Next week, the "Soloist" hits theaters. It's something of a true story. Robert Downey Jr. plays LA Times journalist Steve Lopez who fought through a bad case of writer's block by telling the story of Nathanial Ayers, a homeless man Lopez befriended. The homeless man happened to be one of the world's greatest cello players, and would be again, if he could just get over that bad case of paranoid schizophrenia.
Obviously, this movie will have a psychological impact (today, Deborah De Santis wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about what it has to say about mental illness), but I'm interested in a different psychology: the question of writers block.
As someone who has made a living out of words for over 20 years, this is a topic I find interesting-but not because I've ever suffered that fate.
Nor, I believe, should anyone else. So what follows, for better or worse, is how I've managed to avoid the dreaded condition.
The first trouble here is in defining terms. And to understand the term "writer's block" it's helpful to understand that creativity exists on a scale. On one end is the proverbial impasse, on the other is what psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls a "flow state."
In his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," Csikszentmihalyi describes it this way: "being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter: the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
What he's describing is the merger of action and awareness and when this happens to a writer, the work is effortless. It feels less like writing than it does like channeling.
I wrote the last 70 pages of my last book in a flow state and it took less than a week and required almost no rewriting before publication. And every writer I know has had a similar experience. And this is critical because it allows us to define writer's block as something concrete, as a total absence of flow.
In the past 25 years, because flow also underlies happiness and productivity and other hot topics, a significant amount of research has gone into understanding the state.
Csikszentmihalyi has written a dozen excellent books on the subject (as have a dozen other psychologists) and everyone is pretty clear on conditions necessary to produce flow.
Basically, flow is impossible if you hate what you're doing, so you have to learn to love writing before it'll ever be easy. But the following steps, besides helping develop flow, will also help you learn to love writing, so here goes.
For flow, there are four critical components: clear goals, concentration and focus, immediate feedback and a correlation between level of challenge and level of one's skills to rise to that challenge.
Clear goals, in this case, means understanding winning. This is something I hear all the time when I'm lecturing about writing—how do I know when I'm done? Well, I think a piece of writing is finished when it's a piece of writing I want to read. That's my criteria. Is it fun. Does it make me happy to read it again. If I like it my assumption is someone else will as well. That's it. I don't strive for greatness or genius or anything else. Just simple reading pleasure.
Focus and concentration are perhaps the easiest to solve. Think of these skills as muscles. If you don't use them, you lose them. The reason to write every day is because it keeps you in shape to write every day. Focus and concentration becomes a habit.
But more than that, make sure the habit stays enjoyable. Personally, I follow a bit of advice I stole from "100 Years of Solitude" author Gabrial Garcia Marquez: always stop writing when you're most excited.
Most writers think of creativity as fleeting-something that might be gone tomorrow, even if it's here today. But creativity is really nothing more or less than being excited about an idea and where it might lead. Essentially, this is the brain's pattern recognition system at work. But if you write until all the creativity and fun has drained away, then writing tomorrow will be a slog long before you've even started writing. You're giving the pattern recognition system nothing to play with. So follow Marquez's advice and that problem tends to disappear completely.
Immediate feedback, for writers, means editing. Most good writers learn to love editing. Most find it way more fulfilling than writing. Editing allows you to really have fun. To tinker. To develop craft. Writing means getting the stuff out of your head and onto the paper, editing allows you to shape it. If you worry too much about how you're saying it the first time it's going to foul up the brain's pattern recognition system and hamstring creativity. So don't worry. Go back and reread and rewrite and edit. Use the quality of your past work to drive you future work.
I actually combine the last two steps-quitting while excited and editing. The first thing I do every morning is reread and rewrite what I wrote yesterday. As long as I quit while excited I'm going to love rereading the same section. My concern here is less about getting it right, than about making it slightly better. Right comes with a dozen passes over the material, my goal with each editing session is to make it slightly better than before.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the balance between challenge and skills. Since I know I have the skills to write, if I'm having trouble rising to the challenge one of two things has gone wrong.
1. I don't know where I'm going so am having trouble getting there. This problem gets solved fast by outlining my ending.
2. If I have nothing to say, then maybe it's because I literally have nothing to say. I haven't done my homework. So the first thing I do when stuck is more research. I read everything. I dream up questions and then I call people a lot smarter than myself and ask. I try to poke into odd directions. I purposefully engage my brain's pattern recognition system with tangents. I get off topic so I can later get back on topic.
Anyway, this is what I've done for the past two decades and it has served me well. I thought I'd pass a bit of it along.