Today in my series on poetry prompts and exercises, I'm featuring writer Kathryn Mockler. She teaches creative writing, poetry, and screenwriting at Western University, and runs private workshops through her new online writing school Mockler’s Writing Workshop. She has had six short films produced and is the author of the poetry books The Purpose Pitch(Mansfield Press), The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books). Currently, she is the Toronto Editor of Joyland and Publisher/Founder of The Rusty Toque.
What do you do when you’re stuck, when the writing is not coming readily, or maybe not at all? Or perhaps you only have a limited block of time in which to write and you want to dive in but you aren’t sure where to begin? What do you do to get started?
When I first started writing, I used to get really stressed out if I couldn’t think of anything to write. I would beat myself up and fret and go blank. It was horrible. But over the years, I have learned that those moments, which seem like they are not productive because I’m not actually writing anything, are just part of the process. I’d like to say the fear goes away, but it doesn’t. Writing anything new or anything I am stuck on always makes me feel like I’m jumping off a cliff. I’ve just learned how to cope with it better.
I’m in a situation right now where my husband, David Poolman, and I are collaborating on a book. I’m writing poems and little fictions and he’s doing the artwork. The deadline is in a couple of months for an art opening. I would be lying if I said this didn’t make me a little tense. But rather than freak out like I used to, I will try following some of these strategies:
a) Daily freewriting or journaling: When I’m feeling blocked, I write for a set period of time (ideally in the morning) where I don’t think about what I’m writing, and I don’t criticize it. I just write for 15 to 30-minute blocks. This is not meant to produce good work but rather to clear my mind. Often in the clearing of my mind, I get ideas but not always. Sometimes I just vent or rant. This process always makes me more productive later in the day.
b) Reading: Before I set down to write a poem or story, I read poetry or short fiction. I don’t necessarily read the kind of work that I am writing, but I read something that I think will get me excited about writing.
c) Collaborating: Working with a friend can help get ideas flowing. This past summer, poet and novelist, Gary Barwin and I did a back and forth collaboration where we used titles and/or words or phrases from each other’s poems to write new poems. Sometimes the poems connected and sometimes they didn’t, but it was a great way to generate work. Having the pressure of someone waiting for me to write my poem, helps me get over a block because it’s not just about me anymore.
d) Prompts: See next question below.
e) Meditation: If I meditate, I find that I can get myself into a writing zone especially when I’m feeling edgy or unproductive. It can help me focus and get rid of negative thoughts. So much of the writing process (for me anyway) has to do with managing both negative self-criticism and ego. If I didn’t have the ego, it wouldn’t matter to me whether I produced something good or not, and I likely wouldn’t be so critical. Meditation gets me out of this loop and helps me just focus on the writing without evaluating it. I use a free app called Stop, Breathe & Think.
f) Napping: Napping is key to my writing process and getting unblocked. When I first started writing I noticed that when I sat down to write, I always felt sleepy. I used to think I was lazy, but then I discovered that giving into the sleepy feeling rather than fighting it, helps my writing process. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll let myself have a 20-minute snooze. I bring my notebook to the bed or couch with me, and I think about what I’m struggling with. Inevitability while I’m in this half-asleep, half-awake state, ideas start to form.
g) Experimental Techniques: In addition to writing narrative poetry and fiction, I’m also interested in experimental writing. Generating work from found texts, constraints, transcription, rearrangement, erasure, redaction, etc. can produce interesting works, but also these techniques can serve as starting points for all of my projects. If I’m feeling resistant to writing and I’m working on a story, I might play around with some Google searches or try to write something using a found text before I begin. There is something about experimental techniques that get my brain going. It might have something to do with the fact that the content is often external and the writer’s role in the process is that of editor rather than content generator which can take the pressure off.
h) Crossword Puzzles: I’m terrible at crossword puzzles, but it doesn’t matter. Just mulling over the clue, exercises my brain which is always good for a productive writing session.
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