By Tomas Maldonado
“We’re instructed to do the negative; the positive is already within us.”
As we enter 2024, I can’t help but reflect on the stress and anxiety going on in my academic life this past year. What stood out the most was promising myself at the beginning of 2023 that I would be less distracted with my hectic teaching schedule of six college courses and more focused on writing in my favorite genres, namely poetry, creative nonfiction, and the novella. Needless to say, while I did manage to whip up a significant amount of writing in all three genres, I fought tooth and nail with writer’s block to overcome it.
Ironically, I never really gave my bout of writer’s block any real thought until one of my composition students asked me for writing advice. It was during last year’s midterms. I’m in my college writing and grammar course outlining the writing process for creative nonfiction literacy narratives. I’m stressing the importance of making the essay sound more like memoir than some drab academic essay that will most likely bore anyone to shit. I urge plot. I emphasize climax and denouement. I plead for real characters that we can fall in love with or mutually hate – or maybe both.
Usually, when I’m looking out into the crowd, my students are more engaged with their Snapchat or TikTok than with what I’m explaining. But, out of nowhere, one of my more attentive students raises her hand when I get to the part about actually sitting down to write their literacy narratives.
“Professor Maldonado, how do you get past your own writer’s block?”
I have to admit that the question stumps me. Not because I don’t know how to answer her, but for two reasons. The first is because I’m flattered that she remembers what I taught them a few weeks earlier about writer’s block. And second, it’s rare for a student to ask me about my writing process.
I pause for a moment, which seems like an eternity in the twenty second silence that engulfs us. I think about all that I produced this year and what I did to overcome it. Suddenly, I have an epiphany and a suitable way to answer her comes to me. I write two words on the whiteboard for her to take note.
“Excellent question, Deeqo. Two words. Negative capability. Together, it’s what we call an adjective collocation. The first is an adjective, the second is a noun. It’s a nominalization that’s commonly used in English literature.”
She immediately writes in her notebook then looks up to ask, “What’s that? Negative capability?”
In layperson’s terms, I give her a two-minute rundown using the whiteboard to construct symbols, images and bulleted texts to simplify a concept that theorists, writers and literary critics have devoted mounds of essays, articles and even whole chapters. It goes like this, around December 21st of 1817, John Keats – the famous Romantic poet of England, writes a brief personal letter to his two brothers, George and Thomas. He seems to be in a state of reflection on his own writer’s block as the new year approaches. Despite this, he constantly reads and engages texts until he reaches an epiphany. In order for a writer to attain a high level of achievement in writing, the kind possessed by Shakespeare and others like him, one has to reach a level of ecstasy that he coins “negative capability.” Keats defines it as, “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
I then proceed to define for my student what negative capability means to me as a writer. Simply put, it’s taking the negative and intrusive thoughts that try to prevent us from reaching our writing potential and using them to positively produce art. From the aspect of lexicogrammar, the adjective ‘negative’ is polysemous – it has more than one meaning – as it not only can convey negativity in the usual way most English speakers use it, but it also conveys a dualistic existence of two ends of a spectrum, a necessary dialectic similar to the laws of attraction in magnetism. Or how in Taoism there exists a Ying-Yang polarity - the perfect balance of good with evil, something with nothing, beautiful with ugly, hot with cold, life with death, hungry with being full, and so on. In short, in order for negative capability to emerge from deep within, one has to take non-writing from nothing and make it writing into something. How one reaches that state is negative capability.
I add that in those times when lack of creative passion lurks, I enjoy turning to literature for some hope or glimpse of inspiration in the same manner as Keats. Not so much for the mimesis of it but more so for the sake of being able to connect as a reader with the writer’s written world. That same sense of the reader-writer relationship mentioned by Barthes in The Death of the Author or by Said in The World, the Text & the Critic.
