On The Dreaded WB (Writer’s Block.)

posted January 11, 2011

I just finished running a writing retreat here at my house, affectionately called “Big Yellow” by the marvelous cast of writers who have been coming, practically en masse, since 2005. I love retreats. I love these people, first of all, and I love having them in my house. My kids love them too, and refer to the front room of the house as “the writers’s room.” They also like that whenever we have a retreat, Tom makes a batch of what he calls “crack brownies” because they are that irresistible. My kids agree. On Friday, we pulled out new candlesticks. We found our favorite Bali blue tablecloth and waved it till it settled on the dining room table. We cooked spiced lentils in butternut squash and made Tom’s excellent winter greens soup from the Field Of Greens cookbook. (This soup is like drinking pure health, by the way. Ask, and I will post the recipe.)

Selfishly, I also love the opportunity to write. The method I learned for running writing groups comes from AWA–Amherst Writers and Artists– and it demands that the leader write along with the attendees to show that the method works. In the past, I have gotten huge chunks of my books written; songs have come to me (most notably “Endless Day“) and I have generally left retreats feeling refreshed and inspired.

This weekend, one of the retreatants, Ashley King, sent us all a link to a fantastic TedTalk by Dr. Brene Brown, which thoroughly primed the pump. Dr. Brown spoke movingly and sometimes humorously about her research which involves figuring out why some people have trouble with connection and others don’t. It comes down to a quality she calls “wholeheartedness,” and what she means by that is something we might more easily recognize as “courage.” The word courage has its roots in the Latin “cor” which means “heart.” (“Core” is a cognate of this word, and I love that at our core is our heart.) Courage is heartfulness, leading with the heart, with the feelings, with the emotions. In other words, courage is not so much about bravery as it is about vulnerability.

And what is more vulnerable than writing? What is more courageous, for that matter, than writing? What indeed, especially when one has what writers dread more than any affliction, even bad reviews: writer’s block.

Rewind a few days. Katryna and I met with our friend Beth Spong for lunch to discuss ways in which the organization for which she is executive director–MotherWoman–and we, the Nields, could join forces. MotherWoman is a fantastic organization that creates support groups for women who have postpartum depression. Actually, their full mission is this:

MotherWoman supports and empowers mothers to create positive personal and social change through: powerful mothers groups, innovative programming to confront the feminist crisis of postpartum depression, and effective political action. Mothers face enormous challenges, including unrealistic expectations, isolation, depression and appalling family policy. By valuing and supporting mothers, everyone benefits.

Yeah. Right on! So up our alley to get behind this! And so we are and we will, but one of the tasks Beth gave me was to write “a song about motherhood which we will videotape and release on Mother’s Day. Our aim is for it to go viral.”

And I said, “I am up for the challenge! I will start to write it today!”

That was Wednesday.

I poked at the topic. I journaled about my own mother. I wrote a poem.

Then the retreat began. Before my writing pals arrived, I went for a walk, searching for inspiration. The sky was that kind of ice blue that you only see in January. A foreboding sky that you could almost skate on. I got lots of ideas about the song. I could see the video. I could see Katryna and me singing it. I could hear it, in a way. Oh, wait–that was the Ingrid Michaelson song I had on my iPod.

I came back and we all talked about courage, vulnerability and telling the truth about ourselves. The truth is, what keeps us from being courageous is the fear that we are not good enough as we are: that WHO we are isn’t good enough, and that if the others could only see what a fraud and excellent faker we are, we’d be kicked out of the nest. This leads to more obfuscation of our true selves and therefore to more disconnection–it’s a vicious cycle. But what we find out when we write together and share what we have just written is something quite different: the more truthful we are about our so-called faults–our fears, quirks, addictions–the more easily others can relate to us. While our strengths, our beauty, our kindness, our intelligence, our fashion sense might attract us to each other, all too often, it is our broken parts that connect us to each other. They seal the deal. They help us to bond. (Usually when I bond with someone it’s by sharing some deeper part of myself, while the other does the same.) And it is in that connection that we begin to heal, too, or at least to laugh; and laughter is the best healing agent of all.

