Give Yourself a Break

You should never use feeling uninspired as an excuse for not writing. That said, there are times you should do exactly that. As an artist, breaks are necessary for gaining new perspectives, new ideas, or the distance you need in order to have an insight on whatever is blocking you. A walk on the beach can solve the problem that sitting at your desk couldn’t. Taking a swim, a hot bath, or going to the coffee shop for a pumpkin spice latte is as necessary to the artist as actually putting your butt in your chair. Only by getting away from your work will you hear that little voice whispering into your ear, or see an image that triggers your imagination or hear that one line from that one song that makes you recall the perfect childhood memory you need to wind up the piece and go home.

It doesn’t always have to be a pleasant activity either. Sometimes root canal is a good option. Lying back in the dentist’s chair, the metallic white light shining on your face, and a stranger’s hands working secretively in the back of your mouth, releasing a chemical odor of antiseptic – this could be the ideal time to reflect on your next project. A few months ago I was working on a poem called “Disorient” when I had to stop mid-way through to have a crown put on a tooth I had cracked from too much nighttime jaw clenching. There I was in the dentist’s chair, feeling the drool smear down my chin, smelling that wonderful smell of my own bones being drilled into, clenching my fingers around my fuchsia colored jumper from Target, when my mind flashed on the etymology of the word “disorient.” Disorient literally means to turn away from the East.

Outside the window, the world looked very much like “The East.” My dentist is in Los Angeles, and the view from his office reminded me of the ancient cities of Babylon – the palm trees thickening over the skyline like little Egyptian fans, the squat houses below painted that miraculous color of sand and ancient enthusiasm for life. I wanted a river to flow through the scene, and a few anachronistic slaves working on a monument in the shape of a cat. I was thinking about “The East” and what would happen if I turned from it forever. The sun would be at my back. I would never see it rise again, only set. And then, there were the biblical implications. Maybe I would be turning from God himself, or just from Jesus. Do the Eastern religions have a special connection to “The East?”  Maybe if I traveled east far enough, I would walk myself into Buddhism, or Daoism, or the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, if I kept going I would only come back again from another angle and see the sun from behind its back and I would know all the things about the Earth I never would have discovered if I had stayed in Culver City.

All of this was much nicer to think about than the crack in my tooth the dentist was filling in. When I arrived home three hours later with a half-pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I sat down at my laptop to write a poem about what it would mean to turn from The East. All of the earlier ideas made a frothy mixture of images, and sensations, stirred by that afternoon I spent with my head at odd angles and my mouth pried open.

Anything is fodder for your writing. Nothing wasted; not experience, nor misery, nor joy, nor even time itself. Even when you think you are wasting time, you are really just allowing the mind to stretch beyond its comfort zone of distraction, like a child set free, or a small ant that gets separated from the herd. That may, in fact, be the crux of the creative experience. When you are feeling stuck or uninspired, don’t give up, but do get up. Get moving. Ignore the schedule, or better yet, schedule in some creative time off and go do something else, until it leads you to the missing piece you’ve been trying to find, until it leads you back to where you really belong.

Incidentally, Disorient and two of my other poems were picked up by Still: The Journal. Click on the link provided, and go take a look at what an expensive trip to the dentists can do for you.

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