Part 1 of 3: Is "Creative Block" Really a Thing?

"Well, I haven’t given poetry up, but I rather think poetry has given me up." -- Philip Larkin

maze 001.png

by Philip Ruddy, MFTI

As a therapist who helps writers, comedians and film and television professionals transcend writer's block, I'm often asked by others who aren't in the industry, "What IS "writer’s block" (or creative block) anyway? And is it really a thing?"  (The unspoken subtext often being, "Isn't that just a term that starving artists, or lazy, overpaid creatives use, when they don't feel like actually working?")

"Yes," I tell them.  "It's a thing.  Really.  And no - they're not making it up to get out of work.  What they actually want more than anything, is to get BACK to work.  Only there's a brick wall (or devouring ogre, or demonic clown, or deadly quicksand, or . . . fill in the blank here), that is preventing them. "  I've worked with enough creatives who suffer from it,  to see the ugly reality of what can occur if it goes untreated for long, including anxiety, depression, job stress (or loss), marital problems, drug or alcohol abuse, and other related life crises.  If they could just get over it - trust me - they would.  

So then what IS it - exactly? 

Part of the challenge in explaining writers block is simply defining the term. For purposes of this post, let's define it simply as:  any unwanted restriction of creative output.  (Note: I use the terms writer’s block and creative block interchangeably throughout these posts.)

Although no official diagnostic category exists for this condition in the DSM-5, in Understanding Writer’s Block: A Therapist’s Guide, psychotherapist Martin Kantor (1995) proposed diagnoses of more than 10 forms of creative or writer’s blocks, including affective spectrum disorder block, obsessive-compulsive disorder block, post-traumatic stress disorder block, and addiction block, and maintained that clients’ treatment needs differ according to the source and presentation of their block. Kantor also questioned the decision by scientific experts not to include creative block in the fourth edition of the DSM (APA, 1994) while including other far less common ailments such as the fear of going outside or eating in public (Kantor, 1995, p. 4).  I must say, I find his argument compelling. 

Historically, references to writer’s block abound, and are usually traced back to mid-century psychologist Edmund Bergler (1950, 1955), who first coined the term. A Freudian by training, Bergler viewed writer’s block as a form of “psychic masochism” and “the unconscious wish to defeat one’s conscious aims” (as cited in Ghorayshi, 2012, para. 1).  He also considered it “oral masochism, entrapment in rage over the milk-denying pre-Oedipal mother” (Acocella, 2004, para. 7). American literature scholar Kevin C. Moore (2013) suggested that the broader concept of writer's block actually predates Bergler however, crediting philosopher and psychologist William James, circa 1890.  I will explore some of my own experiences and beliefs in future posts, but suffice to say for now that my leanings are closer to those of Carl Jung than the Freudians.  Whatever the origin, and however one defines the term, the fact that writers block does exist is bolstered by the legions of writers and artists who have suffered from it. 

Among the more famously afflicted were:

Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Philip Larkin, Henry Roth, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Walsh, 2008), to name a small group.  Impressive company, you say? 

Here are more:  

Novelist Henry Roth, who published his much-acclaimed book Call It Sleep, in 1934, took 60 years to complete his follow-up novel.  It was panned. (Walsh, 2008).

John Fowles (1969), best-selling author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, spent the last 20 years of his life in seclusion, working on a follow-up to his book, which he never completed (Walsh, 2008).

Southern Gothic novelist Harper Lee (1960), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and spent the rest of her life working on a second novel while simultaneously insisting she had nothing more to say (Toohey, 2011).

In his book, The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes (2003) described the life of beloved children’s book author E. B. White, who, despite having written the best-selling classics Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte’s Web (1952) and winning The Presidential Medal of freedom, the National Medal for Literature, and the Pulitzer Prize (Mitgang, 1985), once told his friend and fellow author James Thurber that he “considered himself the second most inactive writer living, and the third most discouraged” (Acocella, 2004, p. 4).

New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell published an acclaimed story entitled “Joe Gould’s Secret” for the magazine in 1964 and then faithfully reported to his office for the next 32 years, where he sat, allegedly typing, but never completing another assignment (Overbey, 2013).

In 2008, Britain’s former poet laureate Andrew Motion revealed that despite years of previous creative productivity, once he received his illustrious appointment, he found himself unable to complete any poetry of significance whatsoever.  Can you imagine how that must have felt?  (Walsh, 2008).

