Often, our questions are to discover meaning. We are hungry to understand the meaning of life. When we hit a wall in writing, when we get stuck, I think it is because we’ve stopped asking those questions. For one excuse or another (apathy, busyness, fear of the answers) we have bottled up curiosity and slapped on the cover – smack! And then we set out with determination to finish our writing projects... but to no avail.
In my favorite speech given by William Faulkner, called Poetry and the Human Spirit (1950), Faulkner laments on the tragedy of much contemporary writing, the kind of writing that rides the surface level, tossing over ideas while committing to nothing. This kind of writing gets easy laughs and provides quick entertainment. But it rambles on into boring relativism that denies anything worth living for and fighting for. According to Faulkner:
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear…There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
Therefore, Faulkner summons his fellow writers to pursue the truths that give meaning to the human experience. He urges them to write about those qualities and struggles that make us most human: the capacity for courage, sacrifice, hope and honor, responsibility and compassion, reminding man and woman of their call to greatness and the glory they have to pass on to future generations.
“He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion… Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man” (Faulkner).
Faulkner is saying that such relativism signals the end of man's great age. It is our responsibility and our joy as writers to put an end to such empty words and to remind others through writing that man and woman are called to greatness!
John Paul II spoke in the same vein as Faulkner when he reminded the youth and the world, "Do not be afraid!" and taught that each person has a noble purpose and is called to heroic greatness. His saintly example showed us this and his courage, compassion and boldness in witnessing to Christ's love amidst the horrors of Nazism and a church in crisis are an example to us of someone Faulkner would have said refused to accept “the end of man."
What about us? Why do you write? What are the conflicts within your own heart right now? Often I think working writers, I especially, find ourselves knocking our heads against a wall and unable to find the words because we are stomping around in shallow puddles of already hopelessly lost battles. We mull around our thoughts and stir around words on a page until we are bored to death, meanwhile, forgetting that there is an ocean so much bigger, deeper and beautiful into which we might plunge ourselves for inspiration! Certainly, not all writing is the medium for fictional escapades of glorious adventures had by valiant heroes, but even in modern communications and blogging, the writer must make time for exploring those “old verities and truths of the heart,” that which is “worth the agony and the sweat.”
We must learn how to breathe again deeply of truth and meaning, not shallowly in lust and relativism as the world would have us do. Plunging ourselves into the vast ocean of truth, and swimming around for as long as we can, shall have us coming up gasping for air. And in that baptism, our lungs will be stretched open and wide, able to fill up deeply and able to breathe it out. Then the writing will flow. Then the words will gurgle forth like a fountain bubbling over and giving life to others.
Here is my three-fold panacea that helps cure me of my writing ills when I find the words have dried up.
1. When the words dry up…allow your mind the space and freedom to be curious, to have some quiet moments of reflection and to question. The second part of that is to open our ears and listen to the answers that come. “The imagination needs time to browse,” wrote Thomas Merton. Take time to be curious.
2. When the words dry up…maybe we have stopped reading. Reading, whether you like classic literature, magazine articles, blogs, or self-help books, nourishes the mind with words and images and stimulates our intellect. I find that the words come out easily when I am soaking them in. What have you read lately?
3. When the words dry up…write anyway. Sit down and write the first words that come to mind, and then keep going; don’t stop until you feel the flow again. Even if we just open up a window with freewriting, we'll have let in a breeze enough to stir up the dust and make our thoughts shine lustrously again.
What do you do when you hit a writing wall?