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Writer's block

 

Every month Sydney Smith and Jennifer Scoullar discuss some aspect of the writing craft.  We welcome your questions and comments. In fact, we would really like to hear from you! 

SYDNEY: What is writing therapy? Jenny asked this when I proposed a blog about the topic. Writing therapy is part of my mentoring work. I help my students with problems like procrastination, writer’s block, the inner critic, any issues that freeze them at the writing desk or limit their productivity.

For example, Jenny, you and I both know someone who will do anything, even sort coloured baling twine, rather than write. She might not see this as a real problem. More of an annoyance perhaps, or an aspect of her personality. But this is a form of procrastination, it interferes with her productivity, and is therefore a problem I would try to help her deal with, if she asked for my help.

 

JENNY: Ha ha, maybe that person is in denial, Sydney? And for your information, it’s very important to sort baling twine by colour. You can’t tie up fences as a temporary fix with bright blue and pink twine. It looks terrible. Natural sisal tones that blend in with the landscape are best.

When you proposed this topic I Googled the term and found this definition: Writing therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the act of writing and processing the written word as therapy to ease negative feelings.

This sounds like the opposite of the kind of writing therapy you’re talking about. Students requiring your services might find writing actually contributes to their negative feelings. That’s why they’re blocked, or overly critical or inventive procrastinators. So tell me, how do you help such writers?

 

SYDNEY: Hm. I hadn’t thought of Googling the term. I just use it because it describes what I do.  Maybe I should call it therapy for writers.

So, the first thing — it's not that writing contributes to negative feelings. It's that writing brings issues to the surface and focuses them. It’s like saying rearing children contributes to negative feelings. It doesn’t. It's that rearing children brings certain issues to the surface, issues that lie dormant perhaps until the right circumstances come together to wake them up.

I help writers by talking with them about what happens when they freeze. What are they thinking when they freeze? Procrastination, writer’s block, the inner critic who can never be satisfied, all these blocks to creativity serve a need. We talk about what that need is. Once the writer understands how the problem operates, what need it serves, they can look at ways of solving that problem.

I also like to help them see the distinction between one part of their experience and another. For example, I’m writing a blog with a student whose inner critic freezes her at the writing desk. I first made a distinction between the inner critic who helps a writer learn and the inner critic who stops a writer from writing. These are two different voices. The first is a useful learning tool. The second suppresses learning and writing. It helps, I think, to show people that these inner voices aren’t all negative.

 

 JENNY: Writer’s block is an interesting subject. I’ve never believed it was a deep-seated psychological obstacle. I think it just means that you don’t know what happens next. A traveller who doesn’t know what road to take doesn’t announce he has traveller’s block. He just says he’s lost.

It’s the same for writers. Writers can get lost for a few reasons. It could be an external problem like financial pressures or a domestic dispute. But it could also be a problem inherent in the story itself. Writers sometimes write themselves into corners. I think they then need to read, to allow another imagination to spark their own. An old adage says, Show me a writer who’s not reading, and I’ll show you a writer who’s not writing.

The more you worry that you have writer’s block, the more paralysed you can become. You give your predicament power. Like when Leo Tolstoy teased his nephews by saying, 'I’ll give you both a rouble if you can not imagine a polar bear.'

My advice is to either set your pen down and read, or forge on without being too self-critical. You can always rewrite. You’ll have to anyway.  Justice Louis Brandeis said way back in 1896, 'There is no great writing, only great rewriting.' 

The best cure for writer’s block is to write, remembering the worst thing you write is way better than the best thing you didn’t.

Is this approach too simplistic?

 

SYDNEY: You have to look at the pattern. If someone stalls in a novel, they might be stalled because their imagination is working on a problem. That happens with me. I don’t call that writer’s block because I know my imagination needs time to figure out a problem. I know that the best and most efficient thing I can do is step aside and let it do its job.

Or someone might say to me they were going really well until they slowed to a halt. I suggest they go back to the last place where the writing drove them forward and take another path. That works in many cases. Reading is sometimes the solution, or doing more research might resolve the issue. In these cases, their writing life isn’t the problem. A particular instance in a particular novel is the problem. I wouldn’t call that writer’s block.

But what if someone always freezes at the writing desk? What if they plan to do this and that but when they sit down to turn those plans into reality nothing happens? What if that is their pattern? What if it happens over and over again?

Then that is writer’s block, an umbrella term that, when explored more deeply, can uncover problems with the inner critic or fear of success or fear of failure or paralysing perfectionism or whatever underlies the block.

We all long for the freedom to do what we really want to do, but that isn’t always possible. Another part of us fears that freedom. I try to help writers explore what that fear is and work to reassure that frightened part of the self.

 

I’m posting this together with another post in which I do a therapy session with one of my students. If anyone is interested, they can read it at: http://sydneysmithwrites.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=206&action=edit

Also, I’ll be blogging with Jenny until the end of this year, and that’s it for me.

 

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She has written The Architecture of Narrative, available for $AUD24.95 at  www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, please visit her blog.

Jennifer Scoullar is the author of Wasp Season (Sid Harta), and the romances, Brumby’s Run, Currawong Creek and Billabong Bend (Penguin). Jennifer’s novels are built around themes of nature and the environment. Check out her website at: www.jenniferscoullar.com

 

 

 

 

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