The Past is a River that Wants to Run Free: Thoughts on Writer’s Block and the Creative Process

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
–Wendell Berry

Over the last few days, as I’ve worked with memoirists at various stages of their writing journey, Berry’s last line, “the impeded stream is the one that sings,” has been resounding in my mind.

All writers get stuck or blocked sometimes, and there is nothing more frustrating.

If it happens when you’re just starting to work on a project, it may shut you down for years, or even forever.

If it happens in the middle, you face the agony of wondering whether you’ve invested so much time and effort in a project you’ll never be able to finish.

Blocks that come towards the completion stage are the worst, usually born of self-doubt and the fear of going public with your work, now that it’s just about done.

Yes, blocks are terrible for writers. And yet…”the impeded stream is the one that sings.”

 

This is literally true: think of the sound of a river when it runs into a narrower channel and raises its voice in the rush of the rapids.

 

Berry also means it metaphorically: the bafflement of being in the place of not knowing what to do, which way to go, can turn out to be productive pressure.

Once we understand that the quest is an essential part of the creative process, we can learn to relax and even enjoy the moments of being “lost.”

In our GPS-saturated world, we are increasingly intolerant of the feeling of not knowing where we are and where we are going. But this feeling of not-knowing is the wellspring of creativity.

Another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, famously advised that we must “live the questions” in order to create art. Learning the answers is the work of multiple-choice tests—no creativity there.

In your memoir writing, you are boldly going where no one has been before—into the halls and rooms of your own memory, which hold the treasure of your unique life experience.

There’s no GPS for this journey. No one can tell you exactly how it will unfold. It takes patience, courage and persistence to keep exploring without being sure of where you’re going or what it will feel like when you “get there.”

Blocks can feel like a bad dream: being lost in a dark corridor, stalked by the demons of your past. It can be very tempting to want to just wake up, run away, get out of there and never go back.

I have two thoughts about that temptation.

One, often what we’re most uncomfortable with in our life history is what’s most important for us to share in memoir. This is the work of purposeful memoir, sharing your life story to help guide others who may be on a similar path.

Two, you can run but you can’t hide from your own life story. You may be able to turn away from your memoir now, when it gets too scary and you feel blocked, but just because you stop writing doesn’t mean the past won’t continue to haunt you. There is an undeniable therapeutic value to writing it out, releasing your past on to the page. The past is a river that wants to run free.

Most writers proceed in fits and starts. I’d wager every writer, at one time or another, has felt uncertain of the way forward or outright blocked.

When you get to one of those moments, be compassionate with yourself. Sit by the river of your own mind, and listen quietly, without haste or urgency. In practical terms this might mean a spell of journaling, allowing your mind to range peacefully, without goal—an essential part of the creative process.

With patience and persistence, you’ll come to hear the singing in the flow again. You’ll rise from the riverbank refreshed, energized and ready to begin your journey of memoir anew.

 

 

Writing in good company, with a guide, can also help to keep you focused and moving forward. In addition to my self-paced online course in purposeful memoir, I’ll be leading several memoir writing workshops in the Berkshires this spring.

  • On March 9, I’ll be leading a two-hour workshop called “Nourishing our bodies, our spirits and our world,” open to all, using the potent theme of food and nourishment as a starting point for memoir. Find out more here.
  • On April 7, in a workshop for women writers called “Fueling our Creative Fires,” we’ll write and share about our passions, asking: what lights your fires, and what holds you back from stepping fully into the power that passion can ignite? Find out more and register here.
  • On April 14, I’ll be leading a special Earth Day memoir workshop, open to all, called “Navigating Climate Change in Uncertain Times: The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir as a Path to Personal, Political and Planetary Thriving.” Find out more here. 
  • I’ll also be giving several talks this spring: see my full events calendar here.

And as always, I’m also available for one-on-one author coaching and manuscript review. It’s your journey of memoir, but you don’t have to go it alone!

Get in touch if you’d like to schedule a free introductory consultation on your project.