I’m very pleased to have Jen Knox here as my Studio Guest for the next few days. And I’m especially glad that Jen chose to tackle a prickly subject like writer’s block. While the debate rages on about whether or not the affliction exists, she artfully enlightens us with the truth of the matter. Author and creative writing instructor at San Antonio College, please help me welcome Jen Knox to SunnyRoomStudio.
Jen Knox is the author of Musical Chairs and To Begin Again (Next Generation Indie Book Award winner, Short Fiction; Readers Favorite Award, Women’s Fiction). Jen received her MFA from Bennington’s Writing Seminars and currently works as a creative writing instructor at San Antonio College. Her short stories and essays have been published in Annalemma, Gargoyle, Metazen, Narrative, Short Story America, Superstition Review and elsewhere. She posts about the writing life and her work here: http://www.jenknox.com
There is no such thing as writer’s block. When I make such an assertion in class, my students often need further convincing. As a phrase, “writer’s block” suggests what? The writer is facing an obstruction to the very act of writing. This is extreme. Let’s consider the phrase itself—it’s a metaphor, a way of explaining a feeling many writers face. Writer’s block is a creative way of describing something as simple as fear. The fact that the very phrase is creative, that it was most definitely thought up by a writer, seems intrinsic proof that it is not a reflection of reality.
I teach creative writing at a community college, and in my course each student writes three complete stories. It’s a lot to ask in a matter of mere weeks, I realize, so I’m not surprised by the fact that at least once each term a panicked student approaches me and says, “I can’t do it. I keep trying, and nothing is coming out.” At this point, I ask how, exactly, the writer has been trying. I usually get one of two answers. Either everything the writer starts is “horrible”, leaving him or her to a cycle of perpetual false starts; or, the writer has been thinking and thinking, and “just can’t” sit down and put words to paper.
Both answers suggest that the writer cares deeply about his or her work and what’s really at play is not that the writer can’t tell a story; it is that the writer fears not telling a good-enough story. Incidentally, I rarely hear such a complaint coming from a student who, upon introductions, says that creative writing is just a new and fun thing to try. Such students, in fact, are often the most prolific. The ones that believe in writer’s block are the ones that identify themselves as writers, who have been doing it awhile, and I think there’s good reason for this trend.
- My solution for writers who are stuck is a very simple exercise that is rooted in novelty: Go to a park, a restaurant, a store, a new town, take a drive somewhere new—just go somewhere you’ve never been before (somewhere safe), and pay attention to as many details as you can.
“Do you want me to write about what I see?” students inevitably ask. And when I tell them it doesn’t much matter, they often look at me like I’m insane. To this, I smile.
This exercise—the simplicity of going somewhere new—is purely experiential, but it is not without purpose. When writers return, armed with details about their excursions, I tell them to pay less attention to the details and more to the keenness of their perception—how it was piqued in the new situation or area. The feeling of novelty awakens in us a sense of wonder. It shakes us, wakes us up a little. It is the very same feeling of the brand new writer, the writer who is not yet thinking of publishing, revisions, rewriting or anyone else reading the work. The cure to fears that surround writing is to—no matter how far along we get in our careers—approach the blank page as the new writer does, approach it as a new and fun thing to try, just one more time. And if you must, go somewhere new and awaken that sensation before sitting down to write.
The reason there is no real block to writing is because inside the writer there is always wonder. It is what keeps writers asking questions and striving to understand more about ourselves, each other, and the world around us. Genuine wonder trumps fear and reminds of us why we are compelled to write. Fear or “block” only means that we’ve been distracted, momentarily, by false beliefs about the future product, and we’re afraid of not telling the story we want to tell.
But a true story, a true piece of writing in any form, is not created from a desire to be good but a desire to understand. Remembering that will keep us going. And if we forget every now and then, hey, it just means we care. Now: back to it, there’s so much newness to explore. ~
Jen, thank you so much for sharing your creative light in this sunny space. You make a wonderful point about writing and that powerful sense of wonder that fuels the journey. When we let go of expectations, we get out of the way of our own creativity it seems. And, truly, our written words need time to mature and ripen, like this beautiful red apple. When we want to get it “right” or “perfect” from the start, we set ourselves up for frustration, anxiety, dread. That’s when we feel “blocked” or unable to find the motivation to begin or go on with our work. Your insights are wonderful and definitely helpful.
- You can find Jen on Facebook and via Twitter @JenKnox2 — or on her blog or website.
- Have you experienced something that felt like writer’s block? How did you handle it?
- Thank you so much for visiting SunnyRoomStudio — see you soon.
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