I draw on one writer who inspires me as a reader, time and time again, to overcome my own dilemma of writer’s block as a writer: Franz Kafka. My student looks on. She decides to stop taking notes. She puts her pen down and listens. Everyone else in the class is there physically. Mentally, they’re stuck in the world of musically induced ten-second social media clips or scrolling past politically incorrect memes. They’re hiding their phones, or at least they think they are, even though I can see everything from where I stand. My student’s facial expressions tell me that she needs more examples. I keep going.
In his diary entry for Monday, September 23, 1912, a then twenty-nine-year-old Kafka sat down to write after unsuccessfully being able to produce anything productive or satisfying. He spent eight hours, from ten o’clock to six o’clock in the morning, writing The Judgment (Das Urteil in the original German) – a harrowing short story unwinding the bitter relationship between a father and son. Kafka describes this moment of negative capability as one of coherence, a total pouring out of his body and soul. He elaborates in a later entry, six months afterwards, whilst reading over the proofs for The Judgement before it’s published, that the story came out of him that night similar to “a real birth covered in filth and slime.” For Kafka, it was a moment of joyous celebration and a major accomplishment in his writing development.
Likewise, I relate to Kafka’s dilemma of writer’s block. And in the same way that he decided to just sit down and write - to pour out his body and soul despite his own self-criticism and imposter syndrome - and in the same way that Keats battled his own uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, I share with my student the writing practice that I use for myself. The turning of non-writing from nothing into writing from something.
I begin first by writing every single day, even if only for fifteen minutes. I use that small amount of time to write what I’m feeling at the moment and I don’t stop until I’ve reached the fifteen-minute mark – using a digital stopwatch is ideal for me. Once I’ve finished my timed writing, I leave what I wrote for the next day. Next, I spend the rest of the day reading literature or something of interest as it may inspire later on. When the next day arrives, I read what I wrote out loud. I usually find something to revise whether adding or subtracting. It’s in this process that I feel like I.E. Lonoff, Roth’s central character in The Ghost Writer, who describes his writing process in a day as turning sentences around until they make meaning. After turning sentences around and playing with syntax, metaphors or any other area of wordplay, I do another timed writing, only I set my timer for twenty minutes and add on to what I’ve revised. I do this for a few weeks, adjusting my timed writing based on my mood – some days I feel like fifteen, others I feel like twenty, while on others I go a full thirty minutes to an hour. Each timed writing, I rely on my inner-negative capability. By the end of the month, I re-evaluate my writing and see where it has taken me. In some cases, I’ve completed a poem, a creative nonfiction piece or even a short story. In rare cases, I hesitantly hit delete.
I remind my student that while she doesn’t have the privilege of a month to do her creative nonfiction literacy narrative, she does have the power to experiment with her own negative capability to write freely within the given due date. One of the important factors is using time wisely. There’s an amazing proverb in the I-Ching, as explained by Wu Wei, that I share with her that beautifully sums up using time wisely: “Great and difficult goals are accomplished in simple, easy steps.” Little by little, any kind of writing can be accomplished alongside tapping into one’s negative capability.
“Thank you for your question, Deeqo. I hope I was able to address your concerns. Let’s end a little early today and see how using my advice this weekend works out for you.”
My answer seems to satisfy her to the point that she whips out her iPhone, asks me to step aside from the whiteboard, and proceeds to click away at my explanations. After I dismiss the class and head home for the day, I begin thinking about negative capability and its significance in overcoming my own writer’s block.
"Hey, Tomas! Why don’t you write about this as an essay? Maybe someone can benefit from it," I tell myself.
So, I sit down in my study with a glass of Merlot and begin to write this essay as we ring in the new year.
About the Writer:
Tomas Maldonado is a Mexican-American creative nonfiction writer and poet who teaches English for Academic Purposes, Intensive English and English Composition at his local community college and university in South Central Minnesota. He uniquely blends creative writing in his TESL courses while mentoring his multilingual students as they journal their writing experiences via poetry and creative nonfiction. When he’s not taking long walks through Kampala, he’s making snow angels in Mankato.