How to Cure Writer’s Block in Two Simple Steps

September 28, 2015 § 11 Comments

Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

A post from Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg:

I was coming down from a year of successes, and every time someone asked me “how’s the book coming along?” I felt like a failure. What had my minor successes gotten me?

Writer’s block.

I’m a single mom, and most parents have the “hunger”—that urgency that precipitates twelve a.m. writing sessions and random, text-free, MS Word documents titled “Essay about Ghosts in Astoria, Oregon” that are then saved in a folder labeled “Ideas” and never opened again. The hunger is good. The hungrier the mom, the more she’ll write. Hungry=output.

But my hunger had been eclipsed by fatigue. In addition to solo parenting, I work a lot, which I wrote about here.

In August, I went to a writer’s retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico that was sponsored by the A Room of Her Own Foundation. I was the recipient of their Courage Fellowship, which is awarded to a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault, and AROHO’s generosity put me in the same place as 119 other women. My Meyer’s Brigg score has me at 51% extroversion and 49% introversion. This means that I’m the type of person who hides in her room for the first couple of days, then is dancing topless around a bonfire by the end. On the second day of the retreat, I texted my best friend “I’m not having the worst time of my life, but close.” By the end of the third evening, I was blissfully sitting in the middle of a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way and asking the heavens what I needed to know for my future.

Yes, my conversion was that quick.

Although I abandoned organized religion years ago, my first job was in a bookstore that had a little, stone fountain tinkling on the countertop, Tibetan wind chimes, and an entire section dedicated to natural healing. When I graduated high school, the women I worked with gave me a set of Runes, and twenty years later, those Runes still sit in a bowl in my living room next to a bundle of sage. I have a history of appropriating religions that I don’t fully understand, so was I using this labyrinth correctly? Probably not, but I’m no stranger to sitting in nature and asking the heavens to speak to me (I spend my summers working in the wilderness for the US Forest Service), and although the heavens have never responded, my subconscious is pretty good at piping up with something adequate.

This night, my subconscious said to me, “Kelly, you have to know that your value is more than whether or not you’re in a relationship.” Actually, my subconscious was simply repeating what my therapist had said to me a few days earlier (she’s good!), but I hadn’t been able to hear her then because I hadn’t yet had the quiet in my life to listen.

Those words were important to me as a person because I’m a survivor of domestic violence, but those words were important to me as a writer because I finally knew how my memoir needs to end. As much as I want it, my memoir doesn’t end with Ryan Gosling moving into the house next to mine, working shirtless on a barn that he’s converting into an art studio, then holding a boom box up outside my bedroom window and saying, “Hey girl, how about I turn this studio for one into a studio for two?”

Realizing how my memoir needs to end (with me alone, yay!) was the first step towards getting over my writer’s block, but there was another step; I also took a master class with Joy Castro where she gave us writing prompts. I didn’t think I needed writing prompts; I mean, I was already ¾ of the way done with my memoir. Then she gave me the prompt that finally broke through my block.  She said, “Write about the most hurtful thing that anyone has ever said to you.”

Immediately, one sentence stuck out. It was my father saying “I just don’t know what to believe” in the days after I left my ex-husband. I wrote that sentence down, and as I surreptitiously brushed away tears because I refused to be that woman who had come undone in workshop, I realized I couldn’t write my memoir without writing that sentence. It’s not easy writing about family, and I’ve avoided it, but if I want to write this book, I have no other choice.

As Joy might say, I have to write what scares me the most.

When I returned from the retreat, I talked to my agent, and to her great relief, I told her that my block had been rooted in my inability to write about my parents. She was sympathetic, but all she said was, “I could have told you that. Now let’s get to work.”

And we have.


So here are the two easy steps to getting over writer’s block:

  1. Sit in a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way.
  2. Take a master class with Joy Castro.

If those options aren’t available to you, I have two more:

  1. Find some time for quiet in your life.
  2. Write what scares you the most.


Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a PhD student at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.

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