writer’s block and winter blues

image showing the black outline of a leafless tree emerging from grey fog

Something hits my down-button every winter. Usually it passes as spring returns, but this time feels worse because I’ve lost my words as well.

Forget Eliot’s lilacs in April. For me, February and March are the cruellest months.

So what to do?

I’ve been up and down for years, but this is the first time a connection between low mood and writer’s block has been so evident. I lack energy, and my poems are in hiding, but I’ve managed to keep up the habit of journaling.

The routine comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Each chapter of the book focuses on elements of creative identity. Every day you write a few pages of stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Don’t think, just write what comes into your head. The process is more important than the content.

It’s not a new idea. In 1934, Dorothea Brande wrote a book called Becoming a Writer. Old-fashioned in style, the advice is sound and worth looking out for.

….rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write.

Dorothea calls the practice training to be a writer. Like Julia, the idea is to focus on the act of writing rather than the art. It’s easy to spend too much time chasing the perfect phrase or poem, but writing also needs to be habitual.  Giving yourself permission to write freestyle on a regular basis can be unexpectedly liberating.

I’ve been feeling pressure to produce in 2023.

It’s self-imposed but 2022 was such a good year, I want to keep the momentum going.

In March I won the Dreich ‘Slims’ competition with Heaving with the dreams of strangers, one of four out of 240+ submissions to be selected by Jack Caradoc and his team.

In November Thetis was published by Felix Hodcroft at Esplanade Press. A blend of storytelling, script and poetry, this poetic narrative retells the Trojan Wars through the eyes of Thetis, mother to Achilles. I’ve been working on it for several years so it’s strange to have no further projects in preparation and even worse, to feel my poet-voice has gone AWOL.

Maybe post-publication blues is normal, especially when combined with winter and a scarcity of new ideas.

Over the years, I’ve learned the risk of giving into the dark is the further you fall, the harder it is to surface again.

image showing the ainting by the Antwerp School titled Orpheus searching for Eurydice with Persephone and Hades in the background
Orpheus Searching Eurydice in the Underworld, a painting by the Antwerp school, 1675–1699

One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with this is to take structured opportunities to be creative.

In February, I took part in Into the Underworld, a poetry course facilitated by Wendy Pratt. I managed 7 out of 8 drafts and although I’m not sure if any will become poems, it’s 7 more ideas which wouldn’t have appeared otherwise.

In April I’m taking a prompt-a-day course called Gods and Monsters with Angela Carr.  This is based on Greek myth which I love, so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

image shows a selection of faces and plaques from greek mythology
selection of faces and characters from Greek mythology

Do other people feel like this?

Winter blues?

Writer’s block?

Problems with self-promotion?

Imposter Syndrome?

It doesn’t take much for my Imposter Syndrome to rear up and the voice start to natter in my head again.

I was lucky.

Last year was a fluke.

If I don’t produce anything publishable this year, it will confirm last year was a fluke.

I enjoyed the online poetry events I did last year but promoting in real-time, face-to-face, terrifies me. I learned to cope for work, but the last time I presented was over 3 years ago and poetry is so much more personal.

Imposter Syndrome is tough. For most people, it has childhood roots.  Comments such as ‘you’ll never be good enough‘ and ‘no one will ever listen to you‘ make me doubt my own abilities. Despite learning coping methods over the years, self-promotion remains a challenge.

Here’s a TED Talk about Imposter Syndrome.

In this talk, presenter Lou Solomon says 70% of people are familiar with what she calls the fantastic four; anxiety, perfectionism, self-doubt, and fear of failure but suggests the figure 70% is way too low.

During the short winter days, when it’s too cold for the allotment and my bees, there’s still books to read and these are some of my go-to titles…

…and some additional resources on writer’s block:

To finish with, if you’re new to the concept of free writing, here’s another advocacy statement.

Freewrite is good advice for any writer. Write without pausing to worry about sentence structure, grammar, spelling, or whether what you’re saying makes sense or not. Just write without second-guessing anything. While most of it will be unusable, it’s a good way to push through the block. Masterclass 

Over the years, freewriting has become such a regular practice it feels strange not to do it. The morning journal is a bridge between bad days and good ones. Most of all, it’s a valuable way to re-ground myself in the concept of being a writer. The poems might be taking a break but there are always words (and images!) offering reassurance and comfort.

image shows a winters' day, snow on the ground, black outline of trees, and a setting golden sun reflecting in the river

Heaving with the dreams of strangers – what happens next?

front cover for the poetry collection Heaving with the dreams of strangers

Still a bit giddy over this!

