By Laura K. Deal
A friend of mine from dream retreats shared this link to Maria Konnikova’s piece, “How to Beat Writer’s Block,” in The New Yorker. As a dreamer and a writer, it resonated with me on several levels. I highly recommend the full article, and I also want to share my response here.
Konnikova tells us that Graham Greene found solace in keeping a dream diary during a period of writer’s block. I’ve felt that comfort too. Even if my waking life doesn’t feel particularly creative, my mind still offers scenarios, with unexpected visitors, repeated themes, and always the invitation to imagine something different from my waking life. My fiction, too, contains unexpected visitors, repeated themes, and the invitation to imagine my own world. Dreams and stories arise from the same fountain of creativity at the heart of being human, and sometimes my mind craves one expression over the other.
Konnikova also explores the history of the idea of “writer’s block” and its treatment by psychoanalysts and psychologists. At the root is the question: Why do we get blocked? I would argue that we unconsciously block ourselves for any number of complicated reasons, but the article doesn’t go that direction. Instead, Konnikova describes four types of unhappy writers and treating their writer’s block with a two-week intervention of guided imagining. Though not a panacea, creativity often flowed and many writers cheered up. Addressing the symptom of writer’s block itself proved therapeutic for emotional distress.
From a practical standpoint, what matters is that we writers can find ways through these blocks. Personally, my favorite way is pulling half a dozen random words from my “word hoard,” and writing whatever comes for ten minutes. This is done with the focus on the process, not the product, and with the understanding that because I had to follow this silly, absurd prompt, I’m not responsible for the quality of whatever comes out of my pen. (What I call Juxtaprise.) Konnikova’s conclusion is that taking a break from judgment (by only writing a dream journal, for example, and not showing it to anyone) is a useful tool.
I invite you to try this: Set aside five minutes, and on a piece of scrap paper or on your computer, write whatever comes to mind, including a few of these words from my word hoard: silence, nosegay, shantytown, shell, languor, touch. If you like, share your resulting “waking dream” in the comments below. If you’d rather, tear up your paper or delete your file, but by all means, if you stumble on a fun idea, don’t limit yourself to five minutes. Run with it as long as it carries your attention.