Pondering Writer’s Block

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

—E.L. Doctorow

Writer’s block can be an obstacle to creativity. Just ask Fran Lebowitz. On second thought, judging by Martin Scorcese’s seven-episode documentary, Pretend It’s a City, she has made an art of what she calls ‘writer’s blockade’. Not the person to ask, but then again, perhaps the ideal person.

Lebowitz is often compared to Dorothy Parker because of her ingenious facility with epigrams. Not a minor accomplishment for one who claims to have been expelled from grade school for ‘nonspecific surliness’. Her last published book was Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994), a children’s book about giant pandas living in New York City who long to move to Paris. New York Times journalist, Ginia Bellafante suggests that Lebowitz has made her living and maintained her celebrity as ‘a road show’.

What does Lebowitz, herself, have to say about chronic writer’s block? According to The Writer’s Almanac, she considers writing to be ‘more of a psychological problem than a writing problem’:

“I have a hard time writing. Most writers have a hard time writing. I have a harder time than most because I’m lazier than most. … I would have made a perfect heiress. I enjoy lounging. And reading. The other problem I have is fear of writing. The act of writing puts you in confrontation with yourself, which is why I think writers assiduously avoid it.’’

Lebowitz is living proof that in no way does it mean creativity is limited or blocked. On the contrary. In the documentary, Pretend It’s a City, her sardonic wit is much in evidence. She contemplates what it might be like to be the Night Mayor of New York based on a perceived need to divide this impossibly complex, all-consuming job into Day Mayor and Night Mayor. While implying that the actual nightmare for New Yorkers might be the reality of her actually employed in the position, she manages political commentary and comedy through seemingly effortless keen observation and a lifetime of painting with words. She offers an opinion on whatever she personally finds irksome yet inspires her to comment verbally.

For many, writer’s block or creativity block is a very real dilemma. Theories abound ranging from fear of failure to fear of success, perfectionism to procrastination. Psychologist, Dr. Richard Koestner, founder of the McGill Human Motivation Lab suggests that survival and coping goals are very different from aspirational goals. In addition, how ambitious the goals are affects motivation, particularly during this coronavirus pandemic, possibly due to fatigue, uncertainty and stress compounded by loneliness and isolation. Goals are more about survival at this time. A goal oriented action plan requires at least minimal focus, attention, effort and persistence, Koestler highly recommends routine to give one a sense of control in accomplishing small things.

In terms of goal setting, Koerstler has stressed the importance of discovering what works for you and what is fulfilling to you, even if it just going out for a walk once a day. Personally, the pandemic has revealed a lack of routine in my life generally. In my case, writer’s block might be overcome by setting a goal to routinely write a blog post as I am doing now. The research indicates that motivation does change over time and momentum can build with small steps.


January 22, 2021 by Big City columnist, Ginia Bellafante


The New York Times, Everybody Loves Fran Leibowitz But Why?

CBC Radio Noon call-in program heard across Quebec

Out of the Dark series episode, January 22, 2021 with guest Dr. Richard Koestler: Are you able to motivate yourself during a global pandemic, when every day is exactly the same?


McGill Human Motivation Lab


Breathing into Creativity Workshops

Three members of our Digital Literacy/ Storytelling group were among the participants in the two-part Zoom writing workshop “Breathing into Creativity” hosted by the Atwater Library on the consecutive Thursdays, Nov. 26 and Dec. 3, 2020 from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. Organized and facilitated by Elise Moser in conjunction with AWE (the Atwater Writers Exhibition project), and offered free through the generous support of the Canadian Cultural Action Fund of Canadian Heritage, the two workshops were led by poet, artist, and educator har leen, coordinator of the South Asian Youth (SAY) collective of the South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC).

Har leen was a proverbial breath of fresh air–gentle, sensitive, attentive, enthusiastic, encouraging, and dynamic in the moment. “A storm called har leen.”
In spring and summer, it is in the wake of a storm that atmospheric conditions permit the emergence of butterflies from their chrysalides.

