Overcoming Writers Block

"You get a writer's bbck by being aware that you're putting it out there."

—Frank Herbert

In one of my writing workshops a young man asked me, "Do you have to be psychotic to be a writer?"

At first, I thought he was kidding and waited for his laughter, but after a few moments of silence, I realized he was quite serious. I began to wonder how many other people believed the stereotype of the emotionally disturbed writer, holed up in his cold-water flat with a half empty bottle of vodka by his side, typing away in the wee hours of the morning.

Contrary to this romantic notion, a writer must have, at least, a semi-healthy ego and confidence in his or her work and him or herself. How else can one maintain any sort of belief in oneself when faced with constant rejection? How can the writer continuously motivate him or herself to write, if nothing he or she has written has been sold? How can one keep on writing when there's no positive reinforcement to spur one on? This is a pretty formidable task for even a very secure person to accomplish, let alone someone with a fragile ego.

Through the years I have counseled writers when they became blocked and have recognized different types of writer's block. This one-on-one counseling has provided me with tremendous insight into the myriad causes of writer's block. Some causes are obvious and others less so. Some writers successfully overcome their blocks, while others remain immobilized and unable to write.

Writing is about the most personal craft any artist can perform. It is always difficult for writers to separate the writing from themselves. If a writer is depressed, feeling blocked or angry, it is often reflected in his writing. On the other hand, a musician can be angry and still play his instrument, and a dancer can be depressed and still dance, without it affecting his art.

Many screenwriters become blocked almost daily when they first start to write, especially if they're writing a new scene. One good way to get unblocked when you start to write is not to start writing a new scene. Stop your work somewhere in the middle just before you end the scene you're working on during the previous day. The next time you start writing all you'll have to do is finish writing the scene you've been working on. This gets you started immediately before you worry about beginning a new scene.

The next time you're writing, rather then becoming blocked by having to switch gears with new material, you'll start writing immediately, because you'll know exactly where you're going and how to get there.

Another method you can use to prevent yourself from being blocked is actually rewriting a couple of pages you already have written, to get into the rhythm of your words. Your writing will just flow into the next scene.

I suggest to some writers who get blocked when facing the empty page to lightly put marks on the page with a pencil or pen, so they won't face the ominous blank page. It's a good idea to read your favorite poetry for ten to fifteen minutes before you start to write. This gets your mind set into the meter and rhythm of the poem and allows you to become relaxed. It quiets your questioning mind. I have even suggested to writers who are uptight to meditate for five to ten minutes just before writing.

However these are rather basic techniques for overcoming writer's block, but writer's block can be a very complex phenomenon, and sometimes it's not that easy to break through, when you're blocked for deeper reasons.

When I consult with writers who are blocked I always find out what's going on in their life while they're working on their script. I do this so I can make a proper diagnosis, to determine whether the problem is with the WRITING or with the WRITER. I'm really serious. Sometimes writer's block has more to do with the writer and less to do with the writing.

There are writers who have been working on their screenplay literally for years, are so stuck and blocked they feel trapped and immobilized. Many times after talking to them, I find the problem has nothing to do with their writing, but has everything to do with what's going on in their life at present.

Because I strongly believe you can't separate the writer from the writing it's imperative to find out the root cause of the problem, before making recommendations on how to overcome the block.

Recently, an award-winning writer came to see me upon finishing her script, because she was blocked in her work and couldn't rewrite it.

She said, "I can't believe I wrote my screenplay without a main character! Every other character is interesting and exciting and my main character is inactive and boring. She's a victim. She isn't there. She's just an empty shell."

During our session as we discussed the script and why she was blocked, it soon became clear it was very autobiographical and I pointed out similarities between the main character and herself. She resisted my insight and became upset, because she didn't want to connect to that aspect of her personality, which she had disowned.

She kept feeling blocked and couldn't get a handle on the main character because she was too close to be objective. I tried to show her that her blind spot was exactly the same blind spot her heroine had which she was unable or unwilling to see the connection. Her main character's life mirrored her own life with the exact same issues. As we continued to work together on her current life problems she was resistant and still blocked. But soon we started to make some progress and she slowly worked on resolving her current problems. One day she blurted, "My God, I'm the main character!"

