What To Say When There's Nothing to Say | Author: Peter Clothier


If you're anything like me, you'll have days when you wake up in the morning with that feeling of dread: when I get back to my creative work, I won't have anything to say.

It's an awful feeling. The ground seems to fall away from under me and in its place arises. P A N I C! The brain takes over, accelerates to hyperwarp speed and zooms off in its familiar search mode, rushing hither and yon in sheer desperation to find something intelligent to say. Something that makes some sense, that communicates something of importance, that will astound my readers with my wisdom and the depth of my experience and knowledge. Something that will contribute in some significant way to the well-being of this troubled world and my fellow-citizens. Something that will, well, validate me and make me feel good about myself.

Oh, and the counterpoint of course is this: if I don't have anything to say, I'm worse than useless. I'm a parasite. I'm a fraud. I know it's pretty stupid thinking, really. But the feeling is a real one.

So what to do about it? First thing, of course, as always, is to take a breath. One of the well-known human responses to panic is to stop breathing--as though that would help! So it's important to sit quietly and restore this simple and most basic act by consciously observing the breath as it enters and leaves the body, and allowing it gradually to replace the brain activity with its calming discipline. Breathing out, breathing in. And when you think of it, that in itself is inspiration, isn't it?

That done, I personally have several games I play to get back into the process of creation. Because that's what it's about: creative work is never, for me, about "saying something." It's about process. It's a dance, an interaction with medium, no matter what your medium might be: words, paint, clay, song, musical notes. As a French poet said, poetry is not a use of language; it's a madness inside language. The need to have "something to say" is no more than a barrier we put up when we're too worried, too scared, too timid, too mistrustful to let it out and damn the consequences.

(I wrote a book once whose title was"While I Am Not Afraid." The title--which said a lot about the spirit in which the book was written--came from a marvelous text by the photographer Duane Michels, which he used as a companion piece to the photograph of a male nude. It said this:

Let me write this now,
This very moment,
While I am still foolish,
Before I become sensible again
And know better;
And while I am not afraid
To say things out loud.

A text, in my book, to live by!)

So then, one of the games I play is to prolong my breath-recovery into an actual meditation session in which I purposefully try to nudge all intruding thoughts away and give the mind the simplest (and hardest!) of all tasks: to focus exclusively on the breath itself. What happens most frequently when I succeed is that the unconscious mind takes over and keeps working while my brain is busy with its concentration on the breath; when I open my eyes and return to the normal state of being, guess what? The unconscious mind has done the spadework for me. The words start effortlessly to flow. I'm ready to go.

Another game also requires some quiet reflection time: I tell myself the story of yesterday. It's not necessarily a narrative that comes up--although it might be. Very often, though, it's a single moment, an event, a mini-epiphany that arises, perhaps one that I simply passed over as it occurred and allowed to disappear unnoticed and unmemorialized into the past. It could be no more than a glance from a stranger in a crowd, the movement of a hand, the expression on a face. It could be the turn not taken, the adventure passed up in favor of the familiar route. But yesterday, for me, is always filled with moments rich in opportunity, in unprocessed, unrecorded matter--an abundant source of "what to say."

As is, of course, the Now. Sometimes, I find, I have only to look around me. The images are there. The signs. The picture of my grandfather, the dog in a patch of sunlight on the carpet, the notepad on my desk with a couple of words scribbled out on it. Each moment is a complex mother lode, replete with particular and inscrutable meaning, awaiting nothing but my pick and shovel to start mining it.

Just as fruitful, as a resource for that first image, that first word, that first "idea" is the daily newspaper. You don't have to be looking for news. There's a surprising wealth of discrete images--in the photographs, the ads, the texture of the words. Pages and pages crammed with stories, people, insights, problems, conflicts. We need not take them literally. The imagination, once it's opened up and ready for adventure, can seize on anything and run with it. What happens all too frequently is that the search for that "something to say" is precisely what shuts the imagination down, turns it off, or freezes it into inertia. Meantime the opportunity is right there, staring us in the face from a common newspaper--not to mention the inexhaustible resource of books and images that others have created in their search. Don't get me started!

Not least, there are dreams and fantasies. I'm not actually very good at remembering dreams myself, though I do believe that we can train our minds to recall where they take us in our sleeping hours. Inevitably, though, when I do remember them, my dreams create wonderful paths to follow as I write them down. Again, I'm careful not to be too attached to trying to accurately recall the detail. Once I'm on the path, I tend to follow where the words and images are leading me, rather than the strict narrative of the dream. It's the medium I trust to show me where I need to go.

Whatever game I choose to play, here's the thing: it's not only ludicrous for me to tell myself that I have nothing to say. It's also a damn lie. The more honest truth is that it's impossible NOT to have anything to say. As soon as I open my mouth, complete a gesture, perform an action, no matter how seemingly trivial, I have created meaning. I have "said something." My very inaction, my paralysis says something, as does my panic.

So I take heart when that feeling surfaces. I remind myself that it's always possible to step around this self-created barrier and venture forth, beyond it, into the unknown which is where creation happens. And I try to remind myself, as I start out on that next adventure, that I'm better off if I don't have the least idea what I'm looking for until I've found it.





About the Author:

Peter Clothier is the author of The Real Bush Diaries. Visit his Web site to learn more about his imaginary conversations with President Bush, http://www.peterclothier.com