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by Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass has published several volumes of poetry.  In 2001 she won the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize in Poetry.  Her last book of poetry, "Mules of Love" (BOA 2002) won the Lambda Literary Award.
She has also published several non-fiction books, including the best-selling "The Courage to Heal."
Her new book of poetry, "The Human Line", is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in June 2007.

Discipline is remembering what you want.

When I was in my twenties, I went to a psychologist for help with writer's block.   "At what point do you experience the block?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" I asked back.

"Well," he explained, "Are you unable to sit down to write?  Or do you sit down and stare at the empty page unable to think of anything to say?  Or do you write something down, but feel that none of it is worthwhile?"

I no longer remember what my particular difficulty was, but over the decades, I've continued to appreciate the elegant practicality of his approach--and the insight that the solution to writer's block will vary depending on the point at which you are experiencing the problem.

Tush In Chair

Beginning with the first obstacle, not sitting down in the first place, the remedy is straight- forward. You sit down with pen or keyboard and don't get up until you've written something.  This solution, aptly named by one of my students "tush in chair"-- is simple, but it's not always easy to apply.  If it were, you'd probably have done it already.

Again, if you're having trouble sitting down, the first step is to ask yourself why.   This is a straightforward diagnosis, similar to the one your mechanic makes (if you've got a good one) when your car won't start.  Is it a problem of time?  Do you think you have to wash the dishes before you write?  Do you have lunch with a friend on a Saturday afternoon when you'd really rather be writing?  Are you a single mother working two jobs?  Some of us have more demanding responsibilities than others, but most people feel they don't have as much time as they need-- and most people actually have the potential to free up more time for writing than they do.  If time is a problem for you, begin by asking yourself how many hours a week you'd really like to devote to writing.  Would you like to write an hour a week?  a few hours?   thirty hours?  Often we don't even think about what we want because we assume we can't have it.  And sometimes we're surprised that actually our desires are not as impossible as we thought.

Once you know how much you'd like to write, ask yourself what's realistic. If you really do want to write forty hours a week, but you're working full-time and raising triplets, there'll be a gap between what you want and what's realistic. But it's possible that you could be writing more than you are now. How much could you write? When could you do it?

One of my students was a single mother with small children.  She really didn't have a lot of time to write, but she longed for that connection with herself and her creativity.   She decided that she could write for ten minutes every night.  No matter how late or how tired she was, she decided that ten minutes less sleep wasn't going to make much difference, and ten minutes of writing would feed her spirit.

Once you've decided what's realistic, schedule it.  It's fine to write when inspired if that works for you.  But if you're not writing as much as you want to, the single most helpful thing you can do is to schedule your writing time on the calendar.  And then, don't give it away.  If a good friend calls to ask you to drive her to the airport, you can say you're sorry but you're busy then, and offer to pick her up instead.   Give your writing time at least the respect you'd give to a doctor's appointment that you've waited several months for.  You might cancel in a true emergency, but not to watch your neighbor's kids or go grocery shopping.

Sometimes we have the time, but we still don't sit down and write.  Something else is stopping us. If you have sufficient free time, but you still don't seem to get to the writing, ask yourself why?
Is it a lack of confidence?  A feeling of not knowing where or how to begin?  A hopelessness that even if you try, you won't succeed in saying what you want to say?   A fear that if you look inside, you'll find nothing?  All of these are common feelings.  It can be helpful to write about your fears.
It can be helpful to let your fear write or to have a dialogue with the fear on paper.   But for most of us, working completely through our fears will take too long.   If we wait until we're that evolved to start writing, we'll waste too many years.   I find that the best approach is to do what you can quickly to deal with your fears and then go ahead and just sit down to write anyway.

Getting The Words On the Page

Once you've got your tush in the chair, the next step is to get words on the page.   Sometimes (and for some people) this is easy.  But if this is where you get stuck, there's an almost sure-fire solution.  Called stream of consciousness writing, free writing, or writing without stopping, this is an exercise that has many names and many variations, but the basic idea is that you establish a specified period of time during which you will write without stopping.  It can be anywhere from ten minutes to an hour or two (if you're just beginning you may want to keep it on the shorter side). Then, from the time you begin until the time you end, you simply keep putting the words down onto the page.

