by Eric Morris-Pusey
A particular slant of light on cold, overcast mornings; the particular knocking and grinding sounds a half-severed cooling fan makes against the engine of our car; the peculiar and vaguely threatening advertisements for short-term loans and for the annual Armageddon conference piled in the mailbox—these are all things I’ve thought of putting in a poem lately. I haven’t used a damn one of them.
I’m in a deep slump, poetry-wise. Among other writers I know (even some of the successful ones), it’s common enough. That knowledge doesn’t always help.
For a poet, not actually writing any poetry feels like a case of athlete’s foot, or like being slightly more drunk than everyone else at the party and wondering what the hell these fine people see in you. It just happens every now and again. It’s not all that big a deal, really. It’s all you can think about.
While I would love this to be a Buzzfeed-worthy inspirational post, complete with Instagram-ready success quotes framed against majestic peaks or rippling muscles, it won’t be.
In the year and almost six months since I finished my M.F.A., I’ve written two new poems. Both of them were pretty bad. I’ve revised a bit more than that, but it always feels like doing dishes on a treadmill, with a hangover. Or like failing to do that well enough and feeling sorry for yourself about it.
It seems almost dangerous to connect oneself so thoroughly to something as most of the people reading this have connected themselves to writing. Like gambling your last couple of bucks or falling in love, the act can be exhilarating and the payoff incredible. But when it doesn’t work out, the comedown is infinite, and you’re left alone with that infinity.
For the first six months of my slump, all I thought about was writing, or not writing. As I sat in front of the laptop or with pen to paper, the walls to my left and right shrank toward me. The space between me and the great nothing I was trying to turn into a decent something became wider and more improbable.
My vision blurred. I didn’t shower as often as I should’ve. The lights in my office, or the laundry room where I sometimes wrote, were always too bright or too dark. It felt like someone was watching through the window, and always disapprovingly.
Like trying to get to sleep, trying to write usually doesn’t work, except as a misery engine.
While I’m not saying to give up, and I certainly haven’t, sometimes it may be better to turn away from that void, that infinite comedown, for at least a minute or two. Athletes get injured, singers get head colds, and everybody gets tired. Sometimes there’s no point in doing something you just can’t do right now.
For both our writing and our health, a step back is sometimes necessary, as is forgiving ourselves for that step back. Virginia Woolf tried it on a Friday in April 1921, and though she said, “I ought to be writing Jacob’s Room,” instead she chose to “write down the reason why I can’t.” While I haven’t tried this particular technique myself, simply allowing oneself to not write, even if only for a moment, seems a radical act of self-forgiveness. Additionally, I don’t think it hurt Woolf’s career.
While I haven’t written a decent poem this past year, I might’ve read more than I have in the past two. I’ve submitted more work than ever before and even managed to get a couple pieces picked up. I continue to read submissions for Nimrod. And my step back from poetry has allowed me to focus on another project, something I’m (cautiously) hopeful about.
These rationalizations and justifications work halfway, half the time, to convince me I’m all right. And while part of me is writing this for you—because this happens to so many of us, and because it can be so deadening—part of me writes for myself, too. Because the slump never gets easy, even if it doesn’t stay as hard.
I felt the first stirrings of being able to write poetry again last weekend, hearing my former advisor Rick Jackson read a few poems and talk about poetic structure, the ways in which the stylistic choices a poet makes say just as much as the words they choose. Something flared for a brief moment; a dead fluorescent bulb flickered quietly on.
I haven’t written another poem yet. I know, or at least hope, I will soon.
Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri Review, Driftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.