In college I had this coal-eyed, thin-thighed writing professor. One day, with my head bent in the basket of my palms, I sniffed and told her of my plight.
“I can’t write.” I said. She raised an eyebrow.
This teacher was graceful, and polite. Emotionally distant and curt. She wasn’t unlike a lovely ferry conductor, collecting our homework like a ticket. We were just passengers on this part of her journey of author-ship.
But she did say one thing, that Spring afternoon, that I will never forget.
“Have you been reading?” Her delicate fingers tapped her ballpoint.
“Well…no. Mostly textbooks. Like, what I have to read. For school.”
“Oh, I see. Well, that solves it.”
I must have looked stoned (that afternoon, I happened to not be), because she let out an agitated sigh and straightened the thin chapbooks on her desk. The room smelled of white blossoms, the diamonds in her ear flecked with institutional light.
Listen: if you don’t eat, you can’t shit.
My mouth sat wide open.
“Go read some poetry.”
And that’s the secret, kids. If you don’t like what you’re writing, if you can’t write at all, go read something that’s been pored over by a master. Go read something that has made the likes of Anne Carson weep or David Foster Wallace gasp. Go read work that was written before smartphones existed and the internet started eviscerating your brain cells. Then take a breather in a daisy-field or an abandoned warehouse, and maybe after a day or two, get back to writing.
Similarly, if you keep catching yourself acting like an asshole, stop listening to Howard Stern and go read some Tara Brach.
If you’re feeling disconnected, stop watching the “news” and go listen to Sean Corn.
If you feel uninspired, stop listening to crappy radio and go check out Maricka Hackman.
What you regularly take in is what you will (without fail!) put out.
If you don’t eat, you can’t shit.
It’s very simple.