When you are at a loss for words

Photo by Theresa Barker.

We have had the most lovely cool week, a few days with modest showers! In my garden over the past few years I’ve been rehabilitating our planting beds with native varieties, including Oregon Grape (mahonia), sword fern and salal, red flowering current shrubs (which is loved by pollinators!), evergreen huckleberry (no berries, but very drought-tolerant!), and vine maple (drought-tolerant, can have colorful autumn leaves!). This year I noticed that my efforts have started to pay off, with some of these varieties self-seeding and filling in the bare areas. Gardening takes time, both the time to work in the yard, and the time to wait for one’s efforts to take hold. But when it does, it makes you feel great.

In this photo of my yard, the red flowering current bush is up front – bright green leaves, no flowers! – surrounded on all sides by the mahonia-Oregon Grape, and backstopped by a lovely sword fern. All was bare dirt or grass when I started. Cool, huh?

What I am doing now

I have been stuck. Stuck-stuck-stuck-stuck. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but if I sit down to write, I feel afraid to work on a promising project because if I touch it, I might ruin it. If I think about writing, I hesitate even to sit down to write, because it feels doubtful that I’ll have anything to say that delights, surprises, or enchants … which is what I hope for, but which seems very far off right now. I’ve been consulting resources on procrastination and on not-writing, but I’m still feeling stuck. This is not new for me; I’d hoped I was beyond feeling paralyzed by the Blank Page, but it is an affliction that I’ve had all my writing life, and I thought I had developed techniques and strategies, in graduate school or after, that would ensure I would not feel this acute paralysis again. Unfortunately not.

Last week at the suggestion of a creative friend who plays music for a living,Β  I finally dusted off my copy of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s book about creative recovery. My friend said, “I don’t know why it works, but it does. Try it again!” So I decided to follow his suggestion, and I very reluctantly pulled out the book, which I’d read years and years ago.

When you’re at a loss for words (or ideas, or paintings, or sculpture, or …), the problem is complicated. One can feel discouraged and uncreative and disheartened all at the same time. Even evidence to the contrary – like the daily poetry work I’ve been doing – can sometimes not help to dispel the sense of creative doom that seems to hang overhead.

Well, I didn’t think it would help. But some of the exercises have shown me that the critical voices in my head have been working overtime. Doubting my work. Tearing down my ability as a writer. Throwing stones at my creative dreams. Who knows why these voices come up, at this particular time, and even when I can point out several successful writing efforts to these inner critical voices, the discouragement continues. It’s a puzzle, and it’s a non-logical one. Emotional, irrational, repetitive arguments that erode one’s self-confidence.

Those of you familiar with this well-known book and approach to creative recovery will know the basics: morning pages and artist dates. Today, as an “artist date,” I went to the Seattle Japanese Garden on a quiet drizzly Seattle morning. It was quite lovely.


One of the bridges that crosses the garden is a bridge for thwarting evil spirits! Earlier this month my daughter and I, participating in the tea ceremony at the Japanese Garden, heard from the narrator-host that this bridge is in the shape of zigzag, or offset, pattern, because it is believed that evil spirits cannot turn, and can pass only along a straight path. The bridge is made in this shape to prevent evil spirits from passing. So, next time you want to obstruct evil spirits, make your path into a zigzag instead of a straight line!

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Recent Work

In spite of my ultra-stuck feeling for writing prose, I’ve been continuing my poem-a-day exercises from The Practice of Poetry, by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell. At least it puts me in the pond playing around with words and language, I figure! Here is one I wrote yesterday. We were to write five pages of “stream of consciousness” writing, then underline words or phrases that caught our attention, and then write a poem using those.


Image by Mircea Ploscar from Pixabay

All the late nights and the bone-chilling mornings,
All the anxious nights keeping watch in case the power goes out.
The bitterness in the winter,
The heat in the summer,
The incessant work,
The incessant list of tasks,
The natural world going against you.
The unforgiving nature of the weather.
The constant and continual cycle of work, work, work,
All to almost make it,
“Next year we’ll break even.”
I am from the Iowa – Nebraska – Colorado farming family
Who stick it out, blizzards and heat waves,
Cattle and water and government decisions,
Drought and flood.
We’re not travelers, we’re not nomads,
We put down roots and we stick.
I’ve left the farm,
But I still work hard. I’m here to stay.

