I learned to embrace all the feelings that come along with so-called writer’s block and include them in the writing process
Some time in 2012, I admitted to myself I was in a writing rut. Since receiving my MFA in poetry in 2007, I had continued writing in spurts with mixed results. There are probably a handful of poems from that five-year period that I think are any good. I struggled during that time to put together a first-book poetry manuscript, which is what you’re supposed to do after you receive an MFA in poetry. But the book didn’t come together easily. It was a mix of poems I’m genuinely proud of that I wrote during the MFA and some newer ones that didn’t necessarily fit, and weren’t necessarily great. (I still struggle with that manuscript to this day, but I’m slowly acknowledging that I might have to let it go.)
Nevertheless, in 2012 I began to realize that something in my writing process had to change. Writing did not come easily to me; I was uninspired. My husband was an empathetic witness to my constant frustration with writing. He would try different tricks to help A writ of divorce. Traditionally, only a man can grant his wife a get. Liberal Jews have amended this tradition, making divorce more egalitarian. me back into my writing groove, including buying me an old typewriter (which did help in shaking up the process) and challenging me to silly writing competitions. He also managed to find the book that was exactly what I needed: Writing from the Inside Out, by Dennis Palumbo. One of the most poignant lessons I learned from the book was to embrace all the feelings that come along with so-called writer’s block and include them in the writing process. This was a revelation to me. First, it acknowledged that it was okay to feel all of the difficult feelings related to my writing process, and second, it encouraged me not to push those feelings aside but to use them.
At the time I had also begun a regular meditation practice, and the lessons from meditation easily dovetailed with Palumbo’s argument. In meditation, I try not to push away thoughts or feelings that arise, but accept and notice them as part of my experience in the present moment, regardless of their content, of whether they are “good” or “bad” feelings. Over time, this approach has helped me have a less fraught relationship with my creative process. And in fact, since late 2012, I have gotten back into the groove, finding a new and exciting direction in my poetry that has yielded a whole other manuscript of poems (which I like much better than that first manuscript!).
The central theme of Passover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc)., of liberation from a narrow place (Lit. Egypt. Because the Hebrew word for narrow is tzar, Mitzrayim is also understood as "narrowness," as in, the narrow and confining places in life from which one emerges physically and spiritually.), started to feel like the perfect metaphor for my experience with writer’s block. Hasidic teachings on Passover emphasize that we all experience a personal Mitzrayim, place of constriction, from which we must be liberated (self-doubt and a fragile or inflated ego are big ones for writers!). One teaching argues that going down to Mitzrayim is a requirement for spiritual uplift: “Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, in Meor einayim on Exodus, remarked that ‘when a man is standing upon a roof and a precious stone lies on the ground, he is unable to take it unless he goes down to its place.'” He connects this to Mitzrayim, the narrow place, to which the Israelites had to descend in order to lift up the “Holy Letters of The Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. … which had fallen into exile among the lower shells of being, equated with Mitzrayim” (Aryeh Wineman, The Hasidic Parable, p. 134). In order to lift up my own “Holy Letters,” I must experience the pain and constriction that often comes with the writing process. Only then can I find freedom in my writing and be creatively reborn.
How have you experienced elements of writer’s block as a personal Mitzrayim? In what ways have you found freedom in the creative process? Please share in the comments or tweet us!
Inspired by the confluence of the Passover journey to freedom and the possibilities of working in a new way with writer’s block, I created a writing workshop called “From Narrow Place to Freedom: A Passover Workshop on Writer’s Block.” The workshop will take place Sunday, March 29th, at the Red Sofa Salon in West Philadelphia. We will use Jewish texts, meditation techniques, and writing exercises to transform our relationship to writer’s block. To sign up, please click here. Space is limited to 12 participants, and light snacks will be served.