The Arrogance of Trying to Guide What One Writes

I think I just always have writer’s block, really, and you have to just work.
–James Mercer of the Shins, KEXP Interview, (12:18)

Back in the days when the word co-dependent found its way into everyday conversation and our chief concerns were acid rain and killer bees, there were ongoing murmurings of writer’s block. It was a figure not unlike death—a mysterious, imposing being that could happen upon a writer or writer-hopeful at any moment and cut the tenuous filaments that connected her simultaneously to the earth and air.

I heard rumors of writers I admired who had gone five years (it was always five) without writing. It seemed a sentence worse than writing ones made of concrete blocks.

Then the gospel of William Stafford spread: “There is no such thing as writer’s block for writers whose standards are low enough.

And we all continued writing playful, open-to-the-elements, who-know-whats.

Then some of us tried to guide these who-knows-whats into themes, books, make them useful. Weren’t they supposed to gain us notoriety, publications, advances, better jobs, pennies, something?

I’ve tried to write a novel. For several years now. I’ve tried to write whole bodies of poetry on a common theme and never get more than one or two or three on each theme I slip into.

In the year before graduate school and during my two MFA stints (one I didn’t finish, one I did), I didn’t have writer’s block. I had writing times that I kept and I wrote whatever came to mind. I didn’t have any expectations. But then again, I did. I had the expectation that whatever drivel I was writing was valuable, that it was a process of discovering complex and creative thinking, that some of it would be revisable into pieces that could be shared with others as offerings of artful communication.

I like what James Mercer says about writer’s block and always having it and approaching writing as work. I also like Stafford’s assurance that lowering standards doesn’t have to be a bad thing—in fact, it can be what allows work to be done. And I am intrigued by what Tess Gallagher says about her approach to writing:

You have to really work most of the time and just hope that something will come. The expectation helps. If you sit down and you don’t expect anything, you might not get too much. I know that’s away from what William Stafford said—to have low expectations, but I am of an opposite view. I think something wonderful is going to come and I’m going to put pressure there. I’m going to ask for that something special to come. (pp. 88-89)

These days I’m finding that, in addition to meditating, the best thing I can do is to see writing as a playful act, the process more important than what may come of it. I can’t sit down to write “a novel” or a book of poems on a “particular topic.” The process for me is delicate, requiring me to expect nothing, really, except that something will come.


  • Nicole says:

    Thanks for this post, Shira. I needed to read it. :)

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I know what you mean. Sometimes it seems like the work itself is all there is — just doing the work, trusting that something will come of it, a leap of faith. Some days are good and some days aren’t as good, but the work is always there, and doing the work, doing the writing, fulfills the work’s requirement for the day. And then you do it again the next day.

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    If I allow my expectations to get too low, I don’t take it seriously enough, and then I just stop because it feels pointless. Though these days I’m just happy when I can put a few days together where I actually work for an hour or more.
    Norman Mailer, in “The Spooky Art,” described writing as an agreement you make with your unconscious mind, that committing to write is making an appointment with that part of you, and if you don’t follow through, it will stop showing up. Which sounds pretty accurate to me.

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