Happy writing!


11 thoughts on “When you are at a loss for words

  1. Very brave of you to admit you are stuck, Theresa. I think not many of us like to admit it because we don’t like giving the impression we have nothing to offer and essentially, empty. But it happens. Your experience reminded me of the time when I was stuck with my first book draft years ago. I revisit it earlier this year and got inspiration flowing again. Not familiar with The Artist’s Way. Maybe I will check it out at some point when I really am running dry on creative inspiration.

    The voices in your head telling you otherwise can be hard to drown out as they probably manifest our deepest fears. It’s something we have to face and after a while, we can become stronger acknowledging the voices are there and our fears too.

    Lovely poem at the end. It speaks of a humble outlook on life – keep working hard, get what you need.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, yes, yes, I have been stuck, though slowly, slowly, slowly I have been finding some ways forward. You’re right that it’s embarrassing to think of saying that one is stuck. It is like admitting you don’t have what it takes, or something like that! That critical voice is so paralyzing! I am discovering that I am much more prone to it than I realized. Hah! Thank you for sharing your being stuck in your book project, and coming back to it, you are feeling some inspiration again. That helps to hear!

      Oh, the Artist’s Way is sooo popular here. I almost didn’t start it again because I thought, oh, that’s a “crutch,” it’s the “easy” way out, I should be able to manage this on my own. Silly thoughts, right? πŸ™‚

      Thank you for mentioning my poem. I spent my 20s in a family agriculture business (my then-husband’s family), and recently I watched a new documentary called “The Biggest Little Farm” about a couple’s experiment to create a 200-acre all-organic multi-crop farm just north of LA. Seven years into it they finally got everything in semi-balance, pest and predator, etc. They had an investor and an almost full-time consultant about the organic nature-balance thing, though. It’s tough. Anyway, watching that movie brought it all back to me, the cold mornings, the ever-growing list of chores. It’s a physical feeling, you know? πŸ™‚ But those two tag lines at the end – working hard, sticking with it, I never quite put that together with my ancestral Midwest farm family background before. So that made the poem worthwhile!

      I should mention that I was a little hesitant to include the line about being all-European in my background and how I don’t have other “exotic” heritage (e.g., non-European), and I was worried it might come across as insensitive. Since we’ve talked before about aspects of ethnic heritage and how others view it, what were your thoughts, if I might ask? I definitely want to acknowledge the ethnic/racial aspects of life but I don’t want to seem Colonial or dismissive or insensitive. Would love to know your thoughts! Is there a better way I could have expressed my insecurity about being of European heritage and still be respectful about our multicultural world? πŸ™‚ Thanks for letting me be vulnerable in asking this question!


      1. No thought is a silly thought, just as no question is a silly question, Theresa. We all have to start somewhere, and we all will get stuck at some point πŸ™‚

        ‘working hard, sticking with it’ is a great tagline. The more you put in the time, the more you learn and the more you may achieve – and things work out.

        Interesting to hear you didn’t want to mention your all-European, all-Western heritage. I think it depends on how you say it. For instance if you are mentioning one perspective all the time, then some might be inclined to think could be a rather insular perspective. White privilege comes along with being a Western person, and some don’t acknowledge that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. You may be stuck when it comes to prose but I’m happy to see your poetry is going strong. πŸ™‚ Like I said, sometimes, a poem is better than a chapter. It’s creativity!

    I had (it might be lost) my copy of The Artist’s Way when I first moved to Johannesburg from a small town after my divorce, in 1999. I used to write my morning pages, at least three pages, every morning as soon as I got up. I would sit on the floor, leaning on the bed. I don’t think I saved any of those pages.

    I must say I love your photography. I especially love the bridge. I will surely remember the zigzag path. πŸ™‚

    You’re not really that stuck, come to think of it. πŸ™‚ Some of us are in a worse space. Keep on going, my friend! I have not given up on my writing and one of the reasons is you inspire me.

    Much love and hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anne, you have made my week by your encouraging words. Hugs, my friend! Thank you for the very kind comment about the bridge. That was a fun photo. I like that you have been through the Artist’s Way and it brought you to the writing path. That’s very cool. πŸ™‚ hugs, my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

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