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A friend asked me this past week what I do when I hit writer’s block. She was really referring to writing poetry, but that block hit me last weekend here in Paradelle. Nothing inspired me to write, so I only posted one instead of the usual three posts.

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. He also claimed that French writers created this idea that all writers have to suffer to write.

I had bookmarked an article by Jennifer Lachs about writer’s block, so I decided to read it and write about not being able to write. Of course, the block can also be a creative block that goes wider than just writing.

The article quotes playwright Paul Rudnick who says that “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.”  You have to write?  Unless you’re on deadline, no one has to write.

A dictionary might define writer’s block as “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 being 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  developing writing models.

A believer in neuroplasticity, she says you can hardwire your brain for endurance and increased productivity.

Arguing about whether writer’s block is a real psychological issue or a romantic term coined by writers won’t help you if you hit a block.

Why do you get blocked?  I found several lists online. Some items resonate with me, some do not.

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. All of these are fear in some way.

If you really have to write because it is your work or you have a deadline to meet, that pressure can block people.

The solutions are even more numerous than the causes. Feeling blocked? Try these block breakers. Do some exercise. Take a walk. Do something aerobic.

I have often heard that you should 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. 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.

You can combine several solutions – take the dog (or just yourself) for a walk. That is exercise, a different task and also a change of scenery. Cook something, rake some leaves, sew, knit, sculpt,  do some woodworking, paint a wall or a landscape, chop some firewood.

Some current research finds that doing something with your hands when you are blocked in your brain.

If that seems too much like procrastination, for writers, free-writing can be a block breaker. Writing without rules, about whatever pops into your head can let the imagination free. I’m not good at this. I tend to keep drifting in my writing back to the task.

It is also recommended that you block back. Get rid of distractions – not an easy task in this distractible times.  Certainly email, social media, 24 hour news and movies on your phone can take you away from your writing. I think this is a mythical solution. As much as I would love a cabin out in the woods for a writing place, I could see me sitting there unable to write and distracted by rabbits and a river.

It bothers some of my writer friends but I rarely ever feel blocked. One of my methods is keeping notebooks full of ideas, a note on my phone where I list one-liner poetry ideas (there are 133 there now) and usually a few blog posts in draft mode that I started and stalled on.

Maybe it is a time-of-day, circadian rhythms 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 at 9 a.m., I might do something else and come back at 3 p.m.

Recommendations often say that 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. 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.




When I write a post here, I expect that some people will read it. I add an image or two to engage readers, and I will later check to see if there are any comments, shares and how many clicks the post gets over time.

Does any of the post-posting activity really affect people reading what I wrote? I think it does, to a degree. People click on posts that people share and ones that appear on my “Top Posts Today” list in the blog’s sidebar. Social sharing is real.

But some people like to experiment with it. One experiment is at Even its creator calls it “the dumbest publishing platform on the web.”  You write something, hit publish, and it’s live, but there is no tracking, no ads, fonts, analytics, cookies, user accounts, logins, passwords, comments, friending, likes, follows or sharing or any of the other social media capital so valued elsewhere on the web.

This morning I posted about the Moon moving away from Earth.  But that was something I wrote on last week. The only way anyone will find the original posting is if I put a link to it elsewhere.

This antisocial publishing platform is simple static hypertext. (You can use Markdown language to add some basic formatting.)  If you write there, it is online for as long as the site remains online – though perhaps no one else will ever read what you wrote.

The site is set up so that search engines are “told” not to index the posts, so Google won’t be spreading the word about my post either.

Where will this experiment go? I have no idea.

Why was it created? I suspect that its creator Rob Beschizza – a writer, artist and editor at Boing Boing  – also was curious to see what would come of it. Perhaps something good and new. Perhaps it will all go wrong and it will need to be shut down.

To complete this little meta-circle, I also posted at about what I wrote here. And the writing goes round and round…

Andrew Wyeth - "Frostbitten" (1962)

Frostbitten by Andrew Wyeth, via Flickr

As a writer and as someone who has long been an admirer of the art of Andrew Wyeth, I immediately clicked a link to an article titled  was  “A Writer Learns From Wyeth.”

Andrew Wyeth worked in pencil, charcoal, watercolor and tempera, and not much in words. Yes, I believe his paintings do tell stories, but words were not his medium of choice.

Wyeth would have turned one hundred this year. That may account somewhat for the fact that Andrew was not entirely literate. Peter Hurd, who was Wyeth’s brother-in-law, asked 12-year-old Andrew to look up something in the encyclopedia and discovered he could not do it.

Andrew was home-tutored because of his frail health and his father, the artist N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher.  He learned art and he appreciated hearing stories and poetry read aloud, but reading and writing were not a regular part of his “studies.”

The article’s author, Beth Kephart, the author of 22 books, feels that “there is much to be learned about the literary arts from Andrew Wyeth.”  Like Kephart, I have made a pilgrimage to “Wyeth Country” in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and to the Brandywine River Museum where much of his artwork is displayed. I went out with my camera to find some of the actual locations of his paintings near there.