After inviting us to share our personal introductions and a glimpse of our creative projects–ranging from a novel in progress to a final-edit podcast to self-supportive journaling–har leen led us through a series of prompted timed writings grounded in Julia Cameron’s “getting it on the page,” Natalie Goldberg’s continous free-write practice, and some visualization and visionary magic all her own.

Har leen asked us to consider the extraordinary reality that many of us are, in fact, fortunate to be living at this difficult time–confinement to an often drearily mundane existence in the midst of a worldwide event of uncharted and super-mundane proportions. Day by day, how might we breathe meaning into our story, reimagine intimacy, and find an expressive voice for our feelings, senses and instincts in this nebulous mix of insular routine, vast virtual community, and intangible crisis? Let’s begin…

Har-leen: Tell us the most mundane fact about you, now!

Our Story trio, for example, responded:

Marlene: What’s most mundane about me? I sleep a lot.
Karin: Well, the most unusual mundane thing about me, that I can think of: I always write with a pencil, not a pen.
Donna: If I were left on a desert island with only three foods, one of them would have to be oatmeal. I could live on oatmeal.

So then a brief timed freewrite began with our immediate, mundane, be-here-now afternoon. No right or wrong way to do this, har leen reminded us. We could write anything, with only Goldberg’s one “rule” in mind: Don’t lift your pen or pencil from the paper until time’s up–“even if you think you have nothing left to write except, ‘I’ve got nothing left to write,” ten times over!”

Har leen then led us carefully and mindfully into a visualization exercise. “I know some people really don’t like visualizations..they find them boring, they’re impatient…Maybe you just don’t get much out of them. But today I’d like us to try to join and share in listening. Relax, stay with the experience, be open to whatever comes to you. And then we’ll write.”

I’m one of those people who really don’t like (HATE) visualization exercises. But I–We–all choose to trust. 

Har-leen takes our hand, begins with us as we are. Our space, our bodies…where we stand…or sit..on this chair…

Do things feel hard, tense, achy, soft, cozy? Listening…are there sounds in your environment…natural like birdsong, or traffic, just noise..other voices…music? Tune them in and out, up, down…Now inside the body, the rhythms of breathing, heatbeat. What about the temperature…maybe it’s cold in your room…or maybe you feel warmth, comfort…Are there smells around you…maybe someone’s baking…soap, laundry, animals? Feel your feet, touching the floor, its texture…does it soften against your toes?…the colours around you…are they changing..? Maybe you can sense the daylight fading or glowing.

Little by little, har leen’s measured words and pauses guide me in a subtle transformation.  Resistance gives way to a slow, dreaming earth-magic. But can this liminal fairy-telling take me on a journey from the space of a dull old mind in a dull old apartment in this–this–this–awe-full 2020?

Now we’ll write, har leen says, as we emerge. During the visualization, what were you feeling? Were you just bored…were you sad, lonely…maybe you’re feeling lost, or there’s been sorrow, grief. But maybe you’re feeling joy. Maybe there’s a new baby in your family, you’re all excited about the baby. Maybe you’re angry, frustrated..but then, maybe you’re grateful, too, for the quiet time, and looking forward to the new year, waiting…hoping. Try to write about the feelings that came up for you in the visualization, whether they surprised you…and how they changed, or came and went…

We write continuously. Pages are filled, swiftly.

Har leen presses pause.

Now she smiles radiantly and says, “I’ve always been fascinated by space…and all the messages that we’ve sent from earth into space. Like the sounds and rhythms of our planet, the whales, the birds, the ocean.” (She gazes upward, longingly, and we just know the stars are out there.) “Or music–how they sent the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” out into space on the 25th anniversary of its release. I think that’s so amazing. What would someone feel, light years away, hearing that message? And all the time capsules over the years. Is anyone receiving them? Just imagine, are other civilizations out there listening? It’s so exciting!”

