A couple of weeks ago I hit the biggest wall I’ve hit in a long, long time. The day started out great. I was up at a decent time, I did some morning meditation and spiritual study without feeling rushed, I took a shower earlier than usual and I was ready to get to work. I turned on some music and sat down to finish an article I’d been working on. I got a couple of sentences down, but then I just couldn’t focus. I turned off the music and got up from my computer to stretch, then sat back down to try again.
The grumble of a tree trimming truck hummed noisily outside. I was bored by my article’s subject and just couldn’t get into it. And then the chainsaws started, and continued for the next four hours, with the occasional teeth chattering grinding of the wood chipper chiming in. I tried to find a quieter place to focus, even locking myself in the bathroom ala Abe from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But there was no respite from the noise. I went over my list of articles to write, hoping a newer, more interesting subject would engage my mind enough to drown out the noise that seemed to be rearranging the cells in my shoulder muscles into angry patterns of tension. I berated myself for not being more productive.
Finally, the workers took a break for lunch and the noise outside stopped. But my angst had a life of its own. How was I ever going to accomplish the plans I’d set out for myself if I couldn’t get my articles written? The more I wrestled with myself, trying to produce something, the worse it got.
I decided that a break for lunch was a good idea for me, too, and that an episode of Better Things might help distract my monkey mind from its poop slinging. I was exhausted from the noise and exhausted from fighting myself.
The noise picked up after lunch as the workers next door ground the stump from the tree they’d just felled. But it didn’t last long; before I knew it, their truck was grumbling its way down the street, its provocations fading as it went.
I collapsed onto my bed and drifted off to sleep as the birds and the breeze sang their calming tunes. It was late afternoon when I woke. I was still mad about not getting any work done, but the day was spent and I just couldn’t push myself anymore. I needed more calming, so I turned on a romantic comedy and let myself be carried along by the pure pleasure of watching people fall in love.
The next day, I still couldn’t face the article that had vexed me so the previous day, but I also knew I needed to move forward somehow. I remembered the Joy Harjo MasterClass on Poetic Thinking that I wanted to watch.
In case you don’t know her, Joy Harjo was the 23rd Poet Lauriat, and the first Indigenous Poet Lauriat, of the United States. Her MasterClass was confirming and freeing in the most wonderful way.
She talked about how she didn’t believe in writer’s block. Now, I’ve read and come across lots of people who say this, but they are usually touting a need for discipline. The idea being that if you sit your butt in the chair consistently, inspiration will strike consistently too. I agree with those people. Treating your creative endeavors the same way you would a job, doing the work, and showing up even when you don’t feel like it, does result in more success than waiting around for inspiration before you decide to get to work.
Joy Harjo didn’t negate this conventional wisdom, but she added something to it that really reaches to the heart of living the life of an artist: Listening.
She said that sometimes, when the poem won’t come, it’s because it’s not the right time, or there's something you need to learn that you haven’t learned yet. She uses different tactics when she runs into an obstacle with a poem. Sometimes she keeps working on it, but sometimes she lets it lie and works on something else. Other times, she’ll visit a place she hasn’t been before to get a new perspective, or she’ll sit down and have a chat with the poem, asking it what the problem is. Sometimes, she reads someone else’s work.
I realized that I had done some of these things during my own horrible day. At first, I kept trying to work on my article, then I tried to work on other articles. But then I surrendered to where I was. It took a while, but watching shows, letting myself be inspired by the work of others, and taking a nap helped me reset. It helped me become more receptive to what I needed to hear instead of pushing the agenda I thought I needed to accomplish. I finally did seek the wisdom of an elder in watching Harjo’s MasterClass, and I found what I needed: An acknowledgment that sometimes the timing just isn’t right.
I did eventually finish that article about a week later. In the meantime though, as I strove to become a better listener each day, I finished several other articles that had been lying around half-baked. I don’t know that I would have finished those articles had I not been stuck.
Joy Harjo’s Poetic Thinking MasterClass reminded me of something I know but still need to be reminded of every now and then: creating is a spiritual endeavor—really, all of life is. And when we look at life as a spiritual endeavor, i.e. think poetically, what appears to be a block is seen with new eyes, inspiring a way forward that we may not have considered before.
Every time we get stuck or feel blocked, it’s not because there is this thing out there called “Writer’s Block” that is some kind of disease that plagues writers and other creative types. Everyone hits obstacles and dead ends, and we usually hit them because we have stopped listening to that inner compass that lives just beyond us. What? An inner compass that lives beyond us? Yes, it’s one of those paradoxes that makes you sound nonsensical when you try to describe it. Some people call it the muse, some God, some the universe; some call it angels.
Whatever you call it, it defies being pinned down because it doesn’t live at your service—you live at its service. And sometimes, it has other plans for you. It has a better way for you to accomplish your goals if you’ll just stop and listen. It has a better story, a better business model, a better relationship for you than you could possibly come up with yourself.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t wake up every day and put in your best effort. But don’t berate yourself, and don’t blame writer’s block when you can’t write. Look for what the obstacle is trying to redirect you towards, trying to get you to look at and understand so that your creative life will be richer and more meaningful to yourself and others.
Learn to trust that Poetic Thinking will sustain you through times of plenty, and times of want. It may be a leap of faith at first, but as you consistently take these leaps, you’ll come to understand Life Herself and to know that solid ground will always be there.