More recently, in an interview regarding his recent TED talk “How Do You Get Over Writer's Block?” acclaimed singer-songwriter Sting (2014) revealed that after an enviably long career in which he wrote and performed dozens of hit songs and sold millions of albums, his creative muse suddenly abandoned him for almost a decade. Like others before him, he searched for spiritual and psychological insights to understand "Why?" He asked, "What have I done to offend the gods that they would abandon me so? Is this gift of songwriting taken away as easily as it seems to have been bestowed? Or perhaps, there’s a more, deeper psychological reason. It was always a Faustian pact anyway. You’re rewarded for revealing your innermost thoughts—your private emotions on the page for the entertainment of others—for the analysis, the scrutiny of others. And perhaps you’ve given enough of your privacy away." (para. 52)  

This question, “What have I done to cause this, and what can I do to restore myself?” plagues everyone with on-going creative blocks, and a cornucopia of treatment ideas have been suggested and explored over the years.  In the next post, I will explore some, as well as some of my own experiences regarding its origins, and ways that, with intention and practice, one may finally begin to heal and find relief. 

Wishing you courage and creativity!

Philip Ruddy, MFTI 

Philip Ruddy, MA, MFTI is a Los Angeles-based depth psychotherapist and registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern #89594, working in private practice under the supervision of Jennifer Bergman, LMFT #44775. He helps writers, comics, and  film/TV professionals explore and manage anxiety, depression, creative blocks, midlife transitions and relationship issues.  Call  (424) 354-3910 today for a free 15-minute consultation, and take the first step in your new creative journey. 

Did Metallica’s Lead Singer Really Earn a Ph.D. In Astrophysics In His 50's?

 
 Image by Pete Linforth / CC License 2.0

 Image by Pete Linforth / CC License 2.0

by Philip Ruddy, MA, MFTI

A friend recently forwarded me a news story about the lead singer of heavy metal band Metallica's James Hetfield, who the article declared, at the age of 52, had just achieved his secret, life-long goal of earning a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, 

The article quickly circulated around social media, with many fans and readers expressing surprise, congratulations, and in some quarters, sheer disbelief.

It turns out, the article was purely satire — and untrue.  But, I wondered why the concept was presumably funny for many to imagine.  Is it really so hard to accept that someone in middle age might secretly have a passion for something seemingly contrary to their outward, public persona?  The humor of the piece is based upon the idea that a seemingly rough and tumble guy like James Hetfield would never really do such a thing.  Yet, I know from my own work with clients, that middle-age is a time where we often do ask ourselves the big questions, and take more risks, including pursuing our as yet unexplored personal goals

As a Los Angeles-based depth psychotherapist,  I myself chose to re-direct the course of my life and career toward the field of therapy in my 40’s — after working for almost 20 years in film and television production.  That transition was not always easy, and I could not have done it without the support and encouragement of many others, but the decision brought a range of joy and fulfillment into my life that I never could have imagined when I was younger, and there is not a single day where I regret my choice to do an honest inventory, gather my courage, and take action.

Many of my clients now come to me because they are going through similar life transitions, asking how they might focus, or perhaps re-focus, their lives and career in a manner that has more personal meaning for them.  The opportunity to work with them is deeply meaningful for me, and provides a satisfying bridge from my past career to my present. 

Psychologist Eric Erikson, best known for his pioneering work on the stages of human development, looked at the fundamental opportunity of Midlife (age 40-65) as a choice between Generativity vs. Stagnation.  

Choosing the path of Generativity includes looking inwardly to identify our integral personal values and goals, and then moving outwardly to productively connect and share these values with our friends, family, and community — giving something of value to the next generation. 

Choosing the path of Stagnation means avoiding opportunities for inner reflection, personal growth, meaningful productivity, and deeper connection to the people in our lives and community.

The truth is, we as humans do make radical and surprising changes in mid-life, every day. 

James Hetfield may not have gone back to school, but rock guitar legend Brian May, of the band Queen actually did earn a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the Imperial College London in 2007, completing studies which he had started decades earlier, prior to becoming a professional musician. 

Similarly, punk rock icon Greg Graffin, lead singer and songwriter for Bad Religion earned a Ph.D. in Zoology from Cornell, published two books on science and math, and teaches paleontology at UCLA  

Truth can be stranger than fiction. 