Finally, she was willing to look at herself and risk dealing with aspects of her life that were uncomfortable and hurtful, only after she admitted she was writing about her repressed self. By having the courage to realize the connection between herself and her main character, she overcame her block as she continued to solve her own personal problems. Of course, she then solved the main character's problems in her script and quickly rewrote it!

There are so many variables for writer's block. A writer's frame of mind is so important in relation to his work, that a simple solution to, "Why do I have writer's block," is never possible.

Recently, a writer who wanted advice on craft consulted with me because he was blocked and unable to finish the last part of his screenplay. He felt panicked since he was on a deadline with his producer. After I read his script I asked him, "Is there anything in the writing that's bringing up some unfinished business from your past?"

He talked about how he felt emotionally when he worked on his script. He told me about a particular painful childhood issue that kept surfacing during the writing. Together we discussed this "unfinished business," from his past and he was finally able to overcome his block and quickly finish his screenplay.

The block he had developed came from his own resistance to the material he was writing and the repressed feelings that arose during the writing process. To his credit he didn't give up, but kept working hard until he broke through the block.

The interesting point is this writer took his childhood material that originally caused him pain and transformed it into an arena of conflict between his characters. By writing from his childhood stories he was able to let go of the painful memories and work through his block. This fictional conflict turned out to be one of the high points of drama in his script. He wrote from his heart and created a dynamic script.

Another cause of writer's block happens because of the cruelty or insensitivity of other people. Several years ago, a young woman came up to me after a writing workshop and thanked me for helping her.

"I'm so grateful to you for making the workshop a safe place to read my work."

I asked her why.

She confessed, "I haven't written for over five years and this is the first time I was able to write anything. I had a writing teacher who tore my script apart in front of the entire class. I was so humiliated by his remarks. Maybe he didn't realize how he'd hurt me, but ever since then I lost all my confidence and haven't been able to write."

Few writers escape being blocked at some time during their writing career through taking workshops or being in writing groups. It's important for you not to let any teacher, colleague, friend, or family member be destructive in their criticism of your writing. Constructive criticism is fine, especially when someone makes a suggestion targeted to a specific writing problem. That is the only type of criticism I ever permit in my classes. Don't ever allow anyone to say, "You're writing stinks," "That isn't any good." "You can't write."

If you take a class and that happens with the teacher or with another student, run don't walk to the nearest exit and ask for your money back. On the other hand, writer's block might have nothing to do with thoughtless or insensitive criticisms, but can develop from the fragile balance the writer needs to have between maintaining motivation and enthusiasm in the face of self-doubt and self-criticism.

In my private therapy practice, I deal with many individuals concerning their personal relationships and inner conflicts. When they are relating their problems and recalling painful memories, many therapy clients experience a release from strong emotions they had suppressed for years.

After they dredge up these feelings in therapy and talk about them they often feel better and experience a lightness and a surge of newfound energy as they loosen the ties from the "ghosts of the past." They often have a sense of freedom and are better able to handle their present conflicts and relationships as they gain more insight.

There are other individuals who have suppressed past experiences and continue suffering in the present. They can't seem to remember any details of their past and end up feeling blocked and frustrated. When this occurs I use writing exercises as a method to help them release the pent-up emotions they're unable or unwilling to verbalize. In these cases where the person is blocked, I discovered that writing, in place of talking, was a highly effective therapeutic and powerful tool to use with clients unable to recall their childhood. Through writing they were eventually able to release their block and discover their emotions.

The same phenomenon would also happen to certain writers in my workshops. When their script involved a personal story dealing with some painful aspect of their past, their repressed feelings would manifest themselves in writer's block. With my help and guidance the writers would work through their creative or psychological blocks. I would tell them to stop writing their script and start doing specific writing exercises. These exercises helped them work through their personal blocks. After doing the exercises they broke free from their blocks. The wonderful breakthroughs which they made in their writing allowed them to experience many of the same positive benefits clients experienced in therapy.

To further illustrate this point let me relate a few actual examples. I've changed the names of those students involved to protect their privacy.

