Hearing Voices: Breaking Writer’s Block through Radical Listening by Matt Trease

Posted Tue, 1/21/2020 - 8:58am by  |  Category: , , ,

In the many years since I decided to become a writer and teacher, I’ve heard numerous students, and even established writers, bemoan what they call writer’s block with some variation of the lament “I just don’t feel I have anything to say.” 

Given that most creative writing textbooks put so much emphasis on writing as an individual expression of genius, or wisdom, or cleverness, this is not surprising. In the West, we so often valorize the individual, unique and “active” voice that can be branded and sold, and we downplay humility, collaboration, and listening, as “passive,” lazy, and unoriginal. 

However, we could learn from ancient cultures and traditions in which writing is more often communal, and akin to listening. The writer is more scribe, channel, or medium for the goddesses, the ghosts, nature, etc. to speak. This can be a very freeing approach to writing, since it allows one to not have to be so in control, and you can often find things that surprise you in the course of writing. 

In this sense, writer’s block isn’t a block at all, but more the mind becoming aware of a need for growth, for taking something in, finding something bigger, allowing the universe to become more than we thought it could be. 

It may surprise some people that doing this doesn’t require any sense of “craft” or “mastery” of technique. You don’t need years of practice. This is why the Surrealists were so interested in the creative and psychological potential children’s games—the rules are simple and relatively easy to follow, if you allow yourself to, but can be so joyful and playful, and liberating. 

In fact, you don’t even have to do these things alone; it could be a fun dinner party. 

Grab a dictionary, find a random word, and have everyone make up definitions. Or hand everyone a sheet of paper, ask them to write a phrase or short sentence or fragment that pops in their head, fold the sheet to hide the line and pass it to the right. Repeat until the paper is full. There’s no end to fun and strangeness to be had. 

If you prefer to work alone, try these exercises, which I picked up from Ted Berrigan’s book The Sonnets and have slightly modified:

1. Grab six random books from your shelf or that you have laying around you.

Turn to page 52 (or some number of your own choosing). On a sheet of paper (one for each book), list as many phrases, sentences, or fragments that grab your attention. Once you’ve got a good list for each book, stack the sheets in front of you.

Go through them in order, and copy one line from each. When you get to the end, go through the sheets in reverse order. When you’re done with that, see if any of the unused lines still resonate with you, and put two down as your closing lines. Voila! You have a sonnet!

Do this once, you may have something that strikes you as weird and jibberishy. That happens. Just try it again, focus on phrases that have good sound, whether or not they makes sense at first. Or, try mixing up the source material. Instead of just books, use song lyrics, or your journal, or your Facebook feed. 

2. Or, just grab an old poem and copy it down, skipping every even line.

When you get to the end, copy all those unused lines in reverse order. This will jumble up the poem to end on your second line, which often is one of the strongest lines in a draft of a poem. 

If the syntax is too jarring for you, feel free to cut the original lines in different places (note: if you struggle with line breaks, this exercise will hone your sense of what a line is and how it works). 

3. If you want more spontaneity in your writing, try setting a series of timers for times in the near future. (It’s best to avoid times when you know you’ll be busy.)

When the timer goes off, stop what you’re doing and compose a 5–6 line poem from the language around you—posters, street signs, overheard voices, music on the radio, etc.

There’s an endless number of possibilities to avoid writer’s block. You don’t have to have something clever or earth-shattering to say. We swim in so much language these days—if you just take time to stop and listen, you can hear the most surprising and uncanny things.      

Interested in learning more? Join me for Writing Intuitively: Poet as Radio, starting Wednesday, February 5.

Matt Trease is an artist and astrologer. He serves on the board of the Seattle Poetics Lab and co-curates the MarginShift reading series. Poems are in PhoebeFact-SimileHotel AmerikaJuked, and the anthology, Make-It-True Meets Medusario (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2019).