Tuesday, April 21, 2009

When You Catch Writer's Block on the Side of the Road, Kill It

Laraine Herring is an author, teacher, and counselor. Her first book, Monsoons, was published in 1999 by Duality Press. Her novel, Lay My Sorrows Down, won the Barbara Deming Award for Women in 2000. Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal From Adolescent Father Loss, was released in May, 2005 from Hazelden Press. The audiobook is also available on itunes and Her latest book, Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice was released in September, 2007, from Shambhala Publications. She is at work on a third novel and a memoir. Find out more at

This semester, my students have been resistant to practice. Perhaps because it's spring and they want to be dancing in fields of poppies. Perhaps because they are worried about their futures. Perhaps because they are simply not ready to commit to writing. Writing, after all, is serious business.

I've had students complain to me that they aren't writing enough, and when I ask them if they're writing, they say, "Well, no..." To this I respond: writing begets writing. There is no way to write but to write. There are no tricks, though there are plenty of diversions. One of the points I make in my book The Writing Warrior is that any structure someone provides for your writing, or any structure you create yourself, is only as useful as your ability to work freely within it and to stay centered and focused. The structure or the concept doesn't make the writing work. Your discipline, practice and flexibility make it work. When structure of any kind (relationship, job, religion, writing, city) becomes a prison, it's time to move on.

Now, what writing practice does is illuminate. It yanks out into the open everything that the writer has been trying not to look at. And so the writer goes away. This is normal, but a book about writing, or a class about writing, can't address the nuts and bolts without addressing the real reason writing is hard. It holds up a mirror to your own demons. It dares you to look, dares you further to write about it, then dares you even further to share it publicly. Yeah, is it too late to change majors to something safer like Pyrotechnics in the Middle East?

Writing practice brings up your limitations. This is a gift, not a problem. The more you know about what you do and why, the more room you have to make authentic decisions. Writing practice shows you your belief systems about yourself, your family, your world. It shows you where you need to be right and where you feel invisible.

One of my favorite books is If You Meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him by Sheldon Kopp. What he means, of course, is on your quest to self-knowledge, anything that gets in the way of true self-intimacy needs to go—even if that thing is a revered deity. It’s a symbol, it's the finger pointing at the moon, it's representative of an endless search. You don't need it. Ben Yagoda’s recent title expresses a similarly radical sentiment: When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.

(Lest you think I hate all adjectives and manifestations of God/dess, let me reassure you that I don't. I have been known to use an adjective or two, and right now my office displays a statue of Buddha, Ganesh, Kali, the Venus of Willendorf, a yin/yang symbol and a cross.)

As an exercise, I ask my first year creative writing students to describe a person they know without using any adjectives or adverbs. The intent is not to wipe adjectives and adverbs off the face of the earth, but rather to show the student that they often cloud what’s really there. As Ben Yagoda says, adjectives are often used by lazy writers "who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun."

Writers get in the way of their own writing because they don't yet know that the writing is where they are. There is nowhere to go. Writing will not unlock the secret code to fame and fortune. Writing will not bring about world peace. But what writing will do is bring forth her sorrows and her joys, her secrets and her lies. It will bring these out, and once in daylight, they will vanish and she will find she has space in her body, in her mind, and in her heart. And as one writer opens to herself, she brings that changed being into the world and into her contact with others. She has no attachment to whether others change or not, no attachment to whether they write or don't; she simply is, and in that 'is-ness' she is the noun, nothing in the way of all that beauty.