Breaking the drought (or the power of exercise)

Writing in Cairo

Writing in Cairo

Yesterday, I wrote my first poems since September.  Four months.  For me, that was a pretty long dry spell.  I won’t lie. The poems weren’t great.  In fact, one probably won’t survive 24 hours.  But I ground something out and woke up this morning feeling good.  Good. Really? Come on – be a writer!  I woke up feeling virtuous and like I’m back on track, full of purpose and drive.   I was actually excited to sit down at the keyboard this morning.

Most writers will be familiar with the underlying panic and shame that accompanies experiencing and openly admitting to writer’s block.  The knowledge that non-writers in your life will immediately assume you’ve been sitting on the couch drinking wine and watching Adventure Time means most of us suffer in silence.  The truth is that we work around it.  I write reviews and try to wrangle some short fiction onto the blank screen.  I become an administration savant, researching publishing opportunities and spamming poems, stories and manuscripts to journals and publishers across the globe.  In desperation, sometimes I even attempt to finish my PhD.

And here’s my other shameful confession.  I use writing exercises.  Now clearly this wasn’t the case recently, since four months without a poem would never have come to pass if I’d whipped out the emergency exercise list.  But during those months I’d spent five weeks in New Zealand and a week in Sydney on holidays and in the pre-holiday months I’d been hurriedly cranking out enough dissertation words to keep my supervisor from revealing my Adventure Time addiction to the University hierarchy.

Now that we have the excuses out of the way, I can go on to say that usually when I’m blocked I use writing exercises. I love them.  To other writers this may seem as disgraceful as admitting I read Barbara Taylor Bradford or Dan Brown (please believe me – I don’t – that was just an example).  Because to use poetry writing exercises means that there is absolutely no muse involved.  In fact, my muse may very well have a worse drinking problem than I do because she’s pretty much hung over and cranky whenever I sit down to write.  If I had to rely on pure, untrammelled inspiration to write poetry I’d still be working on  writing my first collection.

Some of my most successful poems have been the result of writing exercises and I put that down to the surprisingly rich benefits of limitation. In this westernised, libertarian, capitalist world where individual freedoms are considered paramount it is no surprise that free verse is the best loved and most widely practised form of poetry. Don’t get me wrong.  The vast majority of the poems that I write are in free verse and let’s not get me started on rhyming.

However, a couple of years ago I was at a writing retreat at Varuna in the Blue Mountains. It is the most gorgeous place, full of books, writers and silence and I’d won a fellowship to write poetry there for three weeks.  Two days in and I had not written a thing. I was completely stuck.  And morose about being stuck, which, of course, is the very best way to remain there.  I sat there idly googling, listening to the sounds of birds and the faint but manic tapping of the speculative fiction writer in the next room churning out her goddamn gazillion words a day, when it occurred to me that I had a choice.  I could sit there and waste the gift of these three weeks by waiting for inspiration to zap down and electrify me.  Or I could actually use the time and make myself write.

Varuna, The Writers' House Katoomba NSW

Varuna, The Writers’ House
Katoomba NSW

This sounds very obvious, but I had a poet friend whom I greatly respected, who was adamant on the topic of inspiration.  She would only write when she felt the words arrive unbidden.  When faced with opportunities such as themed competitions or submissions she would only enter if she happened to already have something that fit the bill.  She claimed to have tried to write on demand and the work always came out stilted and awkward.  At that stage, being a far less experienced writer and poet, I took her words as gospel.  Real poets use inspiration – isn’t that what the concept of the muse is all about?  I fell for it hook, line and sinker – feeling like I was suddenly in the camp of the great Romantic poets.  I’m surprised I didn’t buy myself a frickin beret.

So there I was at the end of day two at Varuna, forced to pull out old poems for the nightly readings since I had absolutely nothing fresh on the page.  Day three dawned and I sat down at the keyboard.  It was do or die for my muse. I’d given her the ultimatum the previous night after slinking off to bed still inwardly red-faced after passing off old work as new Varuna-inspired goodness.


So, I accomplished one of my very first manually-driven paradigm shifts.  I dredged some poetry writing exercises out of the hard-drive that my supervisor had given me earlier in the year, scrolled down until one caught my eye and made that my task for the morning.  Three hours later I had a poem that would later be accepted by Meanjin, making it my most successful poem to date.

The key is, I believe, that exercises limit you and this limitation forces you away from your normal modes of thought and composition.  It gives you another set of objectives to work towards and the end result is frequently a far more imaginative, deep and often quirkier version of your regular style.  You may not feel as free while you are working on it and your head may ache for a while after, but that’s what Panadol is for people!  I’d much rather end up with the double benefit of having a poem on your page and being free of those feelings of inadequacy that accompany writers’ block than still be sitting there, headache-free, but waiting for inspiration.

I was an immediate convert.  And while not quite as annoying as a born again non-smoker I certainly jump up on my soap-box and proselytise when the occasion presents itself.   I use exercises all the time.  This doesn’t mean that inspiration has completely deserted me.   The muse still zaps me occasionally just to remind me she’s still around. But I don’t rely on her.  If I’ve shown up at the desk and she’s still in bed moaning for a Berocca then I just get on with it.  Time’s too precious and I can hone my craft and churn out work without input from higher powers needing to be involved.

In my case, that old earthy adage is certainly true – exercise is good for you.

Better late than never My "new" diary

Better late than never
My “new” diary

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