A quest through space: Har-leen in her NASA sweater…countdown, 3, 2, 1…

“What if you sent a message to the universe today, right now? What would you want to tell them about this moment on earth? What would you ask the universe in 2020?”
“Go back over what you’ve written–circle the words, maybe a whole phrase or sentence, that stand out for you, really speak to you. Then take these and see if you can make them into a poem–a super-mundane poem, your special message from Earth to Universe in December 2020.”

We write again–not for long. With spontaneity. With urgency. A shout out, a plea, a birthing cry to the warm ear of the universe.

And when har leen invites us to choose immediately a few lines, and read them aloud, suddenly there emerges a group poem, a chorus rising to the universe. Oh, super-mundane. Oh…Oh! From porridge, pencils, and power naps…we have travelled a long, long way…together. Wow. Listen.



Group Poem from Breathing into Creativity

Three members of our Digital Literacy/Storytelling group were among the participants in the two-part Zoom writing workshop “Breathing into Creativity,” an AWE (Atwater Writers Exhibition) event hosted by the Atwater Library on the consecutive Thursdays, Nov. 26 and Dec. 3, 2020 from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. Organized and facilitated by Elise Moser, and offered free through the generous support of the Canadian Cultural Action Fund of Canadian Heritage, the workshops were led by poet, artist, and educator har leen, coordinator of the South Asian Youth (SAY) collective of the South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC). You will find the complete AWE workshop description, including a detailed profile of har leen, and listings of more upcoming and past events, here: http://awe.atwaterlibrary.ca/activities/events-listings/

For South Asian Youth:

And har-leen’s website and social media links:

I found har leen to be a proverbial breath of fresh air–gentle, sensitive, attentive, enthusiastic, en-couraging, and dynamic in the moment. As I have recounted from a personal perspective in a companion blog post, har leen led us through an evocative series of individual prompts and free-writes to the community creation of a group poem–a poem conceived as our message from the pandemonium of our planet in 2020, a message sent out into the vastness of universal space.

Above: Har-leen in her NASA shirt: Aim for the stars!

Below is the second, more recent version of this group poem, compiled and carefully edited by participant Wanda Potrykus of AWE, who generously volunteered her time and skill to the project. (Wanda, with professional transparency, has also privately documented the in-progress versions and arrangements, with notes on her editorial decisions, for the contributors.) Wanda was also the unsung hero in encouraging and empowering the workshop writers to let their voices be published here.

I’m posting the poem now with the kind permission of Brian, Donna, Karin, Lynn, Marlene, Susi, and Wanda, as well as that of coordinator Elise Moser on behalf of the Atwater Library and AWE.
The order of appearance of poets will, in keeping with our spirit of spontaneous community, remain anonymous in this post. However, with the exception of section I. “Buried alive…,” which Wanda, with permission, chose to use as a repeating and closing refrain, each numbered passage represents a complete submission as composed by an individual poet.  We also acknowledge the in-spiriting presence and voices of the workshop participants whose contribution is not manifest in the text.

Buried Alive II

Buried alive…

Hello, are you there?
Are you there?
Can you give us a sign
that you’re listening?

This is the sound
of a bullfrog. Our last
bullfrog. We are wondering
if you have bullfrogs there —
and whether you could spare
us a few. Also we are short
of blue girls — the ones
who stand tall in the water

I’m a slouching feeling, scaly skinned.
The beings I desire are beacons, statuesque.
I am a crag among crags.
Surely this isn’t unique: surely
There is a match for me.

Immobilized by my enduring nature,
Longing for the familiar.
How did I get here?
Have I nowhere else to be?

Buried alive…

Extinction. Extinction.
The nipple taken away.
I cry in the night, inconsolable.

Here in the Great Extinction
The darkness gathers
All the dead ones
All the victims
The darkness gathers the song.

