind’ me how it’s done. Using other people’s poetry as a jumping-off point for an original work is not plagiarism, and poets do it all the time. Can’t find a poem that inspires you? Get to a library, bookshop or thrift store and look around until something leaps off a page at you (it will, eventually, honest). You can even try looking online – check out this page for some great online poetry sites.
Read poetry you don’t like.
I got this one from a former creative writing tutor, and funnily enough, it works. Everyone has a poet they really, really hate – often one whose work they’ve been forced to analyse in school. Who’s yours? Maybe you have a few? And probably the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling creatively challenged is look at the poetry of someone whose very name gets you foaming at the mouth with loathing. Well, try it. Drag out Wordsworth’s Daffodils or Keats’ Grecian Urn or whatever your least-favourite poem happens to be, and read it over once again. This time, ask yourself: why do I hate this poem? Is it because it’s actually a bad poem, or is there another reason? Do I hate it because I don’t fully understand it? Because I associate it with something negative? Or is it just not to my taste? Think about what puts this particular poet on your personal blacklist… and then do the opposite. Try to find good bits in the poem – is there a particular line that stands out from the rest? Does the basic idea of the poem appeal to you? Has the poet used any unusual words or created an interesting metaphor? Analyse the poem fairly – and from a personal point of view (none of this textbook-style, “what are the hidden meanings?” stuff). Once you’ve worked out why you can’t stand this poet – or once you’ve realised that actually, maybe they’re not a total imbecile – you can start to think about your own work. Write the antithesis of a Wordsworth poem, or try putting yourself in Keats’ shoes and writing in his style. Reading your most hated author really can inspire you, honest. Try it!
Read absolutely ANYTHING.
Noticing a pattern here? That’s because reading = writing: fact. The more you read, the better you write, and although obviously poetry is the best thing to get you into a poetry-writing frame of mind, just about anything that involves the written word can inspire you. I once wrote a poem inspired by a Louise Welsh novel, and another inspired by a newspaper cutting about a grassfire. Hundreds of people have written poems inspired by letters they’ve read, sent, received. I know one poet who wrote an ode to her telephone directory when she realised it was out of date, and started reading through it. Reading other people’s words can be really inspiring – no matter what they are. Try grabbing whatever written thing is nearest to you – be it a novel, a how-to book, a pamphlet or an instruction manual. Read it over, pick a line you like, and imagine it is the title of a poem. Write that poem.
This is something I do with my students when they’re feeling at a loss for words. If you ask me, all words are good words, and just about anything can be a poem or story if you’re willing to shape it into one. Basically, you start with a blank sheet and a pencil, you count to three, and then you start writing. You write anything, and you keep writing without stopping until the page is full. No stopping to think, no trying to turn the writing into any kind of coherent shape – just write. One pupil of mine, a twelve-year-old boy who found creative writing “really hard,” started free-writing about what he’d been up to at the weekend (camping in the woods with his mates, apparently), and ended up with the first few paragraphs of a great adventure story. Another, Lisa – fourteen and very shy – was mad with her sister and free-wrote a letter to God asking why He’d decided to make the two sisters so different. It became a weird and wonderful poem for her school portfolio. Many students (me too) find it hard to stop at just one page. Freewriting is writing, after all, and when you’ve been struck by the pesky Writer’s Block, it feels brilliant to be putting pen to paper.
NB: Freewriting is NOT about trying to make ‘a poem’ or ‘a story’ or even a ‘good’ piece of writing. It could turn out to be garbage, and you have to let it, and not be annoyed with yourself if it does. But chances are, it won’t – I bet you find that something emerges.
You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!