Unblocking Writers

blocked writer
Image:Lukas Bieri | Pixabay

I saw this quote on the Advice to Writers website:

Writer’s block is a load of nonsense—I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say.  ~ Alexander McCall Smith

I don’t think that is true for all writers. The block is real for many writers. Generally, it is not an issue for me. In fact, a friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She is a poet but goes through long periods of not writing at all. I write all the time. I write too much. I write too much online which I shouldn’t consider less noble, but I do when compared to working on poems or articles to send out to journals and publishers.

I think one cure for writer’s block is writing. Even in my earliest teaching days, I would tell my students who were blocked when writing in class journals to just write. Write about being blocked. Write a line from something we were reading in class and go from there.

I wrote earlier about writer’s block and I often post things about writing. This meta practice of writing about writing is another way to beat the block.

Back in the 19th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described an “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. That is another kind of block and I’ll admit to hitting that form at times. Coleridge also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write. I know I saw this idea quoted somewhere but I could find the source today: You don’t have to suffer for your art. Making it through high school is quite enough suffering. Having taught middle school for a number of years, I’d say you’re ready to be an artist before high school for some people.

Looking at my drafts for this site, I saw that I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to look at it again read it and write today about not being able to write. She quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says:

“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write.”

Do you have to write?  Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write. That friend who asked me about writer’s block is someone who works best under some pressure. She likes writing workshops that require you to produce and read your poems to the group.

A dictionary definition of writer’s block might be “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” Is it psychological?

In the book Fire Up Your Writing Brain, author Susan Reynolds turns to neuroscience to turn on the brain’s creativity for writers in particular.

Reynolds actually claims that it is a psychological condition is a myth. (Others disagree)  She feels the brain can be used to generate that creative spark and defeat the procrastination that we call a block. Her approach includes some self-study about the type of writer you are and then developing writing models.

Reynold and I are believers in neuroplasticity. She says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.

Of course, the block can also be a full creative block that goes wider than just writing. It is important to recognize why you get blocked. Is it fear of failure or rejection? Are you such a perfectionist that you can’t get started? Certainly, many of us are our own toughest critics.

Despite my friend’s preference for deadline pressure, if you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can also block people.

This brings me to solutions. They are as numerous as causes. You will find online and in books strategies and block breakers. Here’s a very partial list.

Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.

Do something completely different from the task at hand for a bit. That sounds like procrastination, but switching tasks just for a short time might reset your brain. Get up from the desk and make a cup of tea. Try drawing something. Einstein famously would pick up his violin and play some Mozart when he hit a creative wall.

Combine solutions. Take the dog and yourself for a walk. It combines exercise and a change of scenery which might even newly inspire you.

Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt, do some woodworking, paint a wall or a still life, chop some firewood.

I found it interesting that some research shows that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain is effective.

Free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. It may not produce a finished product but that is not the point.

I’m not good at getting rid of distractions, but that is highly recommended. You may not be diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder but when you’re writing on a screen having email, social media, and notifications there with you is definitely distracting. Now that 24-hour news, TV and movies are on your phone all that can take you away from your writing. Notifications play on our fear of missing out (FOMO) on something important.

The most Romantic (capital R) and the almost mythical solution is to “get away” from it all. I’ve had that fantasy inside me since I was a teenager reading Walden. I’ve written about that cabin out in the woods for a writing place, but I recognize that I might still just be sitting there unable to write and happily distracted by rabbits and a nearby river or pond. I wrote that you should not need a cabin in the woods to write, which should be obvious, but the dream persists.

I am a big user of notebooks and more recently notes on my phone. I have a lot of one-line poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and I always have a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and have left to simmer.

Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms that is an issue for you. Are you more productive at certain times? I write best in the morning and at night. Afternoons – not so great. But if I am banging up against that block in the morning, I might do other things and come back to writing after lunch.

Binge writing is not recommended. Smaller sessions are better. John Updike, who was very productive, treated his writing like a regular job. he went to an office and didn’t let himself out for lunch until he had produced a certain amount of writing. It might be a poem, a few pages in the novel or even answering mail.

