Recently, I went through a massive period of writer’s block and I couldn’t get myself unstuck.
And, as I was in the throes of a Master’s Program in Creative Writing, wasn’t able to take a break and casually await the return of my muse.
A year or so before I had figured out a system and a schedule for writing that worked for me, I was going to school a few days a week and waitressing a few nights as well. My schedule was spotted with scattered moments of free time to do creative writing work.
Here’s what I worked out: On the nights that I didn’t waitress I would eat dinner around seven or eight and then settle in for the night. By about nine o’clock that evening, I would commit to the idea of writing. After a few false starts, by nearly midnight, something would finally click. I would enter the world of the play as I was writing and the whole thing would lurch forward. On these nights, I could get on a role and work sometimes until three or four in the morning.
I would wake up the next day as if from a bender, emptied out and a little fuzzy on the details of the night before. I would spend the morning re-reading and revising until the thing held night’s imaginative burst inside the morning’s carefully crafted shape.
Something was finally really working for me. Writing and I were really getting along. Then, like in any good story, a wrench was thrown into the works.
I started dating someone with a regular, nine-to-five schedule. After a few weeks of resisting it, I realized that in order to be able to spend any real time with him, I would have to give up my nocturnal habit.
At first, I thought this change in my writing schedule was something I would get accustomed to. But every day I had designated a “writing day,” I would futz around, distracted and frustrated—incapable of settling in or getting anything done. For awhile, I attributed my writer’s block to the distraction of new love. I thought if I could just wait out the “honeymoon phase” then, eventually, I wouldn’t be so preoccupied and my creative gears would start turning again.
But as the weeks went by, I would spend each day procrastinating, jumping up and fiddling around—avoiding the one thing I supposedly wanted to be doing.
On these days, cleaning my room and inventing new snacks, I would think of this poem by Charles Bukowski and be mad at myself:
air and light and time and space (1992)
“–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
It seemed to me that this poem gnawed at every fear I had about myself as an artist. It called me out as a fraud and an excuse maker. Here I was blaming my boyfriend and my schedule for my inability to write, but if I was a real writer I wouldn’t let anything come between me and my burning desire for expression.
And then, finally, something gave way.
One day, sitting at my desk, banging my head against the lethargy, trying to get to the creative place, I had an idea. I went to the fabric store, bought a few large swatches of thick, black material and thumb-tacked them over my windows.
Boom. Instant night.
My bedroom transformed from a hazy bright grey morning space into a dark and dreamy night-time space. It was no time at all before the ghosts of my characters were speaking to me again. I had coaxed them out by tricking them into feeling night-time energy in the daytime.
I’m not sure why this happened. I wish I could explain why the dark, still, energy of night was needed to settle into the creative process. Maybe it was random or maybe it was just out of habit, but I was pleased I had discovered a way of writing in the daytime, even if Bukowski’s attack on my delicate necessities still held weight.
And then, the other day, I found this Bukowski poem and had a sudden flash of realization:
Who needs it? (2002)
see this poem?
written without drinking
I don’t need to drink
I can write without
my wife says I can.
I say that maybe I can.
I’m not drinking
and I’m writing.
see this poem?
written without drinking
who needs a drink now?
probably the reader.
Ha ha! Oh my god! I get it! I get it now! Charles Bukowski was an alcoholic! He was just an alcoholic. I mean, I knew he was a drunk, but somehow I never put two and two together. Here he was directing so much judgment at a fellow artist for being dependent upon a serene environment to shift from a cognitive space to a creative space, when all the while he was completely dependent on alcohol to do exactly the same thing. What a hypocrite!
Not to mention that as far as things go, I’m gonna venture to guess that ‘time and space and air and light’ are a lot gentler on the body and the psyche than whiskey, but hell, whatever works for you.
Of course, the joke isn’t lost on me that Bukowski, somehow, still managed to write this perfectly brilliant little poem, apparently, while sober. But notice there are 10 years between these two poems—between the time he was poo-pooing someone elses’ finicky needs for making things and when he came to acknowledge his own dependence on specific circumstances for creation. That’s a lot of finely tuning his craft he was doing while totally blotto.
So perhaps this is the struggle. To continue to push outside your comfort zone while, at the same time, learning to rest in what you know works for you. Figure out what gets your gears turning and, for god’s sake, stick to it. And if for some reason (like say, liver disease or the crumbling of intimate relationships) you can’t do that anymore, adapt.
In the meantime, I’ve just re-arranged the furniture in my bedroom and am eagerly anticipating a great boom in creative output.
Dara Silverman is a playwright, teacher/tutor and jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none artist living in Oakland, California. She used to love film, animation, music, art and culture but these days is more into yoga, biking, hiking, dancing and cooking. Who knows what she’ll discover she loves next? Email her at: [email protected]
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Assistant Editor: Lacy Ramunno/Kate Bartolotta