Prompt 150: Writing My Way Through
A prompt on writer's block
The other day, a quote from the writer Kiese Laymon came across my news feed. In it, he answered the question of how he deals with writer’s block.
“With my head down, like I’m trying to concuss myself,” he said. “I try to describe the ‘block’ and once it’s described I decide what I need to go through.”
I myself am in a quiet moment in my work right now. I’ve spoken with the poet Marie Howe about this: how we have to become a different person with different concerns before whatever is next begins to emerge, how fallow moments are necessary, though we don’t talk about them very often. (She also has great insights on writer’s block and tips for getting unstuck.) For the last several years, I’ve always had something to work on, whether my book or a shorter essay, so it feels strange to find myself in this moment of limbo.
What I have been doing instead is journaling even more devotedly than usual. Writing privately in this quiet moment has been a kind of spiritual retreat, allowing me to sort through the jumbled medley of joys and heartbreaks of the last year, writing into the confusion, the pain, the resistance—in order to heal, to uncover, to become the person I am becoming. For as Melissa Febos said in our Studio Visit last week, “Writing is my primary mode of transformation.”
Today we have a prompt from a member of our community, the avid journaler and first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Connor Toomey. It asks us to examine our relationship to this practice—both what brings us to it, and what keeps us from it.
Pen in hand,
P.S. Some important news! On Thursday, June 17 at 1pm ET, we’ll be meeting at the Hatch. Then on Sunday, June 27 at 1pm ET, the writer and podcast host and my dear friend Ashley C. Ford will be joining us for a Studio Visit about finding your voice. We’re also excited to announce that Ashley’s debut memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, is our book club pick. The Hatch, Studio Visits, and our book Club are part of the paid subscription that supports the Isolation Journals. Become a paid subscriber to join us!
150. Writing My Way Through by Connor Toomey
I have picked up and put down the practice of writing for the better part of two decades, always for different reasons.
As a child, I journaled because I wanted a record of what I was feeling. I wanted to be able to look back decades later and observe my younger self. In my early twenties, as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, I wrote monthly blog entries to catalogue my experience. Later, I tried my hand at short stories, but was thwarted by writer’s block. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the time, energy, or inspiration to do justice to the complex, extraordinary characters as they appeared in my mind.
Lately I have been struggling with turbulent moods that at times cloud the horizon. This is partly caused by my demanding work schedule—I’m a platoon leader in the U.S. Army, and it’s an all-consuming, no-days-off job—and partly from heartbreak. At the outset of the pandemic, a childhood crush I wrote about in my early journals became something more, and it felt like two strands of a circle coming together in a special twist of fate. But the childhood friend and I called it quits this past fall. And so I have started writing once again.
This time I am taking it slower: one half-hour journal entry a day. Now I write to try and make sense of my emotions, to process what I am going through. I am discovering this is perhaps the best possible reason to write: For yourself.
Your prompt for this week:
What interrupts your writing practice? What keeps you from the page?
Connor Toomey is a U.S. Army officer, returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and social salsa dancer who believes in the intersection of service, purpose, and career. He has journaled creatively—with frequent bouts of writer’s block—while on various work assignments in the United States, Latin America, and East Africa.
I love the simplicity, the directness, of this prompt. Thank you, Connor. And to us all.. may we continue to write for ourselves.
This was a wonderful prompt, and Connor, your story is incredibly relatable. This encouraged me to post in this community, finally for the first time. I look forward to more prompts and engagements!
In my first years of speech I referred to myself as self. “Self, put shoes on! Self, take shoes off!” It seems I understood myself as a distinct person worthy of direct address, to both shape and access through language. When I was gifted my first journal, I think I saw it as a place to grow and know that self. To spend my time decorating the mechanics of my days with my own observations and interpretations, knowable only to me and my self, seemed like a wonderfully infinite and complete existence. Later, my journal became heavy with the churnings of darker, deeper adolescent waters. It also became a solution for insomnia. Unable to slow my spinning mind, I was encouraged to put my thoughts on the page for safe-keeping.
In the last two years, my journal has primarily been a gateway to sleep. Writing myself into a heavy-lidded head nod is a sign of a day, and night, well done. But over the course of that time, I’ve been unable to approach writing, and living, with the oomf of creative enthusiasm. I know that writing myself into oblivion is not the same as writing towards discovery, but only in the last few weeks have I understood that it is actually undermining my ability to discover at all.
For many months now I have felt stuck on the threshold of some attic door separating my self from my joy, liveliness, courage, and inspiration. While I see my stuck self, I also see the boulders I have set up to block my way. They are: Work; Small Disgust with myself for letting Work do that; Lack of loving; Stubborn resistance to loving; Anxiety of having irretrievably lost my intended path; Anxiety of having no intended path, of finding that the world is truly random.
I’ve been hemming, hawing, and hedging in consternation before this attic door for a few weeks, talking to my self about fear, loneliness, and having only one life to live. The conversation has begun to grow stale. It has begun to creep into my journals again, and there, shrunk in scope. By finally putting that kind of language to my experience, I’ve recognized once again my own fundamental truth and salvaged the strength required to tend it - that I need to write my way through.