Creative Writing and the Psyche: Writer's Block and a Mentor

The threat of making art V: One writer's journey

Posted Sep 17, 2020

Writer’s block is a terrifying experience for a writer. A friend told me about M, a major American poet whose work I greatly admired—she took private students and was very supportive without sacrificing the rigors of art. She could teach you to find your own poems without soliciting clones to mimic hers. You could grow as a writer without being decimated emotionally. She liked my work and valued my subject matter. She accepted me as a student and became my life raft.

M challenged me. Rather than protecting me from the poem—she urged me towards it. When I went for safety, she probed further and pushed me to fly wilder. When I said I couldn’t, she insisted I must. She laughingly accused me of always trying to cover my bra straps in public. She insisted I let them show. When I revised weirdnesses of thought or language out of a poem, she insisted I put them back in.

My constant pull between acceptance and convention on the one hand and imagination and independence on the other were always at the center of our sessions. M gave me the courage to delve deeper and explore even darker terrains. I wrote poems filled with rage and celebration, poems about pain and illness, poems in which I railed against the Church, the nuns, of all things, God. I wrote poems that appalled me and poems that amazed me. But this time, I wasn’t alone with them. I had found a home and a parent/mentor: a godmother for my poems.

But still, I struggled. I started to study my own process and that of other writers. Most of my friends knew that they were gifted but were frustrated by the lack of appreciation that came from the literary community. I, on the other hand, was aware that even with M’s belief in me, and that of my poet friends, along with considerable success in several competitions, I was still full of shame when I viewed my own work. I did not know what was good about it, and I was plagued by envy. I wanted to write more like my friends—smart, intelligent, dense small poems—I continued to try to clean up the mess in each new one.

I continued to work with M, continued to discover, to write, to send work out, and to pray for approval. I suffered. I wanted to belong, but I knew that to belong I needed to value my own creation. My husband, again, at a crossroads, recognizing how deeply unhappy I was, encouraged me to find what it was about writing that made me happy. He was right once again; I had lost (or perhaps never really had) the sense of pleasure associated with writing, I went back into therapy but this time twice a week.

I began to zero in more intensively on voice—what it is, what inhibits it, what heightens it, what mutes it. I proposed a definition, proposed it as the single most independent and original aspect of the gift of art. I explored my own—what I approved of, what I disapproved of. I used what I was learning to teach other writers to explore their own.

Next Post: Creative Writing and the Psyche: Artistic Voice