Writer's block, an owner's guide: Power Writing
I wish I could show you Daphne Gray-Grant’s “Power Writing” newsletter. What do I like about it? It is as short as possible. It wastes none of my time selling the author’s services (so I’m more likely to buy them). Sometimes, it even says things I’m glad I read.
It’s aimed at professionals writing corporate communications, and it’s none the worse for that – more purposeful and practical than much of the advice in those books you paid for. Possibly – Daphne is reticent about herself – it comes from Vancouver. Since there’s no archive, the best advice I can give you is to read the one lonely online sample, which will take you two minutes, and then sign up and try it.
From the latest newsletter: “I sent my friend a note saying how much I enjoyed her article and she replied immediately and succinctly: ‘It was newsletter hell — very hard to write.’ While this didn’t exactly surprise, because I’ve had the same feeling so often myself, it did make me reflect on our tendency as writers to mix up process with product.” Which she does, concisely, clearly, and with practical tips.
Published on November 9, 2007 at 5:01 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/power-writing.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Hypnotherapy for writer’s block
As you can imagine if you’ve been following this journal, I still don’t have much time to write about writing – I barely have time to write. But let me draw your attention again to Ben Dean’s useful newsletter the All But Dissertation Survival Guide which is targeted at academic writers but totally applicable to all forms of writer’s block.
Because I do hypnotherapy, I was specially interested in the story his guest writer Dr Geoff Michaelson told this month.
I arrived at the office very curious about what would happen. The hypnotherapist spoke to me in a matter of fact way. I remember him saying in a very curious way, with a Cheshire smile, Isn’t it nice that things can change?” I started laughing. He said something else that sounded like the first phrase but was more personal.
Within a few months I completed my work and graduated in the fall of that year. A lot changed very quickly. What remained obscure was the phrasing of the second suggestion and why the impact of this one session and two simple phrases had been so profound…
Unfortunately the newsletter is not fully archived so there’s no way you can read the whole story. Sign up, why dontcha.
Published on July 12, 2005 at 8:31 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/hypnotherapy-for-writers-block.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Writer’s block and the Zone (part 5)
“It’s almost midnight, the time when some mystery writers believe their best work is done. But as we peer through the drapes and onto the cluttered den of a writer I have in mind, he is not writing. For some reason he is making strange sounds and staring at a blank sheet of paper.
“The following morning we visit the bedroom study of a well-read children’s book author. It is a little past nine and her youngsters are in school. Her husband has been at his office since eight. She has six delicious hours for her work. But she is not writing either. Instead, she is smoking and pacing and muttering. Why?
“There is a very good chance that if it were possible to monitor writers in this country and abroad, we would find many of them grappling with the same invisible presence: a two-headed monster whose insatiable appetite consumes creative energy with one head as the other devours confidence.”
This is the opening of Right Brain Write On!, by Bill Downey, published 1984 but still in print. It’s a fine description of some of the ways writer’s block affects us.
But what is all this talk about your brain?
I have no idea whether the left and right brains really work in different ways as so many people say they do. That’s a little embarrassing to say, because I work with EEGs every day and with their relationship to behavior and experience. But I do not know or care whether the left brain is the orderly rational part of you or whether the right brain is your artistic creative part. That’s of no importance for my work.
And it’s of no importance to us here and now. Downey wasn’t writing about neurobiology, he was writing about accessing your creativity and about not being blocked by your rationality. He just happened to give his book a catchy title using trendy 1980s language.
He seems to have picked up the right-brain idea from Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book about drawing and painting for people who just can’t do things like that. I remember that book from the 80s; I even bought it, and her ideas seemed to work (I still can’t draw, but that is not her fault, I just Failed to Apply Myself).
I learned that, even though I can’t copy a picture of a person when I know that it’s a picture of a person, I can copy it quite well if I turn it upside down. That says something really interesting about cognitive psychology. It says something about how my preconceptions limit my ability to see what’s in from of me. It’s a clue to how I could switch off my Inner Editor and think outside the box and release my creativity. But it doesn’t matter what parts of the brain are involved. The right and left stuff, the way Edwards and Downey both use it, is just a metaphor, just a handle to help us grasp their ideas about creativity.
So let’s not talk about neurobiology. Let’s talk about writer’s block, Downey’s two-headed monster (I guess it must have two right brains) and about unleashing the hounds of creativity.
Actually, writer’s block is not what the book’s about. This is just one more engaging, interesting book about the craft of writing. It includes almost 60 pages of interviews (not about neurobiology) with various writers, quite a few of whom are people I have heard of.
Then why am I mentioning this book here at all? Because Downey’s description of “crossing over to the right brain” is exactly like a description of flow. “When I glance at the clock and see I have been writing for several hours, I am stunned,” one writer told him. “I did not hear [the phone] ring.”
Other writers told him about a strong sense of involvement in their scenes, and a deep satisfaction at the end of the session.
So writing in the right brain is the same thing as writing in flow.
This isn’t a scientific discovery. What I’m saying is that these are two out of many ways of describing a particular state. Think of them both as metaphors, if you will. Whichever works for you, works for you. Different routes to access the same goal, which another of Downey’s writers called “heaven.”
I think what this left / right thing is about is the difference between thinking and feeling. One of the reasons that getting into flow, into right brain, into pure feeling, is harder for writers than for, say, painters is that writers more or less have to do some thinking. If we were musicians or runners we could operate on instinct and body-learning. We could get the flowing, uncomplicated feeling of what it’s like to be an animal (your cat doesn’t really think, she just does her cat thing, she just is, she just responds to the environment, she doesn’t ever figure things out and probably can’t count to three). What bliss to be in the flow state, simply running through the trees doing what nature meant you to do!
I’m saying here something just slightly complicated. I’m saying that in my personal opinion, flow has to do with a reduction in thinking and an increase in what I called “instinct and body-learning.” Flow puts us more in touch with our drives and our basic rewards; bringing us closer to our essential animal nature, and burrowing under the intellectual layer that every human lives above. Flow stops the constant annoying chatter of your own thoughts, just as meditation does. Just being where you are, doing what you are doing. As the Zen master said, “when I am hungry I eat.”
Animals don’t have thoughts, as far as I can tell. They certainly don’t have the same worries and self-censorings and other left-brain problems that the curse of language has burdened us with. But then why do animals have left brains at all? It can’t be just because most of them would look so ugly with half a head.
To be continued…
Published on April 20, 2005 at 8:04 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/writers-block-and-the-zone-part-5.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Bird by Bird (last time for now)
Done with the Anne Lamott book at last. It’s long, and without a wasted word.
I stand by what I said before. It happens to be about writing, and to be simultaneously authoritative and humble; go read it for that alone; but that’s not the point. The point is that the author is courageous in talking about fear and doubt.
And she is not the first to talk about those, but she is rare in how she talks about them. As I said before, she talks about them in simile and metaphor that tell the truth more brutally, more recognizably, more thank-goodness-I’m-not-the-only-crazy-one than most writers would dare.
Authenticity. The thing I strive for in the therapy office. A strength in a writer too.
I’d send this book to my daughter, a professionally published author, and I’d send it to my sister, a writer and recovering librarian, but I wouldn’t want them to think I was just sending them a how to write textbook. This is something else. This is a piece of writing.
And now – just as I said three days ago – let’s try to get back to the theme of the weblog.
Published on March 22, 2005 at 9:09 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/bird-by-bird-last-time-for-now.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Bird by Bird (again)
Yes, Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird again. I can’t put this one down. I can’t read just enough to get a flavor of it and then move on to something else.
This is good.
Mind you, while reading Bird by Bird I’ve also read 1.5 books on creativity and flow. It’s a bird’s life being a psychology researcher.
Must… finish… book!
Published on March 20, 2005 at 10:55 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/bird-by-bird-again.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Bird by Bird
As with other books, I delayed opening Bird by Bird because people had told me how good it was.
It’s feckin amazing. If I told you it was masterly, that would give the wrong, stuffy, impression. This Anne Lamott woman writes as I would like to – with personal courage and a light touch; with vivid far-reaching metaphors that I totally get and that she never insults me by explaining; and without putting a foot wrong. And she knows all about writing.
Turns out it’s not really about writer’s block, any more than The Shining (why is it called that?) or Secret Window (why is it called that?) are movies about blocked writers. Just a book about the craft of writing.
A few random things that I noted while I was, finally, reading it for the first time. Lamott says that the thrill of seeing oneself in print “provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.” I agree: the Friday night when I first heard my own lines in a national broadcast, without warning, without the contract having reached me in the mail, it shocked me sober. But this is the opposite of the other thing I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this blog, about how going public with your material makes you vulnerable, about how once you are in print people can judge you at their leisure and unstoppably. Both points of view are correct, of course.
Writing in flow (she doesn’t call it that, but I take that liberty because it suits my larger purpose) she describes as “a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is glad you did it.” On finding out what you are writing: :Think of a fine painter attempting to capture an inner vision, beginning with one corner of the canvas, painting what he thinks should be there, not quite pulling it off, covering it over with white paint, and trying again, each time finding out what his painting isn’t, until finally he finds out what it is.” And finally “just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t.”
But these are just passages that struck me as interesting or well-expressed. I almost wish I hadn’t quoted them. They convey nothing of the perfection of the writing. And it’s not, thank goodness, a book about my subject. Just a good book about the writer’s craft. Full of clear hints (I know what I mean) without ever being didactic. Full of individual coloration that makes it intensely her own and at the same time intensely resonant with my European masculine consciousness. “Bird by Bird” – I liked it.
Published on March 13, 2005 at 10:29 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/bird-by-bird.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: The Courage to Write
Like I said before, I’ve been reading The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes (1995).
This is all about fear and courage. Keyes argues, forcefully, that writers all face fear. This is denied by my journalist friends, but the book seems to be mainly about fiction and essays, where Keyes’s point of view is definitely worthy of attention.
He begins by normalizing this fear. If his reader wants to write, and write well, he hints, the reader must join the company of the courageous, who dare face their own worst demons. He does this argument no favors by opening with a portrait of E. B. White. White apparently was multi-phobic throughout his life. I see no reason to conclude that the rest of us are doomed to share his possibly pathological fears about writing, any more than we would share his other oddities. But the book quickly becomes more convincing and is packed with illustrations from other writing lives.
The fear of completing a work – of putting it in the mailbox, putting it beyond our control, never being able to perfect it – is well described and well illustrated. Yes: I believe this same fear is one of the reasons why deadlines defeat block. When I write to a deadline, seeing the final version swallowed up by the fax machine gives me a sense of relief and release, rather than dread. I’ve done my best within the parameters and it doesn’t say anything about whether I would write well or badly (or at all) if I had all the time in the world. Let the editor come back to me with comments, I have my answer, and my answer is thanks.
Also, this is one of the fears that blogging overcomes; I love the freedom to go back and improve my posts, and you may be sure that I use it.
Keyes goes on to describe the courage needed to imagine the reaction of friends and family. Our internal “censor in chief” is usually a spouse or parent, sometimes a relative, friend or old teacher. He lists many examples of writers whose families were hurt by appearing in the writing; and some others who were reconciled or helped by it. I wanted to ask whether you really have to write about your own family. The book replied, “Many start writing fiction as a dodge, thinking it will provide a good hideout from themselves. Yet those who write stories and novels to escape from themselves invariably discover that this is who they stumble over at every turn… they are the most self-exposed authors of all.”
“Successful writers rarely emerge from the ranks of the popular. Those who went to the prom seldom take up the pen.” Is this true? I’m not sure. If writing is a symptom of a social disability, then I’m against writing. If it’s a way of growing out of a childhood lack of skills, then I’m for it. But anyway… is that true, or are we speaking of a subset of writers (the book seems, to my immigrant eye, to concentrate on the more patrician or “literary” American writers)? I wish I could hear from thriller writers and some others on this question.
In my many years practicing law I fought the hopeless battle against jargon and obfuscation. The excuse second-rate lawyers give for writing business letters in the same phrases their grandfathers used is that there can be no question about what it all means. Rubbish! The poor paying customer has nothing but questions about what the hell it all means. To this day Scottish lawyers write to ordinary blue-collar paying customers in Latin phrases: my favorite is when they say that they have done something “per incuriam.” The poor paying customer has no idea that this means “carelessly.” It’s rude, and it’s cowardly.
Things sound so much better when nobody knows what you are telling them anyway. In the end, though, I learned a use for obscurity. As a senior official in local government, I quickly learned to look forward to scary-looking public meetings as a welcome break from the cubicle. The trick to enjoying was simply to give some sort of answer to every question I was asked. Nobody cared what the answer was. Local politicians wanted voters to see them being awake and taking an active part in the meetings; by responding in a respectful tone and in long words my job was done.
Keyes has a lot to say about (often unconscious) deliberate obscurity. It protects us – academics, upmarket novelists, business thinkers – from the risk of someone noticing that what we are actually saying is wrong or trivial.
A final personal note is that I am going to adopt from Keyes the word “counterphobia.” The most important thing I know, and a thing I often tell therapy clients but which you can have today for free, is this: fear is not, in itself, a reason for not doing something The most exciting growth opportunities I have known came from seeking out those activities that cause anxiety. And now I have a name for that.
This book won’t tell you what to do, this is not a self-help manual; but it will tell you many tales of things that have worked for other writers. The chapter on “Should you write in the nude?” is full of behavioral aids and it reminds me of that fear which used to cripple me as a younger adult, and which is another of the fears that the computer has swept away: what if I die and someone sees how awful this first draft is!
The author’s personal web site is fun, too.
Published on August 8, 2004 at 10:41 am. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/the-courage-to-write.html
Writer's block, an owner's guide: Writing from the Inside Out
Here’s one of my favorite books on block, and well-priced too: Writing From the Inside Out, by Dennis Palumbo. It takes a delightful existential approach to celebrating your block.
Writer’s block is how you know you’re a writer. It’s also a sign of the creative tension that’s essential. As we said earlier, don’t mistake a thoughtful pause for some kind of failure.
Dennis was co-writer of a successful movie and of a tv sitcom, and is now a psychotherapist here in the Valley. I’ve met him and I liked what he had to say. So if you want therapy from someone who’s more expensive than me, but who has written in both New York and Hollywood, click here.
Published on August 4, 2004 at 3:56 pm. Linking to this article? Thank you! The permanent address is http://www.todayiwrite.com/journal/writing-from-the-inside-out.html