This round table session was attended by eight active writers of fiction, some published, others mid-novel or polishing off manuscripts for submission to agents and publication houses. Presented here is a sampling of the lively Q&A exchange. It is our hope that readers will recognize some of their own challenges and benefit from the discussion. Dr. Joan Pastor, who counsels writers and other artists individually and in groups, encouraged participants to freely discuss personal deterrents to their writing process. Most of the problems, as you will see, are common to writers at one time or another.
(use the “+” button to uncover detail about the tabbed topics and questions.)
As a psychotherapist, I love working with creative people; in this case, writers. I am a creative person myself and I understand the challenges, the fears, the avoidance barricades one unconsciously erects. My doctorate degree in clinical psychology, including five years of Gestalt and Psychodrama training, makes me particularly suited to counseling creative people. Why Gestalt? Because it lends itself so well to the artist/writer. Gestalt theorizes that an individual is a symphony of many instruments. There’s the drum, the tuba, the violin, and they all play beautiful music. But inevitably, when played together, there are discordant notes, just as there are in a developing novel. As the writer of the symphony, your work ultimately is to become the conductor, drawing on the violin, the tuba, the drum—those parts of your inner self—as needed. In the process, you will listen to your inner ear, fine tune, reject, rewrite, until your manuscript is a perfected symphony. Why psychodrama? Initially developed for people from dysfunctional families, it is a process whereby actors are encouraged to act out a difficult scenario. The process, more often a thinking rather than an acting one, works equally well for writers struggling with a particularly difficult scene.
This is a good place to start, because it is the writer’s most common problem. It actually means different things to different people. For some it means sitting in front of a blank page. But there’s another type of block: the inability to even get to the computer.
The most important element to be aware of is that there is something in the writing, at whatever stage the block comes up, that is halting progress, e.g., some are wonderful at crafting words but getting to the storyline is difficult; or there is something in the writing that is overwhelming at the moment—perhaps it’s a cover for something you don’t want to face, it may be the weight of a publisher’s deadline, or the sudden inability to marshal one’s energies and focus. Some writers will avoid writing any way they can, by surfing the Internet, catching up on emails, or checking their bank account balances. Part of the cure is to first recognize just what it is that’s overwhelming you. Is it fear of rejection (I’m a terrible writer, no publisher will ever look at my work, etc.), a plot line that seems to have dwindled into nothingness, characters who have no depth? Or perhaps the screen is empty because you keep thinking what comes out of your head must be perfect the first time around. There are many little tricks to help get you past your writer’s block. Just one of those tricks is a “dump sheet.” It’s a fabulous tool for writers, originating from the school of journalism to develop objectivity. Grab a notepad, write down all your thoughts, beliefs, feelings, emotions, history, anything and everything, in a stream of consciousness format. This allows you to unload all your preconceived thoughts and emotions. As a writer, the best thing you can do is to start with recognizing how you’re driving yourself crazy. The purpose of the dump sheet is to empty yourself of all the garbage in your head. When you let yourself write out what you’re really thinking and feeling, it somehow releases your anxiety so that you can go on. Creativity can be very demanding because you have to go inside yourself and pull. The process of doing it, whether it’s from your emotional or intellectual base, can be very demanding. And, just so you know, the place where you block is where you grow the most.
This is another common problem. Writing requires enormous discipline and, generally, we resist discipline. It also requires focus. For many people, multi-tasking is a way of life, and the singular attention that writing demands does not always come easily. Let me suggest the following: Stop multi-tasking if this is your normal mode. Instead, begin to practice something called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness, as the word suggests, requires you to teach yourself to focus on one thing at a time. In the long run, this practice will also increase your awareness and enjoyment of life. The discipline comes from Buddhism (I have a master’s degree in religious studies with specialization in Far Eastern philosophy) and more and more psychologists are learning the techniques. Secondly, give yourself permission to move slowly, really slowly, into your writing process. If the problem is a serious one, then I suggest breaking your preparation into small steps, e.g.: (1) I will turn on the computer and wash the breakfast dishes while it boots up. (2) I will set my coffee and writing tools beside the computer. (3) I will only work on one character in my story. (4) I will work on the part of the story that feels easiest for me today. And so forth. This is called “taking the path of least resistance.”
Most important, tie your expectations to very small goals instead of overwhelming yourself with “I must write ten pages today or else!” Congratulate yourself when you accomplish the small goals. Why? It is the conscious recognition and acceptance of successes—small and large—that increase self-confidence and motivation and makes it easier to start next time. To summarize, the biggest writer’s block is overcoming all the “should dos” in one’s self. As a writer, you need to fully understand who you are and come to accept your strengths and limitations without comparing yourself to others.
According to writers’ guide books, working from an outline is the preferred method of developing one’s story. However, this process does not always lend itself to a right-brain thinker who is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture, then the details before putting them together. It is more appropriate to the left-brain thinker who is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. Creating outlines and not following them, or not creating outlines at all, is the sign of a strong right-brain and a highly creative mind. One thing that might work for you is storyboarding. In this instance, you write only key points of your story on separate index cards or post-its, or draw pictures. Pin them on a board or a wall next to your computer. Then, feel free to move them around, toss them out, or add new elements big or small to the plot as you move along.
As far as I can see, you are on the right track. I would also suggest that you do not see rewriting as a waste of time. Creativity goes through a set number of stages in order to blossom to its fullest, and one of those stages is incubation. I suspect that after you’ve done your research—if you’ve done any—and then written as much as you can, you come to a temporary dead end because your brain now has to assimilate all the parts and let them “cook” for a while. While you’re cooking, plot lines and new ideas will emerge in the most unexpected places: drifting off to sleep, dreaming, folding the laundry, while a friend is talking. If this happens to you, make sure you keep a little notebook with you so you can jot down ideas, flashes of plot lines, and so forth as they happen..
Generally, my advice to writers with this problem is that they need to get out of their comfort zone. In other words, get out of your head and into the world. This is a hard one for writers, but it is why many writers travel to exotic locations and experience them first hand. Not just to absorb the location, which is invaluable, but to have adventures.
Try to meet new people and interview them: what have they done, witnessed, and experienced? Join the Safari Club. Eat rhino meat (that is, if you eat meat but are not an adventurous eater). And don’t be afraid to steal ruthlessly from real life and build on it. Many of the best stories are drawn from real life events.
For the beginner writer, I agree with that advice. Start with what you know, what comes easiest to you, and become the best you can be in your genre, whatever it may be. Don’t try to be something that you are not unless you are ready to work very hard. Why? Because writing is connected directly to your inner self—your imagination, emotions, personal experiences—and the best writing is what comes to you naturally. Many writers rebel against working in familiar territory, but it is the place to start your writing career. The key to eventually becoming the writer you want to be is to develop your style, starting from who you are and progressing through experience and practice. As an example, I am coaching someone who is a very successful jingle and short scene writer. But he wants to write deeper, character-driven fiction, mainly to expand his voice as a writer. He and I have been working together for some time, and we are deliberately doing things to help him connect his very focused vision to a larger, ongoing story. He finds that in the process of deepening his writing skills, he is also growing intellectually and emotionally. This is very common. As your writing and creating process change and evolve, you change and evolve. It goes hand-in-hand, always.
The advice I gave earlier about storyboarding may help, but I also suggest you look into mind-mapping, which is a diagram to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing. Also, while you will have to develop your own unique method for resolving your characters’ dilemmas, it can be helpful to talk them out with someone, a friend or a family member. Again, I suggest you look into mind-mapping. You can google it on the Internet.
The way characters—male and female—gain depth involves your own internal growth, and research. In this case, in a private consultation, I would say to you, “We’re going to go online together and google feminist literature, even radical feminist literature, and women’s voice in literature.” I would recommend other books to give you a greater “feel” for the voice of today’s professional woman. My guess is that you haven’t had enough exposure to female professionals in the law enforcement arena. So, I suggest you track down women service officers, interview and tape record them if possible, not so much for the content but more to get a sense of how they talk, how they present themselves.
Please know that every person gets lost/muddled at different points in their story. Some can’t get out of the gate, others experience the “muddling” when 80% through the novel, and so forth. It is a fatigue issue, and it is also tied to where your natural strengths lie and where they don’t. Usually in these situations, what works best is to stop trying to push the story at that point and go back and work on other parts, do the research you’ve perhaps been putting aside, or work on other stories you may have in the pipeline. Another solution is to switch sensory modalities. Writers predominantly use their visual (seeing) and tactile (touch) senses. Try using your auditory modality (hearing). Begin with where you’re stuck and read the scene(s) out loud to another human being. By doing this you’re not only switching sense but environment as well. Change unlocks the brain. There’s an old Buddhist saying: “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself.” You need to give the story a rest so that the incubation phase can percolate to an “aha!” moment, a break-through.
Kevin Aldrich, a very successful writer I know and respect, told me a story recently that ultimately sums up the bottom line for writers. He happened to hear Joel Surnow, executive producer of the television show “24” as well as “La Femme Nikita,” speak about the challenges of writing at an event a few years back. An audience member asked Joel the same question that was posed earlier in this Q&A session: “How do you overcome writer’s block?” In your case, and in your words, you have trouble closing the deal. “Over the years,” Joel responded, “I have found that you have to sit in the chair for a predetermined number of hours and not get up until you’re done.” When Kevin told me the story, I laughed and told him how true this was. I asked him how he overcame writer’s block. Like Joel, he said, he had come to believe the same thing. While there are many work-arounds, some of which we’ve discussed, the bald truth is that writing is a discipline, akin to developing a muscle. The more you do it over time, the more you’re able to do it.
Recorded and edited by staff writer, Camille Cira