(Overcoming) Writer’s Block

I’m sitting at the brooklyn brainery on easter sunday, laptop firmly in my backpack, pen and paper on the table.  Our instructor insists we start with pen and paper and then move on to our laptops if we want to by the afternoon.  It’s an all-day class, and I don’t remember that anyone took their machines out.

The topic is writer’s block, but the concept could be applied more broadly to any sort of creative frustration.  Five people total are taking the class, a smattering of individuals with wildly different backgrounds and ambitions.  Some have been “blocked” for a few weeks, some for quite longer than that.

“I’ve been blocked since about February” I confess to the class.  Some unholy combination of a bitter winter and injury have kept me off my bike have really dampened my spirits.  Another member of the class confesses that she’s been blocked since the death of her sibling.  Our diverse backgrounds are underscored by a common thread: writing is something that is personal to us, something we want to do, and have been frustrated in doing it.

The instructor has us do an exercise.  We will write for 10 minutes, and the topic is “I remember.”  What we write is discardable.  We shouldn’t even bother to look at it after we are done.  If we get blocked during the exercise, re-start with “I remember” and go with it.  The point is to write.  You’re not expected to write Shakespeare.

Memory is a funny thing she says.  We might be surprised at where our minds will take us.

It’s been a dark, bitter, and frustrating winter.


167“I remember the last day in Texas, at Caprock Canyons state park.  I remember the brightness, driving into the park, and the place where I broke my bike land-speed record.  I remember the last time I had exceeded 40mph, as a child on our favorite steep road before I had my driver’s license.  It was the first time I remember passing a car.

“I remember that hitting 46 was an odd, if slightly empty accomplishment, and I remember the feeling I had in my tent that night.  The scenery was magical.  The sun was bright.  The colors vivid and in the hues I like.  It was the desert.  There was no phone signal.  Few, if any other additional campers in the area.  The scene is about as close to serenity as I know to set.  But the feeling was one of being alone.  The feeling is a familiar one, one that slowly sets in when one embarks on a long, slow period of personal transition.  There was no return leg on this trip.

“I have to work on Monday.  I have to work remotely from Denver.  I remember the serenity being pushed further back as that reality sat in the background.  The price of all this was a 9-5 full-time remote work job.


“I remember further down the journey.  I am in similar circumstances, but I remember Nevada to be different.  Being alone doesn’t matter here, it is beyond that.  One’s starting frame is not relevant on these roads.

“I remember a full tank of gas and a sign that says “no services for 130 miles.”  It is the desert.  There is nobody here.  It is beautiful.  No phone signal.  it’s just the music you have.

“I remember the sound of the wind as I push the car past 100.  Torrents of desert air rush into the cabin through the open windows.  I do not want the air conditioner here.  A rare instance of a trance song with lyrics won’t leave my head and keeps playing in the background.

“Through the windscreen we can see
A cinematic legacy
Leaving cities paved with gold
To pilot a frigate through our souls


Additional exercises would follow, but this was the most memorable.  Unique among the exercises we did that day was that the imagery in my head had corresponding pictures from the trip.  It was “no services for 81 miles,” not 130, and the road still had occasional traffic.  Memory is a funny thing.

The act of writing this down with pen and paper made me re-live the experience in a visceral way, giving me a glow that lasted for days.  I’d always loved the desert, but not quite like the way I experienced it that Sunday.  Torrents of hot, desert air. Wow!  Such a contrast to the day my phone said it was 5 degrees.  Fahrenheit.  The weather service was publishing frostbite risk graphs on that day. The experience was now also several months and quite a reality removed from the present day.  Things had changed.  I felt less alone and the pain of having left my friends and community behind had subsided by a lot.

The biggest takeaway I got from the class is that writing is not unlike exercise–whatever feelings you might want to attach to the experience are a byproduct and not a necessary condition to engage the activity.  In other words, “feeling inspired” is not required for you to sit down and just write.  Sometimes you will write well.  Most of the time you won’t.  It’s as much about cultivating your creative habit as it is about polishing your creativity.

(An author on this Ted talk has a similar take on all this.)

The second most memorable aspect of the class was that of the “starting vs. finishing” personalities.  I’m definitely a starter, with my both my headspace and physical space littered with half-finished creations that represent a lot of invested time but are not a cohesive whole.  “If you’re a starter, work on actually completing one of your projects.  Pick one and go with it.”

Since the class I must admit that I managed to get blocked.. again.  But now I know what to do.  It took awhile for me to find biking and walking as my primary forms of physical conditioning, but once I did, I knew that it’d be unlikely that I’d ever stop for good and that those habits would last for a very long time.  I’m presently trying to establish something similar with my creative habits.

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