Often when we write, we manage to get down a few words or a few sentences and then we re-read them and start editing.  Or we decide it's no good and give up. In this exercise, there's no re-reading and no chance for the critic to foil us.  The critic can talk all it wants, but you just keep writing.  You don't have to write fast, you just don't stop.  It doesn't have to make sense, be spelled or punctuated correctly, or be whatever you think of as good writing.  If you run out of things to say, you can repeat the last phrase over and over until you think of something else.  Or you can complain--I hate this exercise.  Why did I ever decide to do this in the first place? --right on the page.  You can describe the pen you're writing with or strategize world peace.  The only criterion for success is whether or not you continue to write.


Once we are able to sit ourselves down and get words on the page, then the problems become more interesting. We enter into the land of courage and desire. It takes real courage to write.  I have had Andre Gide's words taped to my computer for many years now:   "One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."  All creation requires this journey, this willingness to begin and continue without any guarantee whether --or where--you will arrive.

The poet Deena Metzger has written:  "The territory of the self is a vast, unexplored, and prohibited geography--our experiences, feelings, insights, understandings are often off-limits.  As often as we are imprisoned inside ourselves, so often are we actually living in exile outside ourselves.  One can say that one of the basic conditions of contemporary life is the unfulfilled longing of the self for itself."

Writing is a way to explore this self.  Whether we write autobiography or essays, poetry or fiction, we draw from the experience of our lives, our feelings, thoughts, and beliefs.  At a very basic level, all our writing reflects who we are.  And perhaps that's some of what makes us feel so exposed when we share our writing.

Recognizing that vulnerability helps us to bear it.  And also to make good choices for ourselves in getting support and guidance.  Some of us can proceed alone with enthusiasm--writing, reading, gaining the skills to express ourselves.  But most of us can benefit from help from the outside. Other writers can encourage us.  Teachers can point out our strengths and help us to capitalize on them.  Sometimes they can see what we're trying to do, even when we haven't accomplished it yet, sometimes even before we can see it ourselves.  Writing is solitary work, but we don't have to be isolated as we do it.

Writing in the company of others who are also on this challenging journey can boost our courage in amazing ways.  Having the time away from other responsibilities--and even away from other pleasures--can provide a safe haven in which to delve deeply into our experience, to write without interruptions and distractions.

If you are able to join us at the spring writing retreat at La Serrania, this is what we'll be doing writing and supporting each other's writing.  As our great poet Adrienne Rich said, "The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities."  For all of us, women and men, this is what we can offer each other.

These are a few poems for which I won the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry in 2001.
They were originally published in Nimrod.

Can't Get Over Her

My nephew is distressed that he's still
in love with the girl who went back to her boyfriend--
the one who's not good enough for her.

When he ran into her again, she had that same bright laugh,
like the shine on an apple, and the wind rose
reaching up into the limbs and fluttering
the leaves in the whole apple tree.

But when she left, it hit him all over.
She was headed for her boyfriend's house, she'd walk
quickly in the brittle March night.
He'd have a fire going. She'd unlace her boots
and offer him her mouth, her lips still cold,
her velvet tongue warm in that satin cape.

He didn't tell me all this,
of course, but who hasn't longed
for that girl? that boy? He's mad
at himself that he can't get over her.

He's young and he's got goals, quit
smoking, gave up weekend drunks. Now he tackles
model airplane kits, one small piece at a time.
He wants to learn mastery. Sweet man.
Should I tell you the truth?

That you'll never get over her. Love
is a rock in the surf off the Pacific. Life
batters it. No matter how small it gets
it will always be there--grain of sand
chafing the heart. I still love

the boy who jockeyed cars, expertly
in the lots on New York Avenue,
parking them so close, he had to lift his lithe body
out the window those sultry August afternoons.
He smelled of something musky and rich--distinctive
as redwoods in heat.

And the one I followed to Africa
where we slept on pink embroidered sheets.
Whose laugh lines I traced with a pleasure
God must have felt when He etched them in,
just before He sent him through the chute.

