Until very recently, I was an unbeliever. I’m not talking about religion or magic or the supernatural – I’m talking about writers’ block. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said there was no such thing. I thought it was all a figment of the imagination.

Then it came for me.

In some ways, I stand by what I said: it is all in the mind. But: ‘Of course it’s all in your head. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.’ (Thanks, Dumbledore.)

The way I see it, there are two types of writers’ block, each with their own different cure.

TYPE ONE:

The Easy Type

I’ve met so many people who tell me they have trouble writing. When I ask them how often they write, the answer is often something along the lines of: ‘I’m not writing at the moment, I’m looking for inspiration.’

‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ – Pablo Picasso

Here’s the thing: writing is hard. You’re reaching into the mysterious parts of your soul, pulling out what you find and attempting to wrestle it onto a page. You’re pulling something fragile out into the open. Naturally, the body tries to put up defences.

‘The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.’ – William Goldman

Writing can be mentally and emotionally draining. It’s so much easier to check facebook, or binge watch a TV show, or do the dishes, or check our emails, or cook an elaborate dinner, or any of the other things we do to avoid actually sitting down and writing.

This procrastination can be a manifestation of many things: fear of getting it wrong; laziness; taking the easy road; an uncertainty about the work; embarrassment; worry about not living up to other people’s expectations…

For all of these, there’s one very simple cure:

Make the time to sit down and write.

An hour. Two hours. Three. It’s up to you, just as long as you go to your writing space and stay there. Don’t get up and dust the top of the kitchen cupboards. Don’t tweet. Leave the list of household chores somewhere where you can’t see it.

If nothing comes, write about how you can’t think of anything to write. Repeat this routine every day, or every couple of days, as often as you can. If you turn up to work, then eventually the inspiration will as well.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

TYPE TWO:

The Tricky Type

What makes Type One easy to cure is that the cure is physical. You get yourself into your writing space and something will eventually turn up. Type Two is so tricky because the cure isn’t physical. It’s a purely mental battle, and that’s much harder to fight.

This is the type of writers’ block I didn’t realise existed, until about a year ago. Because sometimes, it isn’t just laziness or a fear of creating the work that blocks us. Sometimes, there’s a much deeper problem.

I’m talking about things that go beyond the work itself. Big things. Things like grief for a loved one. Anxiety. Depression. A big upheaval. Some sort of earthquake that shakes the foundation of our lives.

Something like this isn’t always a block. Sometimes, it can draw the work out of us and turn the creativity into a therapeutic process. But often, this therapeutic creativity comes later. Initially, there’s a block.

This block can’t always be solved by just turning up to the writing station. Often, solving the root problem has to come first. There’s no easy way to do that. Anyone who has ever suffered from any form of mental health issue will know that it’s a complicated process – one that takes time and patience and a lot of self-acceptance – and that ‘solving’ is often a misnomer anyway.

And often, once the root problem is addressed, or at least accepted, the writing will start to flow again. Not always, but for me, this can help. (Of course, at this stage, you still need to turn up to the desk…)

Good luck, and happy writing!

About a month ago, I wrote a post about how not to perform at an open mic night. Today, I wanted to expand on that, and talk about how to behave in a workshop.

Now before I start, I want to say that I love writing workshops. I’m part of 4 separate writing groups who meet in person, I’m in a couple of online writing communities, and I have two friends who I submit writing to on a weekly basis. Feedback workshops were a big part of my Masters, and I’ve benefited from them on a few writing residentials, too. I also happen to run writing workshops myself.

And yet…

If you regularly attend writing workshops, then you’ll probably instantly be able to think of a few examples of people who’ve rubbed you up the wrong way. This is to be expected. You’re putting a group of individuals in a room together, and basically asking them to dissect each other’s babies. It’s not surprising that people can feel a little raw, and tempers can flare.

Still, it needn’t turn into Hunger Games-style armageddon, or some sort of Mean Girls back-stabbing exercise in passive aggression. It’s basically all about consideration for others.

Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer / poet, runs creative writing poetry workshops for young people and children in schools and colleges

HOW NOT TO TAKE PART IN A WRITING WORKSHOP:

  • Say, ‘Here’s what I think of this poem,’ and then rip the piece of paper into tiny shreds.
  • Bring along your best poem, which you have no intention of changing. After all, you’re not there to actually workshop your poem, are you? You’re there to impress everyone with what an amazing poet you are. And people will be so bowled over by the fact they can’t find a single criticism to make about your writing, they’ll instantly want you to be their best writer-friend.
  • Listen to everyone’s feedback, then say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not going change it because I’ve already published it.’
  • Bring along that 20-page poem that’s been sitting in your desk drawer (unless you absolutely know that this is the kind of workshop that accepts longer pieces).
  • Use the phrase: ‘This poem’s shit.’
  • Aggressively defend your poem. Someone has taken the time to give you their considered opinion, so surely it’s only right that you batter them back down over it until they see it your way.
  • On the flip side: aggressively attack someone else’s poem. Sure, it’s their poem, but if they don’t agree with a piece of your advice, then you should keep repeating it (getting louder each time) until they do agree.
  • Take a phone call in the middle of the workshop.
  • While someone else is trying to make a point, have your own conversation – especially if that conversation is about how bad the poem is.
  • If it’s the kind of workshop with writing exercises, wait till the end to tell the workshop leader that you hate writing exercises because you find them prescriptive, and therefore haven’t written anything all workshop.
  • Tell everyone that you don’t really like workshopping your poems, because you don’t trust other people to understand them.

Got any more workshop horror stories? I’d love to hear them! Comments below….

I started going to open mic nights regularly when I was 18 and at university. Every week or two, I would catch the train into London and read at Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. It was a friendly and encouraging introduction to the open mic scene, and I became more confident performing my work to a bunch of strangers.

Since then, I’ve lost count of how many open mic nights I’ve been to. I’ve read in open mics at festivals, in bars, and in cafes, across two continents. I even run one every month at Penrith Old Fire Station.

Most of the time open mics are enjoyable and a fun way to spend an evening. But now and then, things happen. The balance tips, and writers start behaving badly. Sometimes, it’s a subtle thing that some of the audience may not even notice. Sometimes it’s so obvious it becomes a talking point for numerous open mic nights to come – a kind of writerly water cooler moment.

Guerrilla Poetry at Deptford Lounge

All of the following are based on real encounters at real open mic nights over the years:

HOW NOT TO READ AT AN OPEN MIC NIGHT:

  • Go over your time. Everyone has been asked to stick to 3 minutes, or 2 poems, and everyone obediently does. Not you though – you sneak an extra poem in there, and double your time. Nobody will mind, right? Not when your stuff is ‘so much better’ than everybody else’s?
  • Read an epic. It’s your pride and joy and took you years to complete – surely that means everyone else should sit politely through all 17 pages of it?
  • Stand up, announce that you’ve only ever written one poem but would like to take this opportunity to share it – then proceed to do so for the next 45 minutes.
  • Scroll through your phone and catch up on social media while other people are reading.
  • Have a chat in the middle of someone else’s set.
  • Leave as soon as you’ve read your poem.
  • Put your name down to perform, then leave without telling anybody before your set.
  • Keep your phone on loud. If you get a phone call in the middle of someone’s set, well that’s ok – your social life is much more important than their poem.
  • When that phone you forgot to put on silent does ring out: answer it, then have a conversation about how you can’t talk now, because you’re at an open mic night.
  • Heckle (unless you’re 100% sure that it’s the kind of night that allows this, and that the performer expects this). You think the performer is an ‘arrogant sod’? Well, why not shout out and tell him so in the middle of his next poem?
  • Film the performers without asking them first – especially if you’re not the organiser.
  • Use the last bit of your set to plug your own open mic night, which is ‘better than this one’.
  • Go to the bar in the middle of someone’s reading, especially if the bar is on the other side of the performance space, and you have to physically move the performer half way through their poem, in order to get past.

And that’s about it! Any other open mic horror stories to share? I’d love to hear them – share in the comments.

~ dates & details of Word Mess open mic night in Penrith, Cumbria ~