Earlier in the year, I submitted 20 poems to the annual Dreich Chapbook Slims competition, alongside over 200 other applications. It was accepted as one of four winners and Heaving with the dreams of strangers is now in print, available from Dreich https://hybriddreich.co.uk/product/heaving-with-the-dreams-of-strangers-sue-watling/

image showing the poets appearing at the event Six poets in search of an audience on July 22nd 2022

Friday 22nd July, 7.00 on Zoom, will be my first chance to read from the collection. The event is called Six poets in search of an audience and includes other Dreich Chapbook winners, as well as those recently published by Alien Buddha Press.

Tickets are free and can be booked through Eventbright at this link https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/six-poets-in-search-of-an-audience-tickets-369432331047?aff=erelexpmlt The registration page also contains more about the participants themselves.

Others at the event are as follows:

image shows the dashboard of wordpress

Getting published by Dreich has been a great experience. Everything went smoothly, thanks to editor, Jack Caradoc, who was incredibly supportive, as well as patient, with last-minute changes to the proof copy. No matter how closely you read something, having a break almost inevitably results in seeing it differently – such as replacing a comma with a full stop, changing a line break or reverting to a previously used title etc.

Something I didn’t anticipate was the question of what happens next?

I like to leave poems to rest for a few months before going back to edit them. Heaving with the dreams of strangers consists of poems written over the past two years, with many revisits during that time.  I was feeling I’d ‘used up’ most of my ‘best’ ones.

image shows the front cover design for Thetis
early draft cover design for Thetis

My other primary work is Thetis, a poetic narrative retelling the Trojan War through the eyes of the mother to Achilles. Thetis is currently at the design stage and due to be published later this year. How do I follow either Heaving with the dreams of strangers or continue with the Greek myths which influenced Thetis?

The short answer is – I don’t know!

I have some ideas but would be really interested in thoughts from other writers who have recently experienced their first ‘success’ in terms of publication.

These past few months I’ve felt blocked. Does writing poetry always go through phases of inspiration and uncreativity? The books feel like the first steps on a ladder, but I’m not sure what comes next – especially when I seem to have hit a brick wall!

image shows a landing in office workspace

I left work in 2019; a reluctant decision. Concerns about age were reinforced by six months of unsuccessful job hunting, confirming the suspicion that women can find it hard to get back into the workplace.  In the end, I decided to see the end of my formal academic career as a gift in terms of having time to write and travel.

Within six months we were into the first Covid lockdown. All travel stopped. Alongside my allotment and newly arrived honeybees, there was only writing left, but wanting and doing are sometimes worlds apart.

In 2020, I began a series of prompt-a-day online poetry courses, to which I owe everything because they gave me the structure and discipline I needed.  I’ve said this before but am happy to say it again – thank you to Wendy Pratt @wondykitten, Angela Carr @adreamingskin and Jim Bennett @poetrykit for the poems which went into Heaving with the dreams of strangers, and to Felix Hodcroft, Sue Wilsea, Jane Sudworth and Helen Birmingham for the germination and final production of Thetis. Also, Paul Brookes @PaulDragonwolf1  whose questions made me sit and think seriously about the role of writing in my life for a Wombwell Rainbow online interview.

image shows a launderette

At the moment I’m taking the Radicalising the Domestic online course with Wendy Pratt. This looks at the often-ignored subject of women’s life at home, and involves looking back, something I’ve never been good at. The course is stirring the nascent idea of using these times, if only to make sense of them and maybe reassure others they are not alone in missing out on the stereotypical image of a happy childhood. As one of the group posted in response to an early draft of one of my poems ‘Quite relieved (and a bit sad) that a lot of us on here don’t have the best of childhood memories…’

Classic psychoanalysis suggests the best way to deal with a dysfunctional past is to revisit rather than shut it off. Since I began thinking about the next collection. I’ve been wondering if I can be brave enough to unlock the double-barred and bolted doors. I have a title, Loose change, and am beginning to think I might have found what I’ve been looking for!

Click the Pay Now button below to buy a copy of Heaving with the dreams of strangers through PayPal.

image shows the contents of a chest wich includes a pile of loose change