How Sense Writing Helped Me Overcome Writer’s Block
November 23, 2019
There’s always an impediment to writing something new. A block of sorts. I’ve realised that I am that block. Too many edges, too many corners. Sitting down to write is not the problem – I recently finished writing a book over the course of seven years during which time my body had taken on the shape of a chair. But now I’m faced with the question of what comes next. How does one begin again, faced with a blank page? The truth is, I don’t remember. I contemplate the last seven years. What did I do with so much time? Am I ready to spend the next seven in that same state of uncertainty? I’m no longer sure.
Friends ask me if I have an idea for my next book. I tell them an idea is coming together, even though, in truth, my mind is a total blank. I fear my brain is degenerating. My stomach churns endlessly. People say second novels are hard. But, the same people also say first novels are hard.
There are always reasons to not write. Errands demand my attention, and general admin work creeps in. My phone buzzes, apps are insistent. I try decorating my little study and then redecorating it. Feng shui says that one’s back should always be supported by something solid like a wall, so I move my desk to face one direction, but another website tells me this is inauspicious according to Vaastu. I call my husband to tell him we have to rebuild part of the house. He says he’s in a meeting and can’t talk, even though I know he’s on his lunch break. I take down some art from the walls – maybe this clutter is the reason I can’t focus. Maybe the clutter is human. I call my husband to announce that I can no longer go out socially. This time, he doesn’t take my call.
At night, I set my alarm for 4 am, hoping to come to my laptop straight from my dream state. I imagine this time to be ripe with possibility, a doorway into the juicy unconscious. I am ready, I tell myself, as I place my head upon the pillow, to capture any strange image or turn of phrase that may come up. I lie in bed, looking at the ceiling for what feels like an eternity, contemplating all the hidden material that awaits me. When I wake up, I realise I have slept through my alarm, and it’s almost 9 am.
I stay in bed, unable to face the day, and watch old episodes of reality television, marvelling at how their production value has improved over the last decade. I eat food out of bags and forget to brush my teeth. I cry a little, wondering at my lack of purpose. Afterwards, I open up a book about psychoanalyst Carl Jung and find comfort in his mapping of the psyche. He posits that a feeling of emptiness can be creative energy retreating from conscious awareness into the landscape of the unconscious. There, creativity gathers itself before returning to where it can be grasped. I look around at my bed, at the landscape of garbage I have accumulated – and for a moment it all looks utterly romantic. According to Jung, I’m not dried up. I’m just waiting.
I wonder how long I will have to wait.
I consult the tarot for when this might end. I check the annual profection in my birth chart. I pull runes out of a velvet pouch in search of answers. I consult the oracle, Zadie Smith, who, through her essay on craft, asks me whether I work at a macro or micro level. In other words, do I plot the book and then fill in the blanks, or do I set down one sentence at a time? I do the second, I say to her text in front of me. Then I pause. Well, that’s not entirely true. Some of my writing has required plotting and planning. I begin to write an essay in response to hers, describing the scaffolding that will hold my next book together. It is several hours before I realise that this is a pointless exercise – I cannot predict how my next book will emerge. I begin to sweat. I put Zadie away, I’m not ready to face her yet.
I have been here before. The vertiginous drop into doubt and anxiety feels familiar, as does the terrifying distance I have to travel. I begin to remember my first novel, and how overwhelmed I was at the thought of conjuring an entire world. How would I choose what to include and what to leave out? How would I manage to find a shape in this baggy mess?
I was lucky at that time to find a teacher to guide me. Her name is Madelyn and her technique is called sense writing. By bringing together her knowledge of movement, neuroscience and healing, she offered me a way around the blocks. In her workshop, we started on the floor, mapping the body, and allowing the brain to do what came naturally. Sometimes my mind would wander, sometimes I would yawn. Everything was permitted. We observed how we felt in our bodies, what was alive to us at the moment.
Later, she would explain that this sequence was about calming the nervous system, allowing it to rest, and entering a parasympathetic state, where we could eliminate the noise, the anxiety and the looming deadlines. Writing exercises followed. I started with small memories, images, sensations, and, sentence by sentence, I collected an entire narrative without counting words and pages. I felt in control only after I allowed myself that kind of release.
Editing used similar principles – I observed how rereading my writing made me feel, where the energy dipped or where I longed for more white space. The technique brought me back to my senses in a way that felt powerful and direct. I used it to rewrite sections from my narrator’s childhood that felt flat or overexplained. The immediacy of the writing that came through matched the immediacy of a young girl’s experiences. In other sections of the book, I used the sense writing sequences to get to the heart of the character’s trauma. By drifting away from the central locus of pain, I discovered, through various writing exercises, that my narrator’s anger resided elsewhere. The path of her anguish was not linear, and through this technique, I uncovered alternate routes into her story.
I begin to remember that the only way I can write a novel is by forgetting I am writing a novel – by getting out of my head and settling into my body. I start to do things that quiet my nervous system, imagining the inkblot that I would make on the floor, or how much space I am taking up in the room. Slowly, as I focus on the exploration rather than the product, words begin to accumulate.
Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey. She completed her BA in Art History from Barnard College in New York and went on to do an MA in History of Art at University College London. While working as an art writer and curator in India, Avni began writing fiction in her spare time. She has been awarded the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize and a Charles Pick Fellowship. Avni lives in Dubai with her family. Girl in White Cotton is her first novel. You can follow her on Instagram.
Read her articles here.