A woman in one of my workshops, whom I'll call Nancy, was writing a script about a successful career woman and her teenage daughter. The mother was attractive whereas the daughter was plain and overweight. She was also unpopular in school and very unhappy with her mother. The two had a terrible relationship that kept getting worse. The daughter became more and more rebellious and the mother became more distant and involved in her work.

Nancy worked and worked on her story and couldn't figure out the ending. She kept going around in circles. First, she'd make the mother the main character. Then she'd rewrite the ending and change it so the daughter would be the main character. She couldn't get to the core of her story and kept going off on tangents. Her script had no focus, no resolution and it didn't work.

Every time a classmate would make a suggestion she would become angry and defensive. Rather then listen to the helpful criticism, she would argue and become upset. After a long struggle, Nancy finally set up the story so the two women would have a confrontation in the climax. The daughter would confess she was secretly jealous of her mother and the mother would break down and reveal that she'd always felt inadequate as a mother. She used her work as an escape from their relationship. In the end of the story the daughter and mother discovered they truly loved each other. The two arrived at a new understanding and positive relationship.

The mother was finally able to express her love for her daughter and the daughter developed a loving attitude toward her mother and in herself.

Nancy was like a new person after she finished her script. She lost her defensive attitude and was much happier. She later told the class that the characters were difficult for her to deal with because she discovered while writing the script they really were her own mother and herself.

When Nancy selected to write this story she wasn't consciously aware of this relationship, but only after she began to get involved with the characters and their problematic relationship did she realize they were really autobiographical. Through the process of writing the script, Nancy was able to let go of the deep feelings of anger she felt toward her own mother who was now deceased. She eventually arrived at a new self-awareness about her mother and herself. Nancy was finally able to forgive her mother and in the process forgive herself. She began to release negative feelings from the past and turned them into positive ones. Writing this script was very therapeutic for her and enabled her to begin the healing process.

From the above example, you can see the need to be careful not to choose a story that is too personal, because it often doesn't work out to be such a rewarding experience as Nancy's. In spite of her frustration she didn't give up and kept on writing until she got it right. No matter how frustrating the writing became or how many unpleasant feelings that she experienced while writing her script, she had the determination to complete it.

From my perspective as both a psychotherapist and writing teacher, I often make a diagnosis based on whether or not the block is one of craft or with the writer himself. There are many reasons people become blocked and all blocks can't be treated the same. Working with blocks is as individual as the individual writers.

There are personal blocks that affect your work—blocks emanating from problems such as drinking, addictions, divorce, financial pressures, family dysfunction and conflicted relationships.

Then there are blocks the result from working environments with pressured deadlines, worrying about results, stress, poor working conditions, job insecurity, ratings, negative environment, the bottom line and fear of only being as good as your last sale.

In other cases writers may use writer's block to focus all their energy on the writing and avoid dealing with other problems existing in their lives. Maybe they've had a bad personal relationship, suffer from depression or feel stuck in a "going nowhere" job. By developing writer's block and constantly obsessing over it, they can ignore what's really bothering them. The block can be a form of avoidance, protecting them from failure, pain and rejection.

Sometimes the reasons you may give for being blocked have nothing at all to do with writing. They are merely excuses to rationalize what you might be too afraid to do. These blocks often stem from an unconscious need for self-protection. How can you be rejected if you don't write? How can you get hurt if you're not criticized? How can you be a failure if you can't produce?

Fear is all encompassing when you are a writer. There are often psychological causes for blocks, that emerge from your internal forces such as insecurity, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations, procrastination, depression and repressed emotions. These are all defenses formed to protect you against fear.

But let's suppose you aren't developing writer's block as a defense mechanism. Let's say you desperately want to write more than anything in the world. You sit at your typewriter or computer day after day and you can't write. You feel frustrated, depressed and life is unbearable, because you can't do the thing you love to do most—WRITE. You stare at the blank page and panic. Where to start? What to write? A small voice whispers in your ear, "You don't have anything exciting to say."

The voice gets louder as it laughs, "Look who's trying to write. You know it'll be rejected!" Soon the laughter drowns out your thoughts and ideas and you aren't able to produce any words onto the empty page. Every day you go to your computer to write and the well is dry. If this is the case you are truly blocked!

I have identified the following six stumbling blocks that prevent writer's from having success with their writing. All of these blocks are different aspects of FEAR!

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