Poet William Stafford was famous for writing a poem every morning when he woke and before breakfast. How did he do it? He admitted that he lowered his standards. He didn’t expect every morning poem to be great – or even be a poem. It was a case of progress, not perfection. Perfectionism is a block builder. I followed that philosophy when I did my poem-a-day project 365 times in 2014.

Confesssion: I went back to the draft of this post because I was at a loss for what to write for today. I don’t have a deadline, but I do try to posts at least two times every weekend. When I have a “lost weekend” it bothers me. Then, I write about the lost weekend. Write. Just write.

Uncle Wiggily and J.D. Salinger


Uncle Wiggily is not an Easter bunny. He is a gentlemanly old rabbit who always wears a suit and a silk top hat. 

The character was created by Howard R. Garis. I just discovered this year that Uncle Wiggily has some roots in my home state of New Jersey and even in my birthplace of Newark.
Garis was a reporter for the Newark Evening News and he wrote hundreds of children’s books, many of them as a ghostwriter. He published his first Uncle Wiggily story in a newspaper in 1910, and it was so popular that he ended up publishing an Uncle Wiggily story six days a week for more than 30 years. By the time he retired, he had written more than 10,000 stories about the rabbit. 
According to Garis’ obituary in the Chicago Tribune, it was a walk in the woods in Verona, New Jersey that inspired him to write about the rabbit. I now live in the town next to Verona. The Uncle Wiggily connection is very strong with me.
I don’t really remember the stories, though in my childhood the Newark Evening News was dropped on our front porch every night and I did read the comics, so it’s likely I read some of those stories. I was a big fan of rabbits and we had them as pets.
I do remember playing an Uncle Wiggily game. I found the original game selling online for $100. I guess I should have kept my childhood game – and kept it in good shape.  They do sell today a much more reasonable version of the game.

Uncle Wiggily Longears – his full name – appeared in the paper every day (except Sundays) from 1910 to 1962 and Garis published 79 books in his lifetime illustrated by a variety of artists. 
I left Uncle Wiggily behind when I got a bit older, but he popped up again in my early teen years.
Eloise and Walt are characters that appear in the short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” which is one of the stories in J.D. Salinger‘s collection Nine Stories which I read many times. In that story, Eloise recalls a time when she and Walt were running to catch a bus and she sprained her ankle. Walt says, referring to her ankle, “Poor Uncle Wiggily.”
I guess Jerry Salinger read some of those stories. Uncle Wiggily is lame from rheumatism and uses a candy-striped walking stick.
The 1949 film My Foolish Heart was based on this story and is still the only authorized adaptation of Salinger’s writings into a film. The film’s plot bears little resemblance to the original story – which might be why Salinger never allowed his fiction to be used again.
The story is about how Eloise is trying to come to terms with her life with her husband Lew when her true love was Walt (a member of Salinger’s favorite family, the Glass family) who died during his service in the army.
Poor Uncle Wiggily. 

Crossposted at One-Page Schoolhouse



Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold. – Zelda

Zelda Fitzgerald. Born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900. We know her more as the other half of that quintessential Jazz Age couple with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

She was a writer, painter, and dancer but all that was drowned out by her famous writer husband.

In those Roaring Twenties, she was an American Dream Girl. Scott said she was “the first American flapper.”  He used her for inspiration for a good number of his female characters, including Daisy in The Great Gatsby.

Were they in love? Absolutely. For a time, they were in love. And then they weren’t in love.

Scott wrote a famous piece about cracking up. He seemed to get past it. But Zelda had a breakdown in 1930 and went in and out of hospitals the rest of her life. She was diagnosed as having schizophrenia.

I couldn’t find anything she wrote about cracking up. Maybe she didn’t want to use her life or their life as material. She once said that Scott used it all because he believed that “plagiarism starts at home” but later she did the same thing.

While Zelda was away, Scott, crack up and all, went on with his life. He was an alcoholic and he drank away a lot of his talent. In 1940, he was with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham in Hollywood. On December 20, Scott and Graham attended a movie premiere and when they left Fitzgerald was dizzy and had trouble walking. He told Graham, “They think I am drunk, don’t they?”