For many of us, this period of midlife is incredibly rich and exciting.  A time in which we have enough life experience to have gained a little wisdom and perspective — and with luck, enough energy to re-direct ourselves in a manner that’s more in alignment with our inner compass.

I invite you to reflect upon where you are in your own life and consider Erikson’s simple question:  Generativity?  Or Stagnation? 

No matter where we are in life, every moment of every day provides us with new choices and new opportunities. And if there is anything I’ve learned from my own journey — and the journeys of so many of my clients, it is this simple phrase:  

It is never too late to start.  

Philip Ruddy, MA, MFTI is a Los Angeles-based depth psychotherapist and registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern #89594, working in private practice under the supervision of Jennifer Bergman, LMFT #44775. He loves helping writers, comics, actors, artists and other film/TV professionals explore and manage anxiety, depression, creative blocks, midlife transitions and relationship issues.  Why wait any longer? Call  (424) 354-3910 today for a free 15-minute consultation, and take the first step in your new creative journey. 

Sources:

Erikson. Erik H. and Joan M. (1997) The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version. New York: W. W. NortonImage "Rock Guitar Heavy Metal Guitarist" licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.  It is attributed to Pete Linforth. The original version can be found here.

Slater, C.L. (2003). Generativity versus stagnation: An elaboration of Erikson's adult stage of human development. Journal of Adult Development 10, 53-65.

https://www.verywell.com/generativity-versus-stagnation-2795734

https://www.quora.com/Did-James-Hetfield-really-earn-a-PhD-in-astrophysics

Image: "Rock Guitar Heavy Metal Guitarist" created by Pete Linforth.  Llicensed under Creative Commons 2.0.  Original version can be found here.

 

 

The Hero's* Journey ... for Writers, Artists & Performers

by Philip Ruddy, MA, MFTI

As a writer, artist, comedian or performer, you are probably familiar with Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey model.  But do you realize that YOU TOO are on this great, mythic journey?  Click below to learn more . . . 

Philip Ruddy, MA, MFTI is a Los Angeles-based depth psychotherapist and registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern #89594, working in private practice under the supervision of Jennifer Bergman, LMFT #44775. He loves helping writers, comics, actors, artists and other film/TV professionals explore and transcend anxiety, depression, creative blocks, midlife transitions and relationship issues.  Why wait any longer? Call  (424) 354-3910 today for a free 15-minute consultation, and take the first step in your new creative journey. 

Read More

New L.A. Dads:

A Support Group for New Fathers

** New Group forming Now **

Are you feeling . . . FRUSTRATED?  ISOLATED?  OVERWHELMED?

Being a new Dad can be a joyful blessing

and an incredible challenge

Why not consider joining a group? 

            • Share your fatherhood wisdom and experiences with other Dads

            • Gain support, validation and helpful tips

            • Learn how to improve communication with your partner AND your child

            • No drum circles, poetry reading, or primal screaming required

When: Thursdays @ 7:00pm in the Mid-Wilshire area

Cost:  $45 per session, with a 6-session commitment.  (Maximum of 5 Dads per group)

Group Facilitator: Philip Ruddy, MFTI is a depth psychotherapist and pre-licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Intern in private practice in the Mid-Wilshire district.  He is also the loving father of a four-year-old son, holds a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and specializes in men’s issues, as well as working with writers and artists in the areas of creative blocks, anxiety, depression and the unique stressors of the film and television industry.

Read More

Why Should We Actively Imagine?

by Philip Ruddy, MA, MFTI

What does it mean to Actively Imagine, and how can it help us in a therapeutic, healing capacity? As both psychologist Carl Jung and creative pioneer Steve Jobs remind us, all human creations must first be incubated in the mind or imagination before they can become manifest. Click BELOW to READ MORE.

 

Philip Ruddy, MA, MFTI is a Los Angeles-based depth psychotherapist and registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern #89594, working in private practice under the supervision of Jennifer Bergman, LMFT #44775. He loves helping writers, comics, actors, artists and other film/TV professionals explore and transcend anxiety, depression, creative blocks, midlife transitions and relationship issues.  Why wait any longer? Call  (424) 354-3910 today for a free 15-minute consultation, and take the first step in your new creative journey. 

Read More