On listening to our creative blocks

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I have been thinking about a writing project that I’m afraid to start.

To anyone else, the project looks innocuous: a few CDs and a folder of handwritten notes tucked inside a paper box I picked up at IKEA. The box is white with a metal bracket on one side for a label, but I’ve left that blank. I know what’s in there. I don’t need any reminders.

I’ve quite literally shelved this, wedged the collection of artifacts into the bookcase where I keep my journals, until I can figure out what’s holding me back. Because the story in that box needs to come out. But every time I think about it, I find a distraction, an excuse not to open the lid. E-mails that need replies; bills that need sorting; you name it, I’ll clean it. I’d rather do anything than clean — except face what’s in that box.

I’ve been here before with other projects. In my first graduate school writing workshop, I tried very hard not to write about my father. I’d done that already in a series of essays that had become my college thesis, and I wanted to move on. Lingering in the still unexplored no-man’s land between us, I told myself, wasn’t serving me or my writing. But as an incidental character in the other stories I did want to write, he kept showing up. And taking over. To the point that I tried to remove him from the page altogether, but then I couldn’t write at all. Everything was somehow about him, even when it wasn’t supposed to be.

My professor had noticed this too. My father’s ability to hijack a scene, his persistent appearances almost against my will — these drew her gentle criticism on nearly every assignment. While I knew she was right, I didn’t have the guts to ask her what to do as I sat in her office, holding everything I’d written in the first half of the term in my lap. There is a fine line between discussing personal writing and personal baggage, and I was too afraid of erring on the side of the latter; asking how to handle my father as a character was too close to asking how to handle my challenges with him in real life.

But I did turn that question into an essay of its own. It was a meta-exercise that explored the challenge of letting my father appear on the page, a head-on examination of a case of writer’s block:

“He hovers at the edge of the page, looking over my shoulder as I type, but he says nothing.” I began. “I am the only person who can make him speak from the white space in front of me, this incredibly private man who would be beside himself with anger if he were ever to find himself etched in print — at least, the way I have come to know him as my father. I hesitate even to use that word. It carries so many assumptions I have to scrape away so that he will show through. I’ve already betrayed him here — you know that nice things aren’t likely to follow an introduction like this — but that isn’t what I want, at the same time that it can't seem to be helped. He baffles me. And pinning him here, turning him over and over like a pancake whose center just won’t cook, I need to probe this enigma without cutting too deeply, or the innards will ooze out for everyone to see and he will be merely unappetizing.”

Writing those sentences — and the remaining three pages of the exercise — was as hard as any other writing I had attempted all semester. But naming my block and giving it, in this case, a persona, allowed me to see how I was struggling with it. Why I was struggling with it.

Once I’d articulated the problem, I could work with the challenges it created. I could see where the block was interfering with my writing process, how it influenced whether I included or withheld certain words, events, or images from the page. I could even call direct attention to my (or my narrator’s) conflicting feelings on how I (or she) was portraying my father — which gave me a way to temper or put bounds on his appearances. This is what ultimately helped me write my way through, transforming my block into a tool. It became a lens that made visible the hidden intentions and desires behind the how of my writing about my father, revealing an integral part of my creative process that until then I had ignored.

I did eventually give my father more space on the page, even writing my final workshop essay with him at its heart. It was exacting and exhausting. But resisting the work that my block was guiding me toward would have stifled me more.

An essay on why I’m afraid to start my next writing project may not be what gets me unstuck this time. But it’s one of several tools I’ll be drawing upon during the rest of this month to figure out what I need to know — which I promise to share more of as my unblocking process unfolds. In the meantime, I invite you to learn how I can support you in turning your creative blocks into creative guides with this offering or e-mail me about a specific block you’ve been struggling with by clicking the button below.