Like creative journalist John McPhee, you might defer your writing by sharpening pencils all day and re-arranging note cards. But what can you do when you can’t get the first word down after hours and hours, days, weeks, or months. . . ?
“Page Fright,” “Writer’s Block,” “Dry Spells”: They are part of a writer’s life. Richard Ford admits that he suffers though dry times that can last for months. Fran Lebowitz finally gave up on her book project after decades of what she called a “writer’s blockade,” and wrote a book about why she couldn’t get the first book written.
“The Terror of the White Page.” For some reason, we think we suffer more acutely than anyone else, or we fool ourselves into thinking we don’t suffer, at all, push through, writing what we recognize as nonsense, but writing something. All of us suffer from some form of this.
The lengths some writers go to break a dry spell are endless and infamous: You can try one thousand words a day, even if it’s a beautifully crafted letter to your town councilor, the National Grid, or the tax guys (surely, you have something to say to any of these); three hundred words a day to yourself, as a reminder of what you have to do that day and why; one hundred words to your cat or dog or muse, reminding one of them of what they are to see to and why. You can simply “chain your muse to a desk,” as Barbara Kingsolver suggests—if your muse isn’t on vacation somewhere restful and your desk isn’t covered with class lectures and folded underwear. But try: At best, you will break through; at worst, you will have handy material for a new setting, character, or scene—you might even discover the kernel of an innovative narrative this way.
Ford simply waits. And waits. And then stops thinking about it. Eventually, suddenly, something happens. Many writers just get up and out and away from the project (or hoped for project) and leave the house. Or leave town. “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck,” Ann Lamott writes. Hilary Mantel won’t “just stick there scowling at the problem,” like Barton Fink, and abandons it for a while. But if you are waiting for language to fill an empty place, she says, “don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your [own] words should be.” So go for a walk, take a hot bath, sit in the park and watch people. Go to a movie.
For some reason, movies often help writers, but knitting typically doesn’t; naps are good, cooking not. Reading something entirely different from what you normally write loosens up both thought and language; reading in another language often brings new rhythms to your sentences. These, however, work best when a writer’s word flow has already opened up and then is stuck, like the swing of a swollen door that should be letting words and ideas in and pushing others out. What can you do to avoid this, in the first place? Stop writing when you’re on a roll, when you know what’s going to come next—Hemingway, among scores of other writers said this. Like a good guest, leave the project when your host still wants you to stay—starting up again will be easy.
But back to that entirely empty page and its blank terror . . . No one addresses it in the same way, all the time. Self-deception sometimes works: Eighteenth-Century writer Laurence Sterne changed his clothes from top to bottom and even resorted to shaving his beard because the person he had been was simply not producing. Sometimes, you can fool yourself into prohibiting a word on the page for ten days—by Day 11, you’ll have four or five ideas and dozens of lines of dialogue you will be frantic to put down on paper. But Sometimes, like Ford, we just have to wait.
Or scrounge around under the bed or in the couch cushions for more pencils—you’re bound to find one or two you threw across the room in writer’s despair.
Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative. She has been a resident of Lancaster since 1992 and teaches writing, literature, and other humanities courses at Quinsigamond Community College. Wendth holds an MFA in literature and writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. You can read her work in a variety of literary and general interest publications.