What can I tell you of how I still long for him?
Like a patriot exiled from the motherland?
A newborn switched in the hospital, raised
in the wrong family? Each year that passes
is one more I miss out on. His children
are not mine. Even their new
step-mother is not me. When she complains

how hard she tries, how little they appreciate it,
I think how much better off he'd be with me.
And when he has grandchildren
they won't be mine either. And when he's dying--
even if I go to him--I'll be little more
than a dumb bouquet, spilling my scent.

We don't get over any of it. The heart
is stubborn and indefatigable. And limitless.
That's how I can turn to my lover, now,

with the awe the early rabbis must have felt
opening the Torah. And when she pulls me to her,
still, after all these years, I feel like I did
the first time I stood in front of Starry Night.

I had never known, had never imagined
it was not just the flat, smooth surface
of the textbook. Had never conceived
there could be these thick swirls of paint,
the rough-edged cobalt sky, the deep
spiraling valleys of starlight.

Mighty Strong Poems

for Billy Collins

"What mighty strong poems," he said.
And I repeat it all day, staggering
under sheaves of rejections.
But my poems, oh yes, they are brawny.
Even now I can see them working out at the gym
in their tiny leopard leotards, their muscly words
glazed with sweat. They are bench pressing
heavy symbolism. Heaving stacks of similes,
wide-stanced and grimacing. Some try so hard,
though it's a lost cause. Their wrinkled syntax,
no matter how many reps they do, will sag.
But doggedly, they jog in iambic pentameter,
walkmans bouncing. Some glisten with clever
enjambments, end rhymes tight as green plums.
Others practice caesuras in old sweats.
But they're all there, huffing and puffing,
trying their best. Even the babies, the tender
first-drafts, struggling just to turn over, whimpering
in frustration. None of them give up.
Not the short squat little haikus
or the alexandrines, trailing their long, graceful
Isadora Duncan lines. While I fidget
by the mailbox, they sail off in paper airplanes,
brave as kindergartners boarding the school bus.
They're undaunted in their innocent conviction,
their heartbreaking hope. They want to lift cars
off pinned children, rescue lost and frozen
wanderers--they'd bound out,
little whiskey barrels strapped to their necks.
They dream of shrugging off their satin
warm-up robes and wrestling with evil.
They'd hoist the sack of ordinary days
and bear it aloft like a crown. They believe
they're needed. Even at night when I sleep
and it looks like they're sleeping, they're still
at it, lying silently on the white page,
doing isometrics in the dark.

Phone Therapy

Most people don't really want to kill themselves.
They just don't know what else to do.
When the pain riots and fills the pan like good bread
rising in the sunny kitchen window, or when the voices
are real, clear as a clock radio. Or when they've spent
enough on therapy to feed a small third-world country, but still
dread waking up each morning, can't sleep at night,
and their inner children are stiff dead bodies
caged in their ribs, they may give up.
The lump of hope they've been holding has melted,
sticky candy in their fists.

This is the part I hate most.
You can't take responsibility, my sister-in-law,
the social worker, tells me. But I'm the goalee.
There's nothing between me and the net.

Sometimes I'm a continent away, my ear hot
from hours pressed to the receiver, straining
to make out the whispered pain.
I throw the lasso, again and again--
the only thing I have, my inept love.

Because we all want that.
We all want to be lashed to someone.
The sound of the human voice is a handsome thing
when you think you're going to die on that mountain.
The sound of the toilet flushing is pretty good, too,
when I know the pill-salad has swirled down.

I'm limp when we finally hang up.
I stagger into dinner, silent and grateful, the faces
of my family like personal miracles,
taking out the garbage, a moonlit cruise.
You're never sure the love charm will work
as much as you might mean it, as honest as it is.

But, as I said, most people don't want to die.

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull like a Ming vase
on the indifferent sidewalk, I got desperate.
"Do you think," I asked, "you could just
postpone it until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?"

The cord that connected us--strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss--that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound, carried
by a means I don't understand.

In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
Individual drops of sweat ventured out
over the ridges of my ribs like baby snails.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
"Okay," he agreed.


Ellen Bass' other odysseys:
'Asking Directions in Paris'
'Two New Poems'

Ellen Bass' workshop:
Writing For Our Lives
odyssey index page 
Please send comments or requests to be added to our mailing list to odysseys@laserrania.com

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