That was all well and good. Everyone in the group wrote brilliantly, full of courage, full of wisdom, vulnerability, exuberance, grace. Meanwhile, I took my guitar up to my bedroom with my notebooks and MacBook and wrote about seven different completely unsatisfying mother songs. (I am trying not to call them “suckitudinous.”) Or at least the beginnings of suckitudinous mother songs. I was like a posterchild for everything I encourage writers not to do. I started something, then my wicked inner critic who had somehow gained access to the process, said, “That is just suckitudinous! Or, maybe it’s not so bad, Maybe it’s OK. But it could never go viral!” Waiting just outside my door was a parade of all the rejections I have had in my entire life, dressed for Mardi Gras, 8 weeks or so early.

I haven’t had WB (writer’s block) in about nine years. The last time was after I had finished recording our album Love and China and had no earthly idea where to go next. So I was caught off guard by how truly terrorizing it can be. But this time there was a new twist.

“If you were still on caffeine, you’d get the song,” sneered the voice.

Oh, right! Caffeine. And thus began another parade outside my door, this one of all the New York Times articles I have read over the past ten years about how caffeine is great for brain connections, people with ADD (I am certainly a candidate) and overall heightened mental alertness. Oh, how I craved a cup of my strong black tea at that moment! I remembered back in college, my friend Leon Dewan teaching me that whenever he wanted to write a song he brewed himself a huge pot of strong Keemun tea.

What was the point of giving up caffeine if it robbed me of my muse? Was I really going to choose some principal like my health over my mission in life?

The timer went off for the fourth and final session of writing. I had something–probably nothing that would go viral, but something. I packed up my guitar and trudged down the stairs. And because, as I said, the AWA method requires the leader to show up creatively too, I started the sharing session with my bit of song. I figured at the least, I could practice courage. The retreatants were kind and supportive. And I reminded myself that it took me a year to write what is our number one song now on iTunes, the song I got a book deal for, called This Town Is Wrong, and that if it takes me that long to write a great song for mothers, so be it. It might take even longer. But I am not going to give up trying, because I really do have a lot to say.

And I am also not going to pick up caffeine. At least not today.

Instead, I am going to rely on my many WBB’s (Writer’s Block Busters) that have proved themselves in the past. I would love if you would, in the comments section, post your own WBBs. Here are mine:

1. Let the song go. Keep the spirit alive, but let the body go. Wait for it to come to you. It will. Trust that it will; invite it in. Treat it like a cat. Seduce it at 45 degrees.

2. Listen to lots of music. Notice that many songs you love have not gone viral.

3. Go for lots of walks and runs.

4. Every now and then, remind yourself of a nugget of the song that you like. Hum it.

5. Take lots of naps. Before you take the nap, ask the muse to help you with the song. I often wake up with a tune in my head.

6. Write a different song.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. I’ve had the most success with approaching things from different angles. If I’m stuck in a poem I’ll try writing it backwards, or try writing what I already have from memory – this often streamlines it, too, and opens up avenues I hadn’t considered while staring at it.

    If it’s fiction I’ll try writing something different about one of the characters, taking her/him out of the context of the story that has me stuck. I’ve found that’s a great way to flesh out backstory and give me a fuller picture of the character’s motives.

    Of course, the last ditch effort for me is to put it down completely and engage in some other form of creative expression, like sketching, or cooking.

  2. You’ve covered most of my suggestions. I agree with Michael about putting the work down completely and engaging in another creative endeavor.

    I think part of the problem you’re having with this is because (a) it’s a topic that is imporatant to you so there’s extra internal pressure to “get it right” and (b) there’s a deadline looming.

    I would say make sure you schedule time away from distractions where you can simply be (as opposed to scheduling time to work on this song). Regardless of the specific theme of the song, try to think of various mothers you know and the struggles they have had and the rewards as well. Maybe be a silent observer at a park or a mall (if you can stand it) and just observe different parental interactions.

    Above all else, when you start to get judgmental or overly critical of yourself, change what you’re doing (read, listen to unrelated music, hug your kids, etc).

  3. Telling yourself you have to write a “viral” song seems a lot like telling yourself you have to be a “perfect” mom. LOTS of space left to beat yourself up.

    Trying for perfection seems like trying to reach one teeny-tiny bright spot waaaaay up in the sky. Trying for completeness opens up the whole wide world around you as possibilities. Lots of options.

