John Munder Ross, Ph.D.

John Munder Ross Ph.D.

The Talking Cure

The (Script) Doctor Will See You Now

A new cure for writer's block

Posted Aug 03, 2016

Pretty much anybody who has ever written anything has at one time or another experienced writer’s block. But if you don’t make your living from writing, it isn’t so bad. You may struggle through a memo or short talk here and there, but there’s usually somebody—a ghostwriter or editor—or something—a beta-blocker or anti-anxiety pill—to help you through a time-limited ordeal. After all, it’s not the main event, not your main job as a doctor, consultant, or executive. There’s a lot else for you to do.

But for the full-time novelist, biographer, memoirist, screenwriter, playwright, or journalist, writer’s block makes for a nightmare.

Because you’ve chosen to read this blog post, I’m guessing that you are indeed a writer of one kind or another who, when stymied, has tried just about everything to get over the hump. For you, not writing means not only not fulfilling your creativity and disappointing yourself but also not doing what you’re supposed to be doing and disappointing others, the editors or producers who depend on getting what you write on time. And of course, if you can’t produce, you can’t make a living and provide for yourself and your family. Not everyone is a Joyce Carol Oates or Stephen King. But a decent output is expected.

In search of a cure, more likely than not you’ve tried just about everything. Psychoanalysts who talk to you about your “fear of success” because of your “Oedipus complex.”  Books that offer 12-step strategies or exercises that aim to grease the wheels and unblock you. Meditation, acupuncture, even vegan or gluten-free diets to clear your head. Anything but the real thing, working on the work itself, which remains sight unseen.

The results of talking about what you aren’t doing and why in the abstract? Or of writing exercises that mimic doing what you have to do?  Little or nothing, I’m afraid. I don’t mean to dismiss the psychotherapy and self-help industries—I am a psychotherapist myself—but the writers who have tried just about everything and still can’t put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and who come to me as a last resort are pretty much at their wits end.

Let’s start by taking a good hard look at exactly what you’re feeling and doing when you’re not writing.

Ruminating: Fretting over the consequences of a block rather than focusing on the work itself only makes matters worse. Daunted by the specter of dire consequences, you do anything to avoid that laptop whose blank screen stares back at you with admonition and contempt.

Absentmindedness: Just when you’re about to settle down to business, there are those mysterious mishaps that just keep on happening. You forget your Mac in the taxi. Somehow you fail to save a file. Or in a slip of the finger, you delete a day’s work. Sure, you can reconstruct what you’ve done, but it never feels quite as good as the original, and it sets you back for hours, sometimes days. You save your agent’s vexed voicemails and star as important her emails, but you answer them as cursorily or evasively as possible. Excuses? Your long deceased grandmother ate your homework?

Self-torture: Rather than use them to write, you throw up your hands in dismay. Mired in guilt over procrastination, you don’t allow yourself to play with your delicious fantasies, clever word choices, and inventive tropes. You, forgetting that you wanted and chose to write because it’s pleasurable, downright fun at times. And that, how shall I put it, creating gives “you “license to kill,” to speak truths banished from everyday life. But herein lies the nature of that guilt.

Guilt over exactly what, you ask? It seems so irrational!

Yes, it is irrational, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. It is mysterious, and unconscious. And whatever the commonalities— such as the “fear of success” that psychologists talk about—the specifics of the guilt are different for everyone.

As I’ve found with patient after patient, it’s not the paralysis but the creating that is making you feel guilty. So you turn an opportunity into a chore, yes, into a middle schooler’s homework.  

But as a writer, you may be in luck. Encrypted in your problem is its own solution. Where other people have to search their minds and tell their story by “free associating,” for you “stream of consciousness” is a way of life.  Like Poe’s purloined letter, the answer’s there, right before your very eyes. You just have know where and how to look.

For you, the answer is to be found in the text. It’s in the content of what you’re writing.

Some element in the story—a character, a scene, a plot development that the writer is trying to execute—is fraught with uncomfortable autobiographical resonances and/or symbolic meanings. And so if the writer is to become unblocked, therapist and patient must plunge headfirst into that story, figure out the hidden wishes, traumas, or revelations that are holding him or her back.  

In a word, writer's block can’t be dealt with as an abstraction. It must be dismantled by helping the writer wrestle with the exact nature and meaning of the characters and actions on the page.

But patient and doctor can’t stop there. Aided by insight into the individual writer’s own life and in the presence of therapist who stays with him as he works, the writer then must overcome his inhibitions by actually telling and retelling the story and endowing its personas with his very own conflicts and quirks.

With this, the creative process becomes in and of itself a therapeutic one. Not only is the writer unburdened, but the writer’s personal secrets, desires, traumas are recast into a form of art that enlightens and inspires readers and audiences. In putting into words what Faulkner called “the truths of the human heart,” the storyteller is no longer alone. In his understanding of impact of tragedy on the audience, Aristotle had a name for these phenomena: catharsis, a term Freud later borrowed to explain the “talking cure.”

