Sage Advice for Avoiding Writer's Block: An Interview with Jack Ridl

1. Do you, like so many other poets and writers, ever suffer from writer's block?

Nope. I've never had writer's block. I certainly have a million doubts and insecurities and wonder all the time if any poem I write is worthwhile.

2. Well then why don't your doubts, etc., cause you to have a block?

Oh, because I never doubt that the doing of the writing is worthwhile. It always is. It always brings me something interesting or puts me in touch with what matters or makes me laugh or well, lots of other things. I always started my classes by saying, "Not all poems are worth reading, but all can be worth writing." I always wanted my students to discover what writing can bring that nothing else can.

3. What advice do you have for young writers who struggle with this mental block?

I'll paraphrase William Stafford here and say "Lower your standards." More often than not, or maybe all the time, the reason for the block is that the person is trying to reach some standard rather than being loyal to the process and a subject of value. Writing is a matter of trust--trusting that the language will bring and reveal subjects and insights and complexities and riches and realizations.

4. That's pretty heavy. Do you have any ways that you suggested to students to tease them or trick them out of being blocked?

Yep, especially some silly ones. I've told them to wear a hat. Or to wear some very stifling clothes. Make themselves uncomfortable. They usually try to get all comfortable when they write. You know, get into sweats, make some tea, put on music, light candles, whatever. I say go the opposite of that. Also, write a persona poem. Be a dog or a tree or a cloud or a little kid or a panic attack. I've suggested they draw for a while or just doodle. I told one student to stop being so profound and instead just go be interesting. Whatever that means. She was so thrown by that that she started thinking about the word "interesting" and suddenly things all around here were in fact interesting; she couldn't deny it. Write OUT FROM what you care about. Be silly. Write nonsense. Take a so-called great poem and wreck it. Let's see. What else? Hmmmmm.

5. Do students ever think that is pretty goofy advice?

Sure. It often takes a while to learn the importance and wisdom of "goofy."

4. Do you use any strategies or methods to help your writing flow? If so what are they?

It's crucial not to "think about" stuff when you write. Thinking of that type should happen prior to entering the wonderful process of writing. For example, if I'm playing golf and in the middle of my back swing I start thinking about the middle of my back swing, I'm going to stop and then start up again and the odds are pretty good that I'll miss the ball itself. I remember when playing tennis, thinking that if I mentioned to my opponent, "You DO know about thumb placement, don't you," prior to the match, I'd have a better chance at winning. By the way, I was raised to be too much of a sportsmanship guy to do that! : ) Or think about skiing. The thinking of that type has to happen during learning and reflecting etc. Writing a poem comes out from someplace else. The writer Gary Gildner has a sign over his computer that says, "Don't get thinky!" : ) I don't want to confuse anyone about this. I'm not saying, "Don't be reflective" or "Don't think ever," etc. I'm saying that this is a different kind of thinking than the usual type. Whew, it's hard to explain this.

5. Yes, I'm not sure about this. I mean, how does one not think?

Yeah, you're right. Well, this is a different kind of "think." This is thinking in compassion. The root of that word is "with" meaning with passion, and this kind of passion goes back to when the word more often meant feeling with another. This is the kind of thinking that kind of Tai Chi "evades" words like "about" and "describe." Those words always paralyzed me. I mean how do you "write about" your daughter? How in the world could I ever "describe" my daughter? I would never assume I could do that. What one does then, what I do is place, say my daughter in my imagination, see her and then write, letting my dwelling on her bring, well bring what comes. The other day a former student who has just become a new mom said that she is having such a hard time writing about her daughter. Of course she was. She asked me what to do. I suggested she simply let her daughter lead her to whatever she writes. In that way, in an even more profoundly intimate way she will be writing about her daughter. If she writes about the sun on the glass jar on the kitchen sink while thinking of her daughter, I would gently argue that she IS writing about her daughter. Her holding her daughter in her heart and mind and soul and imagination led her to see like her daughter--the wonder of the everyday, in this case the light on the glass jar.


6. Yeah. Whew! How often do you find yourself staring blankly at a pAge and find no inspiration?

Never. I don't depend ever on inspiration. I believe in responding. And it's impossible for a human being to look at anything without the inner self responding. I don't mean evaluating. I mean responding from within. One can look at a coffee cup and start responding in terms of how one's grandfather loved to go fishing.

7. But couldn't you call that inspiration?

Oh my yes. I would love it if that was what was usually meant by inspiration. I like the word when it's attached to its ancient idea, that of breath, of breath bringing everything alive. I think when we confine inspiration to only certain things or experiences or people or moments we are in a sense committing idolatry. All of creation is "in-spired." We, I think, desperately have to get away from evaluative thinking when it comes to those things for which an evaluation is not only demeaning and disrespectful, but also destructive. It creates a hierarchy that says only number one is great. Everything else is a loser. It turns the arts and the whole wonder of the world into an NCAA tournament. I love basketball. But I don't care about who is and isn't any good at it. The kid playing hoops in his driveway, pretending he's going one on one with LeBron is inspiring.

8. But don't you think that just leads to mediocrity?

I have no idea what that word means. I mean it. I hear it all the time. And I really don't know what it means. And I don't know what excellence means either. Well, what I guess I mean is that I don't see an automatic link between excellence and value. Again, that little kid shooting hoops on the driveway. That may be much more valuable than hoisting the trophy for the NCAA basketball championship.

9. Anything else you want to add?

My brain needs a nap. And after this is published I'll probably start doubting everything I've said here. As my tradition says, "Let's just offer this up."

Works by Jack Ridl

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.