  4. I am hesitant to suggest this because your success as a solo writer is awe-inspiring (having done it so well for so long) but maybe, for this particular mother song, a collaborator may be helpful.

    I’m a strong believer in the power of synergy.

  5. For writing, I love 750words.com–just getting words out, any words, helps some.

    For songs, singing prose (like the “good enough” paragraph in your post) can prime the pump for me. (By the way, I think your song should be called “good enough”).

    One of the best pieces of advice I’ve read is to write for an audience of one–pick that kind, forgiving, loving person to write for. Maybe your mom, or your sister, or your daughter, or you, or even the squirrel that throws nuts at your roof. Then put the spotlight on that one person, let the “viral” crowds fade to a gorgeous ocean view, and write for that one person.

  6. I’m also blocked today, so I am really in no position to give advice on this, but..

    If what makes us connect to other people is that moment of shared imperfection, those visible cracks in the surface– the same is true of what we create.

    The sense of ‘I’m not enough’ is the same sense of ‘what I’ve created isn’t enough’. Both are wrong.

    Tell the story of who you are as a mother with your whole heart. It will be more than enough.

    And, for the record, what you had on Sunday was great.

  7. I think there is something particularly daunting about writing a song for mothers when you are a mother and you know a lot of mothers(and we all compare and judge ourselves and its the job we want to do perfectly but never can). For the album I just released, Whip It Out: Songs for Breastfeeding, the last song I finished (just in time) took 6 months to finish. I wanted to write one to dedicate to my yoga mamas group-All I had was “Can I get a witness? Mamas raise your hands..” and nothing else for ever and ever. It plagued me. It only plagued me until I realized the song did not have to be perfect and in fact the song was going to be about imperfection in motherhood and asking for help. And it also helped to borrow my producer’s strangely strung martin for a weekend so that some new notes would appear in my head. So I guess I’m saying you should tell the song it does not have to be perfect and it will be perfect because of that.

  8. @Amstr: I love that idea of writing to just one person. That’s often what I do, and the problem I was having was in trying to write to THE WORLD! This is a great reminder. Thank you!

  9. You have ADD? This is news to me. I just wanted to point out that for people with ADD who are on medication, it’s not a good idea to drink caffeine because then you can’t sleep at night.

    My tricks for writer’s block are to unplug the modem, give the cord to my husband, and tell him, “Hide this somewhere and don’t let me know where you put it until I tell you I’ve finished writing X number of pages.” This way, I won’t be distracted by the Internet. As someone who really does have ADD, I find it impossible to resist going online sometimes!
    Also, since I am writing a memoir, I try to surround myself with sounds and smells that trigger memories. For instance, if I am writing about something that happened in 1996, I listen to songs by Alanis Morrisette, No Doubt, Counting Crows, and others that were popular that year. Or, if I’m writing about a scene that took place in my college chapel, I’ll burn incense as the smell takes me back to that time and place.

  10. This isn’t a deliberate method per se, but I get about 85% of my good ideas in the shower or the tub, especially early in the morning or right before bed – the times when I tend to be tired and not really putting my mind to use for any specific purpose. Often I’ll be stuck on something, will usually have put it away for a little bit, and then my subconscious (which I assume has been working diligently) will pop something out in a sudsy moment. So I recommend getting some fabulous product and steaming out the good ideas!

  11. this is what i’ve learned, nerissa, probably from stephen king:

    carve out the time and honor it. sit there blankly if you have to, but let the time be for writing (or composing or creately or coloring or collaborating). honor the intention fully enough to let the reluctant muse or the naggy critic know that you will keep showing up. and when nothing comes of showing up, that’s okay too.

    one more thing for me: i awake in the darkness, sometime before dawn and i am ready. i’ve learned to keep a pen and paper nearby. and there have been times, when i could, i’ve dragged myself from bed and let it rip.

    i’m intrigued why so many of us felt so vulnerable last weekend. when the answer isn’t there to comfort, which for me is remarkably often :), isn’t that what being vulnerable is about? always better to feel than be numb. that’s my answer these days.

    thank you dear nerissa. xoxo

  12. @ Potes: I get ideas in the tub too! Usually kids songs, but sometimes other things too. Thanks!
    @KJ I agree–always better to feel vulnerable than numb!
    @amy Thanks, my dear! Will post the recipe for soup in a new post.

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