For several years after I finished my first graduate creative writing degree--right into my early thirties--I struggled through a prolonged writing block. It would occasionally dissipate for a few months but then return. I spent many lonely and joyless hours at the desk trying to finish pieces to no avail.
Back then, the image I had of not being able to write was of a swimmer in a bath tub. Specifically, I visualized myself turning a corner in a large and empty apartment with wood floors. (I once had a chic poetry teacher, equally visiting-assistant-professor-transient, who rented an enormous apartment--rents were cheap--but kept only one item, a typewriter on a table, in most rooms.)
I'd turn the corner to see the bathroom, its door half-open, to find a swimmer in a claw-foot bathtub. His (it was a male) muscular arm was frozen in the air above the tub in the position of a forward crawl, his head tilted outside the bathwater as though to breathe.
For some reason, I was holding an enormous piece of paisley like a feather duster because my intention apparently was to clean the bathroom. I could tell he was a serious swimmer, a real athlete, but somehow stuck in the bathtub.
Sometimes the water itself was frozen and set in stacks, each labeled with a tiny "h" or "c" for Hot and Cold, or rimmed in red or blue.
(Less frequently, I was the one sitting in a claw-foot bathtub, a giant taking a bath in the middle of the day. In the bath water were tug boats and parts of the city I was living near at the time--so, New Orleans at one point. A kimono with an attacking bird of prey on back was always hung on the bathroom door. I'd watch ducks and boats paddle around me.)
What I came to understand is that water is associated with the unconscious and that I was unable to function as a writer because I was afraid of what I would find in myself. In real life, I don't know how to swim very well--a fear of holding my breath and being under "water." I am afraid of being "submerged."
I had been trained--was a serious athlete--through my education but was unable to move because I was in the wrong context: a bathtub, not a swimming pool, poetry, not the openness of any-writing-that-arises. (Maybe I felt a bit like I could be like the Olympian mentioned below.)
He couldn't swim not only because he was confined to a bathtub (where the substance, water, does resemble what he would have found in his normal context of a pool, just too small an amount) but because the water itself was frozen, stacked, organized by "temperature." The passions were separated into two binaries, overly simplistic and neat.
The bathtub was claw-foot--not contemporary--not because I had a penchant for renting apartments in Victorians but because it's aggressive, slightly personified, capable of moving and taking my swimmer with it.
What did I eventually take away from this image of my writing block? The need to give myself more of the unconscious to move around in (so let myself write prose as well as poetry). The recognition that all sorts of feelings will be mixed up in that water. Patience with the fact that I was afraid and a resolve to proceed. The basic "physical" action of just moving, without judging the result. Treat all writing as freewriting, private writing, low-stakes writing until I feel joy in the work. Then decide whether I want to up the anty, show to others, send out for feedback or publication.
Just as words carry around conceptual metaphors (see June 2013 post), each of us carries around certain associations with writing difficulty.
When you contemplate the writing blocks or writing-related anxiety you have experienced, what image comes to mind? Freewrite. Describe it in detail; use your senses; provide a setting, if possible. Then unpack it: look at what you've written. Watching your breathing, see what arises. What could this image mean for you? See if you can write a piece--poetry, prose, just a paragraph--from your image. (Here's the poem--below--I wrote from my own image of block.)
From Control Bird Alt Delete (2013 Iowa Poetry Prize, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, 2014):
A Lake in the Hand
Swimming through the indents,and across the herringbone lake
the plane of handwriting and flourishes,
the lines of the palm, a flock of tabs
in the houndstooth sky above the lake,
I bump into a fancy signature
swimming in his lace collar and tweed coat
through the joys and concerns,
around the Rose and Thorn,
the jumps in time, gaps in knowledge
in the channels of the palm, before the school of tabs
hits the pilings, the concrete side of the dam
that is thinking about daytime television drama.
Let me say he is in a belletristic font
that he is making tremendous splashes while doing a forward crawl
and that some of the splashes look like words,
so that along with blue-rimmed pieces of water,
and red-rimmed pieces of water, a Pardon
me scoots forward, each wave a different color
in its wake
and I see that he is toweling off on the other shore.
A quill-like figure on a landscape of graphic design elements,
a city-state where the primary crop is cyclones
and pyramids. Whereas two score years ago, I saw
a swimmer in a claw-foot bath tub
as I was cleaning the house with my paisley.
His arm was raised like a branch
fallen on a river, the water stacked in the tub,
little “h”s on some pieces, blue rims on others,
holes to hook fingers in and transport others.
I knew he was an Olympian
swimming at the Y, a great M in a sentence
of blue and yellow tiles
and in this document of a new freedom
a Greek key pattern fills the lake,
w/ houses that are monuments along the shore,
a flock of typed X’s clatters in,
this last line with me on it like a ball
this last line zigzags
and fills the barn,
houndstooth spills into
the barn, where a small red duck paddles
innocently, in circles.