As a novelist and memoirist friend of mine once put it, whereas the psychologist starts with the universals and amasses its particulars, the artist implicitly expresses the universal in the particulars, in the telling details of his narrative, which most often derive from specific experiences in his real life and the feelings these evoked.         

This brings me to full disclosure: At 71 I’m a senior clinician and extensively professionally published full professor of psychiatry in a couple of top-rated medical schools. But I have an additional skill set. It’s an expertise that allows me to see my patients’ world pretty much as they see it.

I myself am an artist, a lapsed actor-director and once and future storyteller. I grew up making up and acting out stories and at seven years old was cast in a Broadway play by that “Grande dame of the theatre” Uta Hagen, though my father nixed my opportunity to appear on Broadway. I devoured movies and imagined myself on the silver screen. I mimicked accents and speech patterns and in college was dubbed “the man with a thousand voices.”  

I went on to act and direct plays at Harvard in its theatrical heyday with several peers destined for stardom and, while in graduate school, at iconic Off-Broadway venues such as La Mama and Playwright’s Horizon. I had leads in a couple of films. I’ve even been invited to act a couple of times in the last few years (playing King Lear —and Sigmund Freud, of all people).

I’ve peopled my popular books with fictional protagonists in short stories rather than case histories of patients, whose privacy I’m sworn to protect. And schooled by all the dialogue that has come my way over the last four decades of listening, I’ve written a play, several screenplays, and a memoir.

After many years of clinical work, I realized that at, without quite knowing it, I was bringing this other self—actor and author—into the consulting room the whole time. When people tell me about things, I see and hear them. A movie runs in my mind as I find myself in each individual’s world, past and present, imagined and real. On occasion, we even come up with the same words at the same time to describe a thought or an event in these stories.

As a result, most diagnoses, procedures, and generalities have fallen by the wayside for me. Good riddance, for, whatever they share with others, each person remains unique in all respects. Patients, I learned long ago from Erik Erikson, who was himself an erstwhile visual artist, are far more than mere bundles of psychopathology.

Not a few discoveries come the way of scientists and doctors as happenstance, when they least expect it. And so it was with this new treatment modality, one that challenged pretty much everything I’d learned and then taught over the course of 40 years.

Fifteen years ago a famous actor who had begun an analysis with me sought my professional expertise in assessing the veracity of a role that he was about to enact on screen, that of a split personality (what clinicians we call a dissociative disorder).  Perusing the script he brought me, I found myself attentive not only to the validity of his character’s psychology but also, despite myself, to all sorts of other aspects of the plot and the players in this the story and to the plausibility of the its events—timelines, backstories, the like.

Wouldn’t a coroner be able to determine the time and cause of death of someone whom his character had strangled and whose wrists he later slit as the corpse lay in a bathtub to make her the demise look like suicide? Wouldn’t it be both more true to life, more dramatic, and scarier if the child in danger ended up with the same creepy disorder as his father in the final moments of the film? , as revealed or to be revealed? in the film’s epilogue? In  making  plot developments more believable and compelling, would not the characterization of the psychopath be more believable?

But did I dare take off one designated hat and put on another? Would I be breaking the cardinal rule of absolute anonymity and crossing the sacrosanct boundary between patient and doctor? I trusted my gut, decided that in no way was I invading much less exploiting my patient, and did what came naturally. I gave my patients my edits for his, and the director’s, consideration.      

The result?  Many if not all of my suggestions were wound up incorporated into the film, making the thriller more real and more frightening. Later, when my patient was directing his own movie, he asked me once again to edit the script and to follow it up by attending a series of screenings. And yes, his psychoanalysis—four days a week on the couch—continued for many years thereafter with good results.

Over time writers themselves—screenwriters, playwrights, novelists, memoirists, commentators—have brought to me their works in progress when encountering an impasse. If I could work on a script with an actor, I thought, why not with a writer? Why not delve directly into the meat of the matter as a matter of course while accessing and further freeing a person’s imagination? And if art provides a medium in which an artist’s traumas can be healed, as many psycholgists have thought, wouldn’t the doctoring process itself be therapeutic?”

And so,  step by step, I have constructed an altogether new form of therapy that, I believe, that does not waste the client’s time, or the clinician’s, and that kills two birds with one stone.

A creator’s life story, desires, conflicts infuse the universe she or he creates. Artists yearn to tell their stories—in symbolic and fanciful ways, which is where the artistry lies—but can find themselves stalled because of anxiety and guilt. Understanding the source of their inhibitions and repositioning their own compunctions, inhibitions, and desires in their protagonists’ personas gets the script job done just as the writing itself becomes ever more therapeutic.