The next day he was making notes when Graham saw him jump from his armchair, grab the mantelpiece, gasp, and fall to the floor. He was dead of a heart attack at the age of 44.

Four years later on March 10, Zelda was at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. A fire started in the hospital kitchen. Zelda was locked in a room awaiting electric shock therapy. There was no escape for her.

She was buried next to Scott in the family plot in Rockville, Maryland. Their shared tombstone has inscribed on it the last line from The Great Gatsby:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I only recently read some of her own writing. In 1932, while hospitalized Zelda had a creative burst and in six weeks she wrote her only novel, Save Me the Waltz.

Before it could be published, Scott was enraged by it, saying that she used material from their lives that he wanted to use for Tender Is the Night. He made her cut material before it could be published. She did. It was a failure and he made sure she knew it.

I wanted to love her writing because I wanted her to be loved.

I don’t know if Zelda would be pleased that Don Henley says he wrote “Witchy Woman” when he was in The Eagles about her (I hear nothing in the lyrics that says Zelda to me)  or that the videogame The Legend of Zelda is named for her (again, nothing of Zelda in it).

I’m not even sure that Zelda would be pleased that she is buried next to Scott, but at least it leads more people to visit the gravesite.


About Zelda

The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald

A gouache entitled Fifth Avenue by Zelda Fitzgerald
Fifth Avenue – by Zelda Fitzgerald – Google Images, Public Domain, Link

Did PKD Meet God?

PKDPhilip K. Dick (PKD) is a writer that I find quite fascinating. I have written about him in different contexts and I became particularly interested in his writing beyond the novels and stories that have been popularized through film versions. One of those is his Exegesis which was published after his death and stands as his final work.

In 1974, PKD said that he met God – at least he thought it was God.

Visionary is a word often used in describing him and his stories, and visions certainly play a role in the lives of his characters and in the author’s own life.

Philip was a seeker. He wasn’t really seeking God for most of his life, but he was seeking answers, including answers about what to write.

I have read that PKD consulted the ancient Chinese divination text, I Ching (The Book of Changes) which had an American resurgence in the 1960s. My own explorations with that volume were unsatisfactory as the interpretations are very broad and I didn’t find any guidance from it. But others have found answers in it.

PKD used the I Ching to guide his life and to guide his writing at times. He said that he used it when writing The Man in the High Castle. That 1962 novel (and a Netflix series) portrays an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II. The I Ching shows up in the novel too as Japan rules the western part of the old United States.

I have had a long fascination with this time in PDK’s life story when he believed he had encounters with God.

Twice, in February and March 1974, Philip K. Dick met what he believed was God in a  hallucinatory experience.

He wrote about the experience rather obsessively in his rather bizarre diaries that later were published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. (I think that PKD might like that you can read it on a Kindle.)

Dick by Crumb
Robert Crumb illustrates Philip K. Dick’s “Meeting with God”

The experience began with a wisdom tooth extraction after which he met at his front door a delivery girl from the pharmacy who wore a golden Christian fish symbol around her neck, and that symbol triggered his visions.

H described his contact as coming via a “pink beam” which imparted knowledge to him. One example of that was when it told him that his infant son was ill – something that was confirmed when he took the child to the hospital and the diagnosis was confirmed. Dick called these experiences “2-3-74” for February–March 1974.

PDK said it was God but he referred to “it” as Zebra, or by the acronym VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) which was used for VALIS the novel, which has a PKD-like character. This book is Dick’s gnostic vision of one aspect of God.  It was to be volume one of an incomplete VALIS trilogy. Volume two was published as The Divine Invasion in 1981, and the planned third novel was to be  The Owl in Daylight.

Outsider cartoonist and a PKD fan, Robert Crumb, wrote and  illustrated Dick’s meeting with a divine intelligence in “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick.” I found it in the collection, The Weirdo Years by R. Crumb: 1981-’93 which uses quotes from PDK’s retelling of the event in the narration.

Crumb is known for his “underground” comics that went above ground, like Fritz the Cat, but he also has done some serious and realist illustrations, such as his version of The Book of Genesis.