In the presence of mine enemies
The lost helpful animals
Return for the others
Who remain with a leg in the trap
Till the sun explodes as a nova
And melts our chains.

Fresh rain beckons us
Painting everything alive
Dancing to sunshine.

What am I seeing?
I’m coming into being
Re-engineering what was there before
Disappearing, fleeing from my unconsciousness,
The door is opening
I am metamorphosing
Parts of me are decomposing,
Oh, what is this wonder that I see?
It’s me…I have been reborn,
Reformed as a fragile, seedling tree.

No longer buried…still alive
I thrive.

Wanda has offered her suggestions and insights to both our poets and others, as individuals and in community, to take the opportunity for further creative exploration and reflection:

“Whether a neophyte or an experienced writer, from time to time we all need encouragement, thus compilation of this poem is inspired by a previous event commemorated on the AWE website:”

Rapid-Fire Readings, Ricochet Writing: Montreal Authors Write Before Your Very Eyes!
“On April 30, 2015, twenty-four contemporary Montreal authors from across the impressive range of our literary scene offered rapid-fire readings from their work. They also created a brand-new literary jewel by adding a line each to a collective text. At the end of this fast-moving happening the final product was read aloud with panache and brilliant comic timing by playwright Colleen Curran. The Quebec Writers’ Federation and the Atwater Library co-hosted this exciting event.” Source: AWE website: https://awe.atwaterlibrary.ca

So have some fun with our group poem. Feel free to play around with the verses, and reorder the sequence of the verses as you wish and in terms of what makes sense to you. There’s no right or wrong way…Add your own lines to this text, even if you don’t choose to share them with the rest of us. You might surprise yourself at how well yours fit in. I like to read poetry aloud so I can play with alternative intonations along the way. The choice of title too is up to you. Enjoy! As Paul Valéry, (French poet and philosopher), once rightly said, ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ Keep on putting pen to paper! One never knows quite what poetic jewel may appear.”

May we all go bravely forward in the Plague Years, playing, despite all, with optimistic abandon and joy!


Understanding the Middle Passage (often called the Mid-life Crisis)

This is an older video interview that I return to again and again.  It remains relevant.  I recommend starting one minute in (1:00) to avoid the chaotic music and aerobic dancers of the 1980’s which can distract from the discussion that follows.

James Hollis is my favourite Jungian.  I based my MSc major paper on the Middle Passage, specifically, as it relates to women pursuing higher education in mid to later life.  James speaks of the psyche rising up and demanding to be taken seriously after years of neglect necessitated by the need to adapt to the societal expectations to produce and perform.  Suffering is our soul’s attempt to speak to us, if we would only listen.


The Ups and Down of Learning to be Digitally Literate

I had an interesting and challenging few days this week trying to transfer a large audio file to someone else through Wetransfer.  I’m not really familiar with this file-sharing program, but since the audio file was very large, I was told that this was the best and quickest method to use.  Apparently, this should have been straightforward process, but it turned into a preoccupation and at least one sleepless night.  Wetransfer couldn’t complete the process despite many attempts.


I Could Drink a Case of You – A Joni Mitchell Grocery List by Leanne Shapton


I discovered this story while trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to transfer a very large audio file using WeTransfer.  The story popped up, and I had to read it because I love Joni Mitchell.  It’s a lovingly illustrated story, by Leanne Shapton, which incorporates some of Joni Mitchell’s food-related song lyrics and Leanne’s personal menu.  Leanne doesn’t like to cook, preferring restaurant meals, but she had little choice but to resign herself to preparing meals for her daughter and herself during the Pandemic since restaurants were and continue to be off-limits.


