by Philip Ruddy, MA, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
In my previous post, I offered a little background into the history of the term writer's block, as well as a small sample of some of the most famous writers and artists who struggled greatly with blocks - often, for years. In this post, I will explore some treatments recommended by other writers, artists and psychological practitioners.
So now you may ask, "What are the most effective treatments?" The answer depends upon whom you ask. Journalist John Walsh (2008) flatly asserted, "Numerous therapies are recommended for block-sufferers: keep a notebook, write as though sending a letter to a friend, go to the gym, eat apples in the bath (Agatha Christie's recommendation for kick-starting the imagination) and start writing in the middle of your story. None has been proved to work. (para. 8)
Existential psychologist Rollo May (1975), who authored the groundbreaking book, The Courage to Create, expressed greater empathy and hope for writers and artists, however. May maintained that committing a creative act is akin to defying death and that just as much courage is required to engage in the irrational, intuitive Dionysian world of the unconscious, as with the Apollonian landscape of structure and logic.
Writers Cameron (2002), Natalie Goldberg (1986, 1990), Anne Lamott (1995), Dennis Palumbo (2000), Keyes (2003), Jane Anne Staw (2003), and Alice Flaherty (2004) concurred, viewing writer’s block as a natural, even inevitable, part of the creative process and offering a number of potential remedies. "
Cameron (2002), in The Artist’s Way, her handbook for creative recovery, which has sold in the millions of copies, described the origins of her techniques as a creative writing instructor in the late 1970s: "At the beginning and, for the most part, always, my students were chiefly blocked or injured artists—painters, poets, potters, writers, filmmakers, actors, and those who simply wished to be anything more creative in their personal lives. I kept things simple because they really were. Creativity is like crabgrass—it springs back with the simplest bit of care. (p. xv)"
Among Cameron’s suggested tools is the concept of “morning pages” (p. x)—a commitment to three uninterrupted pages of stream-of-consciousness writing daily in long-hand, to help writers transcend their inner critic. She encouraged, “Remember, there is a creative energy that wants to express itself through you. . . . Don’t judge the work or yourself. You can sort it out later” (p. xv).
In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg (1986) offered more suggestions inspired by her daily practice of meditation, including maintaining a beginner’s mind; keeping one’s hand moving without worrying about editing, spelling, or punctuation; and abandoning logic and control. Goldberg also advocated timed writing exercises, inexpensive notebooks, fast-flowing pens, and the commandment to trust first thoughts. “First thoughts are also unencumbered by ego, by that method within us that tries to be in control,” she explained (p. 9).
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, writer Lamott (1995) stated, “There are few experiences as depressing as that anxious, barren state known as writer’s block, where you sit staring at your blank page like a cadaver” (p. 76). Her solution is to remind herself to live as if she is dying, “because the truth is we are all terminal on this bus” (p. 179). Writer John McPhee (2013) advised struggling writers to assemble a first draft of an assigned story about a bear as if it were a letter to their mother:
What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear. (para. 1) In Hollywood, where the ability to write or create on deadline can mean the difference between career success and failure, psychotherapists Phil Stutz and Barry Michels (2012) work with writers and other creative professionals using a number of original techniques influenced by Jung as well as the flow research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008). Stutz and Michels view the shadow, a realm of the psyche identified by Jung (1951/1968) as the storehouse of repressed psychic material and personality traits, as the true source of creative flow in life, business, and art (Goodyear, 2011). In their book The Tools, Stutz and Michels (2012) teach their clients to defeat anxiety and writer’s block by first embracing this shadow and fighting procrastination—the most common problem afflicting writers in their practice—by surrendering themselves to “the archetypal Father, Chronos” (Michels, as cited in Goodyear, 2011, para. 28).
Palumbo (2000), a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, novelist, and psychotherapist specializing in creative issues, advised struggling writers first to reframe their conception of the problem. He wrote, "From my perspective, a writer who invites all of who he or she is into the mix - who sits down to work engulfed in stuff, yet doesn’t give these thoughts and feelings a negative connotation, who in fact strives to accept and integrate whatever thoughts and feelings emerge—this writer has truly gotten out of his or her way. (p. 47)
This philosophy directly parallels singer-songwriter Sting’s (2014) own self-healing solution to the writer’s block that had plagued him for 8 years: "I thought well, you know, maybe my best work wasn’t about me. . . . Maybe my best work was when I started to brighten the voices of other people or put myself in someone else’s shoes or saw the world through their eyes. And that kind of empathy is eventually what broke this—writer’s block we’ll call it. Just by sort of stopping thinking about me, my ego, and who I am, and actually saying let’s give my voice to someone else. (para. 54)"
The effect such changes in perspective can have on creativity may also be explained neurobiologically, and I will focus on this area, in the next post.
Wishing you courage and creativity!
Philip Ruddy, MA, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
Philip Ruddy, MA, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #89594, works in private practice under the supervision of Jennifer Bergman, LMFT #44775. He helps creative artists, writers, producers, directors, punks, comics, rockers and film / music professionals explore, manage and often transcend anxiety, depression, career / creative blocks, midlife transitions and relationship issues. Call (424) 354-3910 today for a free 15-minute consultation, and take the next step on your personal creative journey.