Another visionary who connected with PDK is Terence Mckenna who wrote the afterword (“I Understand Philip K. Dick”) for the book  In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis .

McKenna is known for many theories that appear in his many books. My favorite concerns novelty.

McKenna formulated a concept about the nature of time that was based on fractal patterns he claimed to have discovered in the I Ching. He called it novelty theory and from it, he proposed a prediction about the end of time (not the end of the world) and a transition of consciousness in the year 2012. His novelty theory got attention as that year approached, especially because it was also the year that some calculated as the end of the world (but more accurately the beginning of a new consciousness) based on the Maya calendar.

Novelty theory is generally considered to be pseudoscience, and 2012 came and went without anything significant happening to the world. McKenna’s personal end of time came in 2000.

As PKD explored with LSD, novelty came from the mid-1970s experiences with psilocybin mushrooms in the Amazon that McKenna had which led him to the King Wen sequence of the I Ching. The drug connections have not helped the reputation of either theorist in the eyes of scientists.

In novelty theory, the ebb and flow of novelty in the universe are inherent in time. McKenna thought that time is not a constant but moves between either “habit” or “novelty.” For this, habit is entropic, repetitious, or conservative, while novelty is creative, disjunctive, or a progressive phenomenon. For McKenna, the universe is an engine that produces novelty, which then increases complexity, which acts as a platform for further complexity.

In that afterword that he wrote for the PDK book, McKenna says that “The mathematical nature of this pattern can be known. It can be written as an equation, just like the equations of Schrodinger or Einstein.” Like that famous seeker, Albert Einstein, McKenna and Philip K. Dick spent a good part of their lives seeking the equation which would be one answer to it all.

7 of wands
Seven of Wands from The Fool’s Journey of Philip K. Dick tarot cards

I have not read that PKD used the tarot, but it would not surprise if he did explore with it. This 15th-century European card “game” also has a long history for divining our destinies.

the fool
The Fool from the Rider deck

The most popular tarot deck (and the one I first encountered in college) is known as the Rider Tarot deck (AKA the Rider-Waite Tarot) from 1909.

There are many modern versions of tarot decks. There was even a tarot deck designed by Salvador Dalí

The reason I include tarot in this discussion of PDK is that I came across in my web research a kind of tarot/I Ching/Philip K. Dick mashup.

high castle
Man in the High Castle card

It is called “The Fool’s Journey of Philip K. Dick” which is a tarot deck done by PKD scholar Ted Hand and tarot artist Christopher Wilkey. It has 80 cards that use elements from Dick’s works. It also has four rule cards for two “I Ching inspired card games and an eight-sided folding booklet about tarot as Gnostic Allegory. I couldn’t find the deck online but it is on the publisher Wide Books’ website along with other PDK publications.



About Philip K. Dick
About Tarot
About I Ching
Terence McKenna
2012 and the new consciousness

Picnicking With Herman and Nathaniel

champagne picnic

I heard on TWA that on August 5, 1850, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne met at a picnic hike with friends at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

It was four days after Herman’s 31st birthday. Nathaniel was 46 years old and was an established literary figure.  Melville had two non-fiction memoir books to his credit, both of which had sold well. Typee and Omoo were based on his time at sea and on Polynesian islands when he had jumped ship. Melville was just starting his career as a novelist.

The picnic seems to have been organized by a Stockbridge attorney, David Dudley, Jr. a mutual acquaintance. Besides HM and NH, Oliver Wendell Holmes was also along for their hike up Monument Mountain.

An unexpected thunderstorm hit along the way and they took shelter in a cave. It seems that this was where the main conversation between Melville and Hawthorne took place. I imagine that it was literary, but I don’t know if these were literary “brothers” or if the older, more successful Hawthorne may have been in more of a superior role.

The group reached the summit when the storm passed and they celebrated with champagne and poetry, including William Cullen Bryant’s “Monument Mountain.” It is a long, sappy lyrical ode about a Mohican maiden who is so depressed about not being able to marry who she loves that she throws herself off a cliff. Her body was covered with stones as a “monument” and the summit is called Squaw Peak.

