On this day in 1804 and 1837, two famous writers, one British and one American, waged their own personal battles with writer’s block by writing in their journals.
The first was the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Writing in his journal the day after his thirty-second birthday, Coleridge expressed his exasperation at being unable to produce the kind of great poetry he had written in his mid-twenties: “So Completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruites of a month. –O Sorrow and Shame . . . . I have done nothing!” Although Coleridge was writing in his journal, he never again managed to write anything like his great narrative poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which had been published six years earlier (1).
The second writer was the American Henry David Thoreau. After graduating from college at Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. There he met and was mentored by essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged the fledgling writer to keep a journal in order to record his thoughts and to develop his craft.
On this date Henry opened his first journal and began writing. He started by recording the questions that Emerson had first asked him:
‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.
Thoreau’s journals gave him a place to develop his ideas and to avoid writer’s block. In the course of 24 years, he produced over two million words in 39 notebooks. As explained by Odell Shepard, editor of Thoreau’s journals, writing this way helped Thoreau in a number of ways:
It sharpened his observation and deepened his thought. By preserving the memory of his best hours — those that had “a certain individuality and separate existence, aye, personality” –it enabled him to survey long stretches of earlier experience and thus to estimate his development or decline. (2)
No doubt the journaling habit gave Thoreau the kind of confidence in his own ideas that lead to his two great works, the book Walden and the essay “Civil Disobedience” (See August 9: Walden Day and July 12: Thoreau Day).
One interesting note is that the social networking messaging service Twitter used Emerson’s question as its prompt when the online service began in 2006. Each tweet composed was prompted by the question “What are you doing?” In 2009 Twitter changed its prompt to the more succinct “What’s happening?” (3).
Today’s Challenge: Six-Sided Solution
What are at least six of your go-to writing ideas when combating writer’s block? A great way to defeat writer’s block is to turn your negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Your task, therefore, is to construct an actual Writer’s Block that, instead of causing writers to stumble, will inspire and motivate them to write. First, brainstorm as many writing ideas as you can, anything that might spark ideas and inspire someone to write. Then, organize your ideas into six categories, one for each side of your physical Writer’s Block. Finally, construct your block out of paper, wood, or some other material. Write your categories and ideas on each side of your block, adding artwork, diagrams, graphics, pictures, etc. to make it visually appealing. In constructing your own Writer’s Block you’ll be doing something that all great writers do, you’ll be transforming an abstract idea into a concrete one. Use your Writer’s Block to spark ideas as you begin your daily journaling habit. (Common Core Writing 5 – Writing Process)
1-A Critic at Large. Blocked. The New Yorker 14 June 2004. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/06/14/blocked
2-The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (Edited by Odell Shepard). New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.
3-Dybwab, Barb. Twitter Drops “What Are You Doing?” Now Ask “What’s Happening?” Mashable.com 19 Nov. 2009. http://mashable.com/2009/11/19/twitter-whats-happening/