Writerly clutter

Writer Territory



Recently – as I tried to jumpstart another essay – or at least get a few words on the page, I felt that familiar numbness spreading down my shoulders and arms and paralyzing my fingertips on the keyboard. Instead of writing I was listening to the little voice from writer’s hell that likes to play with my common sense. Some writers call it monkey mind. When it happens to me, I feel confused and drained of ideas at the same time. 

Of course you have ideas, I prodded myself, but my genius moments were just wisps of smoke –  amorphous, intangible, lost in the jungle undergrowth of my mind. Accessible only to the chimp in my brain. When I reached up to snatch a thought, it was nothing but air. Not even a gnat’s wing of substance.


Dr. Beatrice Hinkle,  who opened the first psycho-therapeutic clinic in the United States at Cornell Medical College in the 1920s and specialized in treating artists, wrote, “ Every writer, …suffers from periods of drought, in which not a trickle flows. He [she] works at times doggedly, persistently, knowing that he [she] is not tapping full ability. Then suddenly, through no conscious act … he [she] is in full command …carried along on a flood of creation.”


I love her generous sprinkling of adverbs. Hinkle is certainly not the first or only therapist who has tried to understand artistic temperament and productivity, but I like the simple way she describes what is fundamentally an indescribable process; the torturous road of creativity where putting one foot in front of the other seems like an Olympic event. And “suddenly!” she says, there is a flood of creation.


Out of charity for those artists who are also pragmatists (like myself) and who believe that artistic creation is 99.9% perspiration and .1% something else, let’s dig a little deeper. Perhaps there is some method to the madness. Some way to engender that magic moment. Opening the floodgates of creation seems to have something to do with tapping into the unconscious, that place in the imagination which we cannot think about if we try to think about it. Is there a password that allows us into our own profundity?  Is there a key, a tool, a gimmick – anything?!


These questions and this state of perplexity reminds me of a picture that hung on the wall of the Pentecostal church/meeting house I attended as a child and where I endured hours on Sunday mornings of listening to people speaking in tongues as they writhed between the pews. In the painting hanging above us all was the figure of Jesus Christ with his fist raised in a position as if he was about to knock. He stood  in front of a closed door. The caption underneath said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”


As a child I found comfort in staring at this picture, possibly because Jesus appeared calm in comparison to his agonized followers in the room in which I sat. I wondered when and if the door would be opened – and if I could leave, too? The implication was that one must wait to be “let in.” Who is behind the door? Will he – we – ever get in or out?


Today, as a writer waiting in despair at the blank page, I have similar questions about myself. Like Jesus, writers must also endure the nonbelievers, critics and other know-it-alls among us; those zealots who say “what’s the matter with you?” For example, an anonymous author in a 1934 issue of The New Yorker commented on writer’s limbo as follows, “Certainly there is no sight more engrossing than that of a writer getting ready to write something. We have known several writers who spent virtually their whole lives trying to get themselves into position to create.”


But, let’s be serious. There is some truth to the idea that we can “make it happen.” The writer who is waiting for inspiration to strike has to overcome the desire to wait with that stricken sense of inertia.  She must invent or invite an impetus for the door to open using a crafty ploy such as a creature, a thing, a scene, an animal, a memory, an object or a person. A writing prompt like, “describe the view from your childhood bedroom window,” must be placed in front of that stubborn door. We don’t have to write about the door in order to open it.


Author and teacher, Emily Rubin, creates writing workshops for cancer patients at Beth Israel Hospital in New York. She encourages participants to write about whatever they choose including illness, but, she says many need a furlough from focusing on waiting rooms and procedures. It seems that sometimes in our haste to chase down a memory or an idea we might start too close to the subject as if the more similar the prompt is to the subject, the faster we’ll get somewhere.  Ms Rubin says that lists of random items like your first car, a needle and thread, cotton candy are often the most inspiring.


So, if you’re stuck with your pen in the air – toss it and describe where it lands. Take your eyes off that closed door. Peer around the edge of it and discover that it is only a prop, a stage set. It’s not even attached to a house. Describe the play that is going on behind it. In the midst of all these imaginings and situations you might start to zero in on a story. At the very least you may open the floodgates and find yourself in a meteor shower of words.


More ideas for writing prompts:

Open a book of your favorite poems. Choose the first word of one and start to write.

You find a key wrapped in a handkerchief. What is the box that it unlocks?

You read an announcement in the newspaper that lists only the dates of birth and death of someone whom you don’t know in your community. Write an obituary.


I hope this helps to get the pen flying across the page. Don’t worry about where it goes. For more ponderings on the subject of the writing process, visit me at www.Facebook.com/ruthwcrockerauthor.