During a period in the mid 1950’s, after he had moved to San Francisco, poet Allen Ginsberg suffered from a year-long writer’s block. He was profoundly unhappy working at an ad agency, and wasn’t writing.
Finally, his therapist recommended that he do what he really wanted to do: quit the secure job, plunge headlong into the uncertain, bohemian underworld and spend his time writing, getting high and having unusual experiences with his fellow artists and Beat Generation companions.
Ginsberg took the advice to heart, quit the day job and never looked back. He began writing poetry with renewed vigor in a spontaneous style that resulted in Howl. Howl was a remarkably influential work on both literary and social dimensions, and was the subject of a much-publicized obscenity trial, which heightened its fame even more. The 2010 movie Howl explores this period of Ginsberg’s life, with James Franco in the role of the hipster bard.
What’s the lesson in this for struggling writers? It’s that sometimes we need to check in with ourselves to see if we are following our genuine interests in our work. We might be drawn to create or write that which does not make immediate sense to ourselves or others. We may need to let go of something that seems to be the “sensible thing to do” in order to find the essence of what we really want to express.
Ginsberg threw himself into honestly expressing all aspects of his life, impulses, sexuality, spirituality, and confusion – knowing that many would react with judgement or outrage. It took courage, and for many of us, addressing a writer’s block may call for a good dose of that. To leave the safe and familiar is scary, but the writers that I know who’ve denied their creative impulses all paid a price in their happiness or their health.
I had the good fortune of living in Boulder for a few years in the 1970s, where I was able to be around Ginsberg and several other Beat writers who taught at Naropa University. I even got to back him up on guitar one night at a concert of some of his songs. This was some 20 years after Howl, but he was still an amazingly creative and energetic presence who also remained a highly productive writer through the decades.
Be like Allen Ginsberg. Do what you really want to do – it may free up your words.