Wyeth found inspiration at the Kuerner Farm. The early 19th-century farmhouse, the red barn and the family were subjects for hundreds of paintings and drawings over seven decades.

Kuerner farm

The barn at the Kuerner farm.

Besides the stories in his painting, Kephart does find advice is some of Wyeth’s words about his work.  “I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be,” is something any poet will identify with about poetry and probably their writing.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing without pen and paper or computer. As Wyeth said, ” I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.”

I look at some of his sketches and prep for a painting and I immediately think of writing drafts. Wyeth’s advice on revision to writers might be the same as he said about his art  “I obtain great excitement in the changes. Because with them, the painting begins to discover itself. It begins to roll. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”


Drydock, 1987, Watercolor,

I like looking at his watercolors (like Drydock above) done on the same kinds of spiral bound pads that I use for my own watercolors. He has his own favorite tools, as do most writers. His medium rough watercolor paper (not stretched and 22 x 30 inches) and only three sable brushes (Nos. 5, 10 & 15) and no flat brushes for the background washes.

I particularly like Wyeth’s use of titles. The painting at the top of this post might have simply been called “Apples on a Windowsill” but it’s called Frostbitten which suggests a lot more. What would the title Faraway suggest to you? Take a look at his painting with that title – Were you close? If not, what story is suggested in that painting?

The paintings do have stories, though the stories behind them are mostly not known to viewers. For example, his painting Winter.

“Winter” — 1946

There is only a small patch of snow in the painting, where we might expect a white, wintery canvas.  The painting was inspired by a day when Andrew was walking near the railroad tracks where his father was killed.  He saw a local boy running down the hill facing the Kuerner farm and joined him. They found an old baby carriage and used it to ride wildly down the hill. The painting shows the boy and a shadow stand-in for Wyeth. Wyeth said of the painting, “The boy was me at a loss, really. His hand, drifting in the air, was my hand, groping, my free soul.”

That hill is the same one Wyeth would use two years later for probably his most famous painting, Christina’s World

Christina’s World


I stumbled upon several videos this morning related to John Updike, and that set me off thinking again about one of my favorite authors.

I always admired his three pages per day writer’s requirement. He really worked at his writing.  It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.

I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and published his second novel, Rabbit, Run.  The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like “A&P” about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically and, like many Salinger protagonists, I identified strongly with that kid.

My freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux.  a sequel to the first Rabbit book.

My wife shared many of my readings in our years together. I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves.  Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.

Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.

This first video I found is a casual interview with Updike at the time of the fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which ends Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry with his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson and his wife, Janice, and the 1989 that is post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize.

What interested me in this video was his own thoughts about death.

This second video is John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David is also a writer I have enjoyed reading. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good.  It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike and wanting to be a writer.

I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.

John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father.

But I think even those who are not fans concede that is prose is beautiful, often poetic.

I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog

He died of lung cancer in January 2009.

I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. It is a small poem on what it means to be dead as seen by teenaged David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave.

A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.

You try to reach them but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.

As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.

Starting in the late sixties and early seventies, American poet James Merrill became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits. He began to use those conversations for his poems.

The Ouija board was originally known as a spirit board or talking board.  “Ouija” is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc. who bought the rights and produced it as a game board using the French oui and German ja to make the foreign-sounding yes+yes board name. How about a $260 glow-in-the dark version?

This flat board is marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “goodbye” and sometimes includes  “hello” and other symbols and graphics. The user places their fingers lightly on a heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. The movement of the planchette supposedly spells out words and the occult idea is that the movement is controlled by a spirit you have contacted.

The original talking board of 1894

The original talking board of 1894

Most people treat the Ouija as a party game. It was big with teenage girls in my youth as a way to find out about boyfriends and future events. Once upon a long time ago, I spent some serious hours using it with a girlfriend who was into all things strange. She read the books and had rules we followed. For example, never ask a question that you already know the answer to. We received some “messages” that were difficult to pass off as coincidences or as things we had deliberately pointed the planchette to spell out. There were things that we were later able to confirm as accurate. There was also a lot of gibberish.

American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a divining tool during World War I. He believed that the dead were able to contact the living and he used a talking board to enable faster communication with spirits.

When I taught middle school, the Ouija board always seemed to come up somehow in some a class discussion. I would tell students that some religions, like Christians, think that its use can lead to demonic possession. That warning probably just made it seem more appealing to my students, as did reading about it in Stephen King’s The Stand or watching The Exorcist.

Paranormal and supernatural beliefs like the Ouija are generally considered pseudoscience. The planchette moves because of unconscious (or quite conscious) movements by the users. I’m sure Merrill wasn’t interested, but if you want some science, look into the psychophysiological explanation under ideomotor effect.

With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board. He published his first Ouija board narrative in a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it “The Book of Ephraim.”  It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.