“Mechanical Draftsperson”

In my follow-up readings by and about Donna Haraway, I hadn’t yet picked up Eric’s reference to weaving as a specific topos within techno-feminism.  Noting the digital punchcard system of the Jacquard loom, however, I recognized a personal connection.
I worked in the Montréal needletrade from about 1989 to 2005, in commercial embroidery design for garment embellishment. When I started as a mechanical draftsperson, the next-stage digitizing of the designs that instructed the industrial machines was still sometimes encoded on rolls of punched paper tapes, although diskettes were replacing this medium. My boss–an old master of his trade–was still entitled Embroidery Puncher, and I remember him at work unspooling great coiling mounds of pink or purple tape, as he searched, I think, for the coded errors or points of adjustment he was to repair and improve.
Well, “mechanical draftsperson…” I’ve used the most descriptive terms I can come up with–graphic artist would be too catch-all, and the usual job title, Embroidery Designer, sounds extravagantly misleading.
My first job was in Ville St-Laurent, although we served larger companies in the Montréal garment district around Chabanel, notably Conrad C. Collections. And I say mechanical or technical drawing because I worked by hand, at a drafting table, with instruments such as mechanical pencils, rules, compasses and dividers. The standard procedure was to take the customer’s  artwork, usually printed at 1:1, and enlarge it by wall projection to 6:1 proportions (3:1, if by practical necessity), tracing the image on large sheets of paper cut from a hefty roll. (I think we used white bond at the time, only later translucent vellum.) I then redrew the design with geometric accuracy while incorporating specific modifications that would permit it to be rendered in thread. For example, lettering in a logo (uniform or jacket embroidered ID was a common customer item) had to be no smaller than 6mm enlarged height, and spaced accordingly, to be legibly sewn. A line to be embroidered in satin stitch similarly equalled a minimum of 6mm width. (Machine sewn running stitches were too unstable to replicate legible design consistently across large runs; they were more often used for floral decoration.) At the same time, a “left chest” embroidery should at best not exceed 3.5 inches, maximum 4; and of course the look of a copyrighted design had to still be preserved within these technical constraints. A balancing act, yes.
(This is only lesson 1 in course 100, you understand; imagine all those police, firemen’s, fraternity, and municipal crests with titles and mottoes tightly inscribed within concentric circles…proudly worn as embroidered patches on the shoulders of the elect.)
At each stage we worked the traditional enlargement process to ensure minimal design error upon reduction to actual size–a compensation for the irregularity of rapid mass production by multiple machines and operators.
My large drawing then went to the board of the Puncher, who scanned it with a mounted, sliding cross-hair cursor to create the sewing programme that was plotted onscreen at an adjacent monitor. This was micro-engineering at a much higher level of complexity than drawing, because the Puncher digitized a dimensional design path both spatially and temporally for production, planning for the greatest efficiency and economy in colour changes and stops, the fewest repeat passes, the optimal stitch count. In the very best work, the inevitable consequence was the greatest elegance as well.
But the bottom line was never romantic. Time is money: “IS THE MACHINE STILL RUNNING?” My first boss claimed to have once threaded the sewing heads as they ran, despite having a needle or two plunge through his thumb in this School of Hard Knocks. Little wonder a master puncher’s heritage of time-honed techniques, his private programmes and strategies, were hard-earned, closely-guarded trade secrets before the coming of the Microsoft share-ware era that swept first local production and then digitizing offshore to the Orient.
So, just as a final aside: I worked about 2 years at this first job, at a fixed rate of $7.00 an hour, and commuted by Metro and bus for a total of 2 1/2 to 3 hours each 8 am to 5/6 pm weekday–with occasional Saturdays, of course. And while my senior colleague, Suzanne, was “The Best Girl,” I was still ” A Great Girl.” Me too. But…yeah, kinda proud of it. 

Musician Yoko Sen became determined to transform the hospital soundscape after a harsh hospital stay


Imagine a hospital stay in which the background noise was not the constant or intermittent sound of buzzers, beeps, bells, pings, etc.

Instead, imagine the sound of tranquil music, ocean waves, bird song, the sound of a breeze through the trees, a soundscape that actually facilitates healing.


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