Tag Archives: Ragdale Foundation

Breaking through Writer’s Block: Crayola or the Loo?

Reading in the New York Times Magazine how Burt Bacharach breaks through his writer’s block got me thinking about how I dealt with this affliction some years ago. I was working on a novel at a three-week residency at the Ragdale Foundation and was positively stuck, paralyzed, idea-less. In a word, blocked. Fellow writers, I am sure you know the feeling. Blank page, paralyzed mind, inert fingers loathe to reach for pen or the keyboard. There I was gifted with a glorious block of time and nothing was flowing. Except anxiety.

Every morning I would awaken and it seemed so simple: lift my hands from my lap; move them a measly inch from the desk to my keyboard. But that one-inch distance felt like leaping across mile-high chasm. What was I going to do? Returning home with the same number of pages I arrived with was out of the question. How could I break through the paralysis?

Then I thought of what the yoga teachers always reminded us in class—yoga really begins when you take it off the mat. The postures we practice on the mat are just that—practice for the real world. So I thought, what if I drew a picture of myself leaping across that mile high one inch gap? Would drawing myself in action, conquering that impossible-to-traverse space with paper and colored pencils help me pattern it for the real world? Worth a try.

The next morning before I got out of bed, brushed my teeth or performed any other morning ablutions, I grabbed my colored pencils and drawing pad and set to work. I drew the mile-high cliffs. I divided them by a one-inch gap and placed the to-be-written novel on one side of the cliff. Then I set to work sketching myself leaping across the divide. Michelangelo I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Somehow, drawing myself achieving on paper what I hadn’t been able to manage in my waking life, worked. Drawing on the non-linear, wordless part of my brain patterned for me what I dearly wanted and needed to do. Bingo! When I was done, I got out of bed, brushed my teeth etc, had breakfast and set to work. The words began to flow like water.

That first drawing, which I ended up titling 1″ Abyss, set the pattern for the rest of my stay. I began each morning still hazy with sleep, not totally conscious, yet drawing whatever part of the novel I wanted to accomplish that day. And although the (completed) novel never made it past a few agents’ initial request for review, I learned a lot in the process: I’d rather write non-fiction than fiction; I wasn’t really interested in doing the work that it would have taken to perfect the novel; it’s OK to let go of a project, even one 400+ pages and two life-years long. But the most important thing I learned was how to trick that old writer’s block into submission. I prefer my way to Burt’s. To each his own. But maybe I should send him a set of colored pencils?

And … the Loo?

From the NY Times Magazine section on How to Break Through a Creative Block by Burt Bachrach: When I’m stuck with musicians in the studio and don’t know what’s wrong, I will break and go into a stall in the men’s room. I will sit on the toilet seat. Nobody talks to me there and I get no advice from any musician. I work it through in my head and four out of four times, I come out a winner. (As told to Spencer Bailey.)

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Silence is Golden

During a stay at the Ragdale Foundation a few years back, one of the residents kept a weekly day of silence. From the moment she awoke until the moment she went to sleep, she didn’t speak. Not a word. She carried a pad and pencil in case something crucial needed communicating, but other than that she merely nodded, and was a silent, though involved, presence at dinner as the rest of us talked shop.  It intrigued me no end. What would it be like not to talk for an entire day? Could I manage it?

Not infrequently, I retreat into silence at the end of yoga class when the students chant Om, shifting from participant to active listener. It’s a gift I give myself to relax, to step back and enjoy the sounds of so many different voices blending together and washing over me. Sometimes a peevish little voice within chastises, “Well if everyone stayed silent, what then?” What then, indeed.  I suppose we’d all just enjoy a few moments of shared silence.

One of my teachers goes on silent retreats every now and then, sometimes for a weekend, sometimes for an entire week.  She said that the weeklong retreat was quite upsetting for the first day or so. Then she settled into the experience and began to enjoy this different state of being. Silent orders are not unknown in the Christian world, but it’s never been an institutionalized goal in Jewish life. Can you imagine a group of Jews coming together for a weekend and not saying a word to each other? Like what’s the point? Makes me giggle just to imagine it.

But Judaism does weigh in on the benefit of silence. Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) has a teaching: I have been raised among the wise and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. Interesting that silence is good for the body.  I would have thought soul; another commentator explains, In matters which concern the soul, such as learning Torah (Bible) and praying, speech is very beneficial.  So how does silence benefit the body?

I hadn’t planned on getting so philosophical when I began, but I’ll take a stab at it. We are so busy walking and talking, shopping and talking, eating and talking. And in my case, sleeping and talking as well. Perhaps silence is good for the body because it offers us an opportunity to acknowledge this miraculous creation for what it truly is. Perhaps in silence we  remember how incredible our bodies are, going about their business silently (most of the time) distributing blood, oxygen, nourishment, carrying away garbage, fighting disease, transmitting instantaneous electrical impulses from one end to the other. Yes, there are times, way too many times it is beginning to seem, that these internal communications break down. Maybe silence is simply good for the body because in silence a usually active part of us is at rest.

As for a day of silence. I just might give it a whirl. I’ll tell you all about it.