Some writers say there is no such thing as writer's block, that you sit with a blank screen or a blank piece of paper until you put words on it. Whatever it's called, there are times “when writers don't write,” the subtitle of Tillie Olsen's book Silences. I started writing my memoir, Thursday's Child, in 2006. I drafted over 50 pages and then the words were gone. It didn't matter how long I sat there, the screen stayed blank.
Several years after my first attempt at the memoir, I discovered Unstuck, A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer's Block by Jane Anne Staw (St. Martin's Griffin, 2003). Finding this book saved me. The chapter titled “Flushing Out Our Enemies” saved me. I read the chapter thinking I didn't have any enemies, that anyone who ever commented on my writing had helped me. And many of my teachers did help—the nuns who taught me diagramming in fifth and sixth grade, my Latin teachers, my English teacher when I was a freshman in college, who helped me tame my teenage purple prose.
An exercise at the end of the chapter asked for a list of enemies. One by one, I wrote them down. The professor on my thesis committee who said I'd have to find another topic after I'd written three chapters. The fellow grad student who red-lined a paper. The published writer who read one of my stories and said I had “a small talent.” I let myself be undone by their comments. It was about ego. If you make it about ego, it's no longer about the words, the sentences, the paragraphs that tell whatever story you want to tell. You waste your energy being humiliated instead of writing.
Staw suggested the fifteen-minute free. No revising. At first the minutes crawled by. My finger hovered over the backspace key. After about a week, I began to look forward to those fifteen minutes when it was just me and the words. I graduated to twenty minutes. To thirty. To not needing a timer.
Staw runs a consulting business for people with writer's block—lawyers, teachers, businesspeople, writers of fiction—anyone who needs or wants to write. Sometimes a client writes in her office while she writes, too, creating a safe place. My safe place is Zell's, a breakfast and lunch spot in Southeast Portland. I feel at home there. When I am writing, the café noise becomes an ambient buzz, a soothing white noise.
Three years ago, a fellow writer invited me to The Pinewood Table where Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose foster writers' voices, offering their hard-earned wisdom and insight about putting words on the page. I didn't always want to listen to them or to my fellow writers at the table. I wanted the pages I brought to be worthy of praise. More ego. It's a hardscrabble process, getting it right. And it's a delicate balance, hearing the voices with their suggestions and having faith that you will get it right.
The memoir is finished. I'm trying to find a place for it in the world. I'm back to writing short stories, wrestling with words, sentences, point of view. If I have to wrestle with writer's block again, I'll grab my copy of Unstuck or my timer.