That Sketchy Area Known as Writer’s Block by Erika Raskin

Sometimes trying to write is like playing Scrabble

(old school—not virtual)

and reaching into the bag for more letters only to have your fingers come up empty-handed. In fact, I’ve been racking my brain for blog topics for so long even my Facebook page has taken to castigating me.

picture of facebook
Oh, shut up. Photo by Erika Raskin.

I’m pretty sure my disappointing search for ideas may have crossed over into Writer’s Block territory. For those who have never visited this particular geographical gulag, think ghost town in the middle of a super fund site—with a large population of large rodents.

Boarded up brick building
Amsterdam New York Ghost Town by Amsterdam New York on Public Domain image.

Recognizing the landmarks of Writer’s Block is like discovering your passport is missing while standing in line to board the plane. First you enter an unnatural Zen state, then alarm kicks in, and then a crushing load of Unmitigated Dread settles over you.

It’s not pretty.

Unlike prolific authors Joyce Carol Oates, Adrian McKinty, Stephen King (et al ad nauseum) who write book after book seemingly without naps or bathroom breaks, my own reserve of ideas is of the nonrenewable variety. In fact, I’m fairly sure that injudicious tweeting can drain the supply.

When I get seriously stuck I try and remember the tricks and prompts I’ve collected over the years. For my money the best how-to on the subject of writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. (The title comes from a time when her brother had to write a school report about a range of winged creatures. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the project he asked his father how he could possibly get it done. ‘Bird by bird’ was the wise response.)

dripping faucetSome of Lamott’s advice to just getting-it-done include:

–Accepting the fact that a “shitty first draft” is part of the process. (As a perfectionist who could spin my wheels on the same sentence indefinitely, this was pretty liberating.) Plowing forward is the only way to actually reach the finish line. You can’t edit nothing.

–Her tip to get the truth on paper first and worry about cleaning it up for libel down the road also provides a route around an obstacle of anxiety.

–The volume on radio “KFCKD” (the Trumpian station nobody else can hear that trash talks in one ear and blows smoke up your ass in the other) is adjustable.

–Writing 300 words a day on anything is really important to keep the juices flowing. (Full disclosure: I have a hard time with this one. I don’t do well with being told what to do. Even if I’m the one doing the telling.)

Anyway, I love Anne Lamott so much that when my first novel was being brought out by a small press and I was tasked with finding my own endorsements, I reached out to one of her reps. He wrote back so quickly to say that she was taking a “blurbatorium” it was like he’d been waiting for years inside my computer just to turn me down.

Writing is rough business.

Small painted box with bird inside
The writer Katie Davis, my oldest friend, made this little diorama for me a long time ago. We used to repeat the book’s title to each other when one of us was about to lose our shit from a looming deadline. Those are blue birds alighting on a typewriter.


But I digress. And I’m economizing.
Taking classes can also get you off Writer’s Block. Not long after we moved to Charlottesville, back when I was experiencing both a dearth of ideas and the social state my offspring kindly refer to as When-Mom-Had-The-No-Friends, I signed up for a workshop on crafting non-fiction. I was in search of prompts. And buddies. So I was thrilled when I thought I found both in the teacher. We were roughly the same age. We seemed to have the same sensibilities. She laughed at my jokes. I invited her out for lunch.
She blew me off. (That was seventeen years ago. Like most writers I have an uncanny ability to nurse hurts for easy access.)
Despite my mortification I stayed in that creative non-fiction class. The teacher emphasized the importance of utilizing all senses not only for texture but also narrative. She brought in photographs of paintings and asked us to free-write memories they triggered.
It totally worked.
I held the snapshot of the greasy spoon in Edward Hopper’s Nightcrawlers and recalled going to the Tastee Diner for a four in the morning high school graduation breakfast. Our table was giddy with possibility but in my periphery vision a couple old men sat slumped at the counter, futilely trying to block out our noise.
I wrote a couple pages about anticipation and disappointment under the same florescent lights. I might not have enticed the teacher but at least she pointed me away from the Dismal Place Without Words.
ps There are almost 900 in this piece. I can take the next couple of days off.

Erika Raskin
Erika Raskin, the fiction editor of Streetlight, is the author of Close (Harvard Square Editions) and Best Intentions (St. Martin’s Press).

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