“The Book of Ephraim,” a 90-page narrative poem in that volume. It comes from those 20+ years using the Ouija board and revelations spelled out by Ephraim. That spirit was a Greek Jew once in the court of Tiberius. Merrill mixed his own personal memories with Ephraim’s messages. In Mirabell: Books of Number, a sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” he continued that path at even greater length.

Is it great poetry? Not for me. I prefer other work by Merrill, but with a Pulitzer and with Mirabell getting the National Book Award for Poetry, don’t rely on my critical opinions.

Merrill is an interesting poet story.  He had a pretty sweet early life as the son of a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had a governess that taught him French and German. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Southampton. Yes, James rejected much of that and lived a fairly simple life.

When Merrill thought he had exhausted the Ouija inspiration, the  “spirits” “ordered” (his word) him to write and publish more. That’s spooky. This led to further installments and finally a complete three-volume book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. It is a 560-page apocalyptic epic poem.

Three Early Stories by J.D. Salinger is a book that might, at first, seem like a scam.  Salinger is dead and didn’t publish for many years and was famous for his lack of interest in publishing new work and suing people who tried to publish any of his older, uncollected stories.

As readers of this blog know, I am a Salinger fan. I was a bigger fan when I was young and he was still writing, and before I learned about what an odd human he was in real life.

Salinger published 21 stories in the early part of his career that he refused to republish. Fans would seek them out in sources of old magazines in bookstores, online and in libraries. Back in the late 1970s, I sought them out in the Rutgers Library and found many of them torn or razored out of the bound volumes.

This legit collection, Three Early Stories, published by Devault-Graves Digital Editions, found some way to get the rights to three of those early stories. Two stories were Salinger’s first two published works, “Young Folks” and “Go See Eddie.” The third story is “Once A Week Won’t Kill You,”published in 1944.

I can understand any author not wanting early work brought forward, especially if you think you were not at the top of your game when you wrote them. For me, Salinger’s best writing is from the first half of his writing life. Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories are great. Franny and Zooey is very good. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction is a collection that didn’t work for me. By then, Salinger was deep into chronicling the Glass family that live in many of his stories and their appeal to me decreased with every story.

Salinger had Holden say in Catcher that “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” I wanted to call Salinger after I read Catcher at age 13. I tried to catch Salinger at his home in New Hampshire when I was in college.

During my freshman year of college, Joyce Maynard published a piece in The New York Times about her freshman year at Yale which I read with great interest and clipped and saved. It dazzled me in 1972 that she had gotten a New York Times Magazine cover story published and gave me hope as a writer. The next year, she published Looking Back, a book-length follow-up that was full of things I also recalled being nostalgic about at the ripe old age of 19 – air-raid drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show etc.  I still have my paperback copy of that book in a box of college stuff.

Salinger read that Times story too and liked it. He wrote that eighteen year old girl and he, then age fifty-three, sent her a letter that began a relationship. She left Yale to live with Salinger, and he dismissed her about a year later. She wrote about that in her memoir,  At Home in the World, a book that pissed off some Salinger fans and caused others, like myself, to not want to call him any more.

Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, also published a memoir, Dream Catcher, about life with her famously reclusive father that I’m sure he hated even if it said some nice things about him.

But I still reread the three “new” stories. It’s the first collection of the author’s work in fifty years. I wish there were a few of the early Holden Caulfield family stories. I read almost all of the uncollected stories by finding them (and photocopying them) and these three are decent examples of the early work.

“The Young Ones” is the first story he published. It is about a college party and a young woman trying to interest a disinterested man. Not very original premise, but good dialogue and details.

“Go See Eddie” is odder with a brother trying to get his sister to go see Eddie for a job and being pretty damned threatening about it. Hints of a troubled family here.

The third story is “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” which gets into a WWII triangle with a draftee, his wife and aging aunt.

The book has some nice illustrations that don’t come from the original magazines but that look like they come from the period.

I would love a complete stories collection or all the uncollected stories collection instead of my photocopies. There are a few stories I couldn’t find. But I think in Nine Stories, Salinger selected the best of the stories he published in magazines. (The New Yorker got most of the best ones.)

His last published work, a novella entitled “Hapworth 16, 1924”, appeared in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965. I found a copy of that issue and eagerly dove into the story. It is my least favorite Salinger piece.

Osiris Press was supposed to publish “Hapworth” as a book with the author’s permission, but someone foolishly leaked word of its upcoming publication and paranoid Salinger withdrew rights. That is probably why this new and thin edition had no advance promotion and just appeared. Salinger died in 2010 and although I heard he stipulated that nothing new be published for 50 years after his death, I hope the estate is more liberal. I would love to know if he was actually writing all those years he was hiding out. I suspect he was not. If he was writing, my guess is that it was more similar to the second half of his oeuvre which I would actually rather not read. The Salinger in my head from a long time ago is the one I wanted to call up on the phone.

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