Writer's Block

Getting into the chair and staying there.

Posted May 29, 2012

I see a lot of writers in my practice and every one of them has gotten blocked at one time or another. It isn’t hard to figure out why. Imagine sitting in a room by yourself trying to create a whole new world populated with entertaining and original characters. Now imagine doing it day after day. It’s lonely, difficult work. The temptation to do something else—anything else—is maddening. All kinds of activities call you like a siren’s song; answering e-mails, making phone calls, even doing laundry can become an irresistible distraction.

If you break down the writing process carefully, you find two points when a writer gets blocked. The first is when she has to get herself to sit down and start writing. (Believe it or not, some don’t make it. I’ve treated writers who have gone for six months without writing a word.) If a writer makes it past the first point, she has to face the second: keeping herself in the chair, continuing to write. Each of these points poses a different obstacle for the writer.

The difficulty of getting yourself into the chair is pain. The type of pain differs from writer to writer. For one, it might be dread: the prospect of having to invent an entire world is a little like having the creative responsibilities of God—with none of the superpowers. The task feels impossible. For another person, the pain might be the inner opposition we all face whenever we have to do something unpleasant—like going to the dentist. Whatever form the pain takes, the solution is to be able to move through it. In a previous blog, we discussed the Reversal of Desire, the tool that gets you to move through pain (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-tools/201205/through-the-pain-barrier).

Once you get a writer to move through the pain and start writing, you face a different problem: helping her stay there and continue writing. That depends on the writer’s ability to generate what we call “flow.” Most writers are familiar with flow; it’s the sense that something wiser and more fluent is using you as a conduit for the writing. One writer-patient described it this way: “When I finished my script, I felt like I hadn’t authored any of it. I’m just not that good. It felt like the whole thing had been dictated to me and I copied it down.”

But there is a catch. Flow doesn’t come to those who try to express themselves well. Flow comes to those who express themselves freely. This is obvious if you watch little kids playing. They’re in a flow state exactly because aren’t evaluating how well they’re expressing themselves; they’re in a flow state because they’re free of such adult concerns.

It’s easy for a child to play an imaginary game and reach a flow state—she has nothing at stake. It’s much harder for an adult writer who depends on writing to make the monthly mortgage payment. For the adult writer to reach a flow state, she has to do something counterintuitive: she has to accept flawed writing. This is why one of the homework assignments I often give to blocked writers is to start with the worst sentence they can imagine. If they can get through that and keep going, then they can start to flow.

Here’s the truth about writing (or any other form of self-expression): If you can’t accept the bad, you can’t get to the good. It’s as if the flow is pure, clean water trapped behind dirty, disgusting sewage. If you can’t welcome the sewage and let it flow through you, you’ll never be able to get to the pure stuff. There is a tool we’ve developed that allows you to do this, which we will describe in an upcoming post.

-- Barry Michels