I’ve come to understand exactly what writer’s block is. It’s not that I’ve run out of ideas or a desire to write in general, but simply that I have no idea what to write next. I picture myself sitting down at my desk and just sitting. Not writing. It’s almost as if the path I was on came to a dead end. Finding my way out will be a struggle. So I don’t sit down at all.
That has changed since I read this offhand piece of advice from Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame): “When I’ve exhausted my general fizz, I’ll write the title of the next scene: Dining Room, Day. I think it’s a mistake to stop working without a clue as to what comes next.” This is practical and simple, and I can do it. At the end of a writing session – whether because duty calls or because I’ve run out of ‘general fizz’ – I leave instructions embedded in the text. It might be an idea about where to go next or a question I’m asking myself as if I’m my reader. When I jot down these last thoughts, I feel better. I know I’ve left a trail for myself that I can pick up when I return.
The notation I use to mark these clues is ITTC, which stands for Instructions to the Cook, the name of a book of zen teachings* I read long ago. Little bits of this book have stuck with me over the years, beyond the classic admonishment to live in the present. I learned the concept of Beginner’s Mind here first, and often apply it to writing; that is, the idea that before you start anything you must clear your mind and begin from a place of not knowing. That’s an exciting starting point, but also a frightening one, as I never know what I’ll discover. This is why my instructions to the cook/writer are usually provocative rather than prescriptive. I want to be open to the possibilities, and I don’t want to limit myself, but I need a safety net.
A couple of things happen once I’ve left behind these clues. First, my subconscious starts sniffing around this morsel and trying to make sense of it. I get little hints of its progress in my dreams and in errant thoughts that pass through my waking moments. Second, even if I make no mental progress on the clues, their existence makes chair time seem less daunting. I’m less concerned about what I’ll produce when I do sit down to it next. I will sit and I will write…something.
I get myself to a place of writing far more frequently now. I’m not an eager writer, not yet anyway, but I’m not blocked either. I’ve accepted that my beginner’s mind needs a trail of breadcrumbs to feel safe in venturing past the walls of my known world.
Leah and Carolyn
Writing Exercise: How about you? Do you leave instructions for yourself when you walk away from your writing? If you haven’t in the past, try it the next time. Have fun with it, too – no one else is ever going to see you talking to yourself.
* Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life that Matters, by Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields