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Story Talk: Writer's Block—Really? Part I

Writer’s block—we’ve all been there. We’ve all suffered. And we’ve all been duped. What would you say if I told you writer’s block is a fiction? What would you say if I said that writer’s block was a complete fabrication foisted upon writers for decades? Would you feel duped? Would you feel had? Or would you defend a strong-held, personal belief that writer’s block is real because you’ve been there, done that—too many times?

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Sadly, most writers fall into this last category. Myself among them, until I realized the truth: writers block isn’t real. The man we have to thank for this pernicious idea is a long-dead psychoanalyst named Edmund Bergler. He first coined the phrase “writer’s block” in 1947, only one example of what he called “unconscious masochism.” The psychoanalytic analysis of writer’s block is impenetrable enough, but that the term’s origins came from this world, where the disease model of illness was galvanized into the 1950s, should be enough to give us pause as to its legitimacy.

Writer’s block is a lot like racism. Race is a myth; it does not exit. It is a socioeconomic construct, not a biological fact. We are literally all the same race: human. That is not wishy-washy liberalism; that is what science tells us. But, the experience of race is another matter entirely. Race may be a fabrication, but racism is a real and destructive thing. And so with writer’s block, it does not really exist, but the experience of the thing gives it a substance it really does not have. Consider the usual suspects, as to the popular “causes” of writer’s block:

  • You have a blank mind and no ideas come whatsoever; the well is dry.
  • You have written yourself into a dead end and can’t get out.
  • You’re afraid of making a mistake, fear of failing.
  • You’re afraid of being judged by others for what you write (a knockoff of the previous one).
  • You’re distracted and torn by other issues besides your writing.
  • You’re pressured to produce, deadlines and expectations of others.
  • Your brain is at fault, under stress the brain goes into “fight-flight” and is not creative.
  • And the list goes on . . .

Dr. Bergler would approve. All of these consensus beliefs about why we get blocked as writers sound reasonable, mainly because there are none among us who hasn’t felt the well go dry, or anxiety facing the blank page, or the crush of deadlines. The experience is real, but is the thing itself? Are all of these “causes” really a writing problem, i.e., writer’s block?

Consider another explanation. Writer’s block is 99.99 percent smoke, but there is a .1-percent fragment of substance. That tiny .1 percent is the only piece you can actually work with. There is only one real cause for writer’s block (drumroll please): You have too many ideas; the creative pipeline is so full you don’t know where to begin or what to write. You are so full of things to say that you can’t say anything at all. And you don’t trust your ability to make right choice!

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. All the other “reasons” are manifestations of other problems that have nothing to do with writing or creativity. They may affect writing, but they are not sourced from writing or writing process—they are life problems, not writing problems!

“So what!” You exclaim. “Blocked is blocked. Who cares why?” Fair enough, but consider that you are spinning your wheels trying to write when you are afraid of paying the bills, or your lover just left you, or the kids ran off to join the circus. If your life is in chaos or stalled-out, so will be your writing. But, if your writing is the only thing stalled-out, your life will be unaffected. This is the great distinction most people miss. If you life is in trouble, so will be your writing. But, the solution will not be found in writing, it will be found elsewhere (therapy, surgery, a phone call to mom, whatever). But, and it is a very big but, if the problem is writing and creative process, then the solution can only be found in the writing process not in a yoga class, not in the bottom of a bottle, and not in that quart of Haagen-Dazs in the back of the freezer.

It’s critical you can distinguish between life problems affecting everything, and creative-process problems affecting your writing, before you tackle any blockage. One is personal pathology, or circumstance or bad karma and needs to be handled outside of your writing process; it’s bigger than your writing. The other is “just” your creative process, and this is great news because it’s a slam-dunk to handle.

The real solution to that .1-percent piece, the only answer to real writer’s block lies in the writing process itself. I know, it sounds crazy, especially when the process is blocked. Nonetheless, to cure writer’s block, to bust it once and for all you must fall back on what you know: technique, and story structure. Forget all the muddled psychobabble, New-Age-bubblegum metaphysics and generic self-help mumbo-jumbo offered up as solutions to writer’s block. There is a specific and repeatable process that un-jams writer’s block every time: The 7-Step Process for Busting Writer’s Block™.

In part two of this series, I will explain why writing technique and story structure are the only answers to writer’s block (real writer's block), and then I will detail each of the seven steps of the process so you can use this in your own writing. I have used this process with New York Times bestselling authors, produced screenwriters and on myself. It works every time—without fail. Why? Because it’s based in writing process itself, not in consensus gobbledygook. Tune in for part two: "Story Talk: Writer’s Block—Really? Part II” and prepare to set yourself free from the myth and smoke and mirrors of writer’s block.

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