MY WRITER’S BLOCK
by Kathryn Hellerstein
It depends how you define writer’s block, whether or not I am experiencing it at this very moment. At sunset yesterday, as I swam my laps, I thought through this essay and decided exactly how I would start, develop, and finish it in one sitting this morning. But now it is afternoon, and the wholeness of what I’d conceived is spotty and tattered. It’s raining outside, with a rumble of thunder. I’m sure that the pool is closed.
Yesterday, tracing the line at the bottom of the pool, my body inscribing it with the rhythm of strokes, kicks, and breaths, I thought that I would start out by telling that it’s been almost a year since my mother died, and that in that year, I have not written a single poem. I have had plenty to write about—the shock of her illness, the busy, sad, loving full-heartedness of accompanying her through her last weeks and days with my siblings, my grief at her last breath, the casket-choosing, the obituary, the funeral, the shiva, the move to Cambridge for the year with my husband, the trips to China and Russia, the returns home to work on emptying the house we all grew up in, the reciting of the Kaddish Friday evenings, Shabbes mornings and afternoons, Sunday and Monday mornings, and sometimes Thursdays, too, the learning to accept. I am a poet, and I could not write a poem. I guess you could say that this is a kind of writer’s block.
It’s not that I didn’t think up poems to write. They came to me, and I said them to myself before I fell asleep, when I woke with a jolt at 4:30 AM, when I swam, and when I read or took notes for a new project or revised my scholarly book. Sometimes I wrote in a journal, in the dimness of pre-dawn, without turning on the light. I haven’t yet read over what I wrote then. I don’t know if anything I put in my journal will become a poem someday. In order for that to happen, I will have to decipher what I scrawled in the dark, find something interesting, copy it out and then type it into the computer, all the while, reading and rereading it, changing, cutting, adding words and sentences until whatever it is begins to find a shape, a direction, a form. But I cannot read this journal yet.
Instead of writing poems, I have done other things that feel something like writing poems. I’ve taken many photographs with my cell phone camera and my very good little Canon. But I’ve printed out, posted, or emailed only a very few. These exotic or familiar landscapes, seascapes, cloudscapes, sightseeing wonders, portraits, candid shots of unwitting strangers or my own grown daughter and son, still-life snaps of furniture and rooms I will soon have to relinquish, are like the journal I’ve kept—private, unedited, and unseen. I painted four canvases in an adult ed. art class. I’ve written hundreds of email letters to friends and family—filled with observations, thoughts, memories, jokes, complaints, admonitions, sorrows, delights, and empathy for their lives, their losses, too. All this activity has engaged my eye, ear, and imagination. But none of it is the actual writing of poems.
At the start of graduate school years ago, a terrible writer’s block stopped me in my tracks. It took me hours to force out the words for each sentence in the essays that were overdue for my courses on Austen, Pound, Milton, Bellow, Chaucer. Teaching a freshman English class, though, I encountered a book that saved my life as a writer: Peter Elbow’s wise, practical directives in Writing without Teachers. As I recall it (and practice and teach it today), Elbow tells his readers to separate the editorial voice from the creative voice, in order to give the latter a chance. He urges the writer to write freely and without censorship or inhibition in a method he calls freewriting. Take a piece of paper and a pen. Start with a word, a phrase, or an image. Write for ten minutes without stopping. If you pause or draw a blank, repeat the last word you wrote until something else emerges from your pen. After ten minutes, stop. Read over what you’ve written. Find something there that you like. Start with that sentence or phrase and do another freewrite. Repeating this method, and then adding more structured sessions of editing and rewriting, you can get a good start on a critical essay, a short story, a poem, even a dissertation.
Two other things I learned in those years may help me start writing poems again. First, Malka Heifetz Tussman, a great Yiddish poet who took me on as her “pupil” and became a beloved friend and mentor, told me once that when a poem needed me, it would find me and tell me how to write it. Although poems have found me this year, they have not yet told me how to write them. I am not sure how long I should wait.
Second, I studied Yiddish with Malka (and also at YIVO’s intensive summer language program) in order to learn how to translate Yiddish poetry for my doctoral thesis, and discovered that the act of translation itself is a good tool for pushing through a writer’s block. Translating a poem or a story, you write into your language a work that another writer has completed in his or hers. The subject and form have long since been decided. Your job is to read, understand, and then work out how to say again what that first writer has expressed. In the process, you engage in the most intimate conversation about writing with a writer from another culture and time. No longer alone, you break through what is blocking you. You write.
Kathryn Hellerstein is associate professor of Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include translations of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, In New York: A Selection, and Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky, and an anthology—Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. Forthcoming from Stanford University Press are her monograph, A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish 1586-1987, and Women Yiddish Poets: An Anthology. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Poetry, Tikkun, Bridges, Kerem, Gastronomica, The Drunken Boat, and in anthologies—Without a Single Answer, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, Reading Ruth, and Common Wealth: Poets on Pennsylvania.
Image Credit: Leo Reynolds on Flickr