The friendship developed over the next few years and Melville and Hawthorne wrote regularly to each other. Melville had a habit of burning letters but what evidence remains of their correspondence shows that they did share ideas, and did some editing and commenting on the other’s work.

Melville was finishing what he was calling The Whale that August. Hawthorne was working on short stories based on his hometown of Salem.

Their friendship faded after Melville moved back to New York City and both of his novels had failed in popularity and sales. My sense has always been that Melville considered Hawthorne a closer friend than Hawthorne did.

But two days after the picnic, Melville visited Hawthorne at his little red farmhouse in Lenox. They took a walk to the lake. Nathaniel gave Herman two bottles of champagne. Later on that day, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, “I met Melville, the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts.”

They lived six miles from each other for 18 months. These were very productive months for both of them.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance were either being written or published during that time. The Blithedale Romance (1852) is Hawthorne’s third major romance and the setting is a utopian farming commune based on Brook Farm, of which Hawthorne was a founding member and where he lived in 1841. The commune’s ideals end up clashing with the members’ private desires and romantic rivalries. It is considered a “dark Romance” whose plot reminds me of Updike a century later.

Melville finished his epic “The Whale,” which we know as Moby-Dick, while staring out of his farmhouse window at hills like whales. He was writing his next novel, Pierre or the Ambiguities, at the same time Hawthorne was writing The Blithedale Romance and I would guess there was some sharing of ideas and maybe some reading of each other.

There may have also been some competition. The healthy kind would be wanting to please and even outdo the friend. The unhealthy kind would be in book sales and money. Hawthorne definitely won the latter competition.

In the fall of 1851, Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne: “To Nathaniel Hawthorne: In token of my admiration for his genius.”  I don’t think that Hawthorne ever dedicated anything to Melville.

Happy 200, Mr. Melville

MelvilleToday is Herman Melville’s birthday. He was born August 1, 1819, in New York City in a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants. But the family when he was born the Melvilles were in decline.

He left school at 15 to became a bank clerk. He also tried farming and teaching, but it was when in 1837 he took to the sea for the first time that the Herman Melville will know began. He was just a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with cotton, but he liked being at sea. Returning to New York and then in the West, he tried various jobs but found no “career.”

Returning to the East in1841, he signed up on the whaling shape the Acushnet, which spent several years in the Pacific. You would assume he loved this life since he wrote about it most famously later, but in fact, he did not. The Acushnet was a place of cruelties and he jumped ship in the Marquesas. There he was held in “friendly captivity” by the Polynesians. he escaped on an Australian whaler, which he also eventually abandoned and made his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

TypeeReturning to New York in1844, he was now 25 and he found there was an audience for his exotic sea stories in the islands. He wrote about his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner in his first novel, Typee. Publishers at first questioned the truthfulness of this non-fiction, but in print, it was an instant best-seller. He followed up quickly with a similar book, Omoo.

He married in 1847 and lived in New York with his younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters.

His next book was a novel was very different from the first two successful books. It was a rather fantastical, romantic work called Mardi. This book was not a best-seller, but the Melvilles moved to a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts (which I plan to visit this month).

At the farm, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and a friendship began (though it seems that Melville considered Hawthorne more of a friend than Hawthorne did).

Melville explored transcendentalism and allegorical writing and wrote at the farm what would be his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

Moby-DickThe novel is an ambitious, lyrical, unconventional and epic story. He dedicated it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” But Moby-Dick or The Whale got mixed reviews. Readers who had liked his two earliest books did not find the same thing in the new tale.

Considering its classic status today, Moby-Dick was the beginning of the end of his career as a novelist. His subsequent books were largely literary failures. He did some farming and wrote articles to pay the bills, but the family ended up returning to New York City in 1863,

Melville became a customs inspector and tried a second literary life as a poet, writing a lot about the then raging Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which received praise but he never returned to the prominence of those first two books.

He never saw Moby-Dick reach the stature it has today, and his remaining stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd. His literary revival began in the 1920s and Moby-Dick is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written. I didn’t see any celebration of his 200th birthday, so I want to send this remembrance out into the universe for an author who has meant a lot to me.

Melville stamp