As writers, we all have come to accept certain maxims to be true, or at least we have grown so familiar with the consensus memes of the creative writing world, that we have become unwitting suckers, blindly accepting them, without exercising personal discernment and healthy skepticism as artists.
The memes I’m speaking of have become normalized and homogenized, so much so that we accept them as if they are true, have always been true, will forever be true:
1. Good stories write themselves.
2. Characters write themselves.
3. It’s enough to be talented.
4. Writing conferences will make you a better writer.
5. Good stories always rise to the top.
As well as these, the biggest meme of all, is the one that almost all writers swallow hook, line and sinker and it is that of writer’s block. There isn’t a writer I know who hasn’t drunk this Kool-Aid.
“But wait,” you say incredulously, “I’ve experienced it! Writers block is real; it exists; it is the Great Satan.” Well, yes, writers can get blocked, but that blockage is so easily handled and so uncomplicated that, once they understand it, many writers are shocked by the simplicity of what is really going on. To appreciate this, allow me to first explain the consensus viewpoint on writer’s block.
The late psychoanalyst, Edmund Bergler, first coined the phrase 'writer’s block' in 1947, as only one example of what he called, 'unconscious masochism'. The psychoanalytic analysis of writer’s block is impenetrable in its own right, but the fact that the term’s origins came from the world of psychoanalysis—the Holy Grail for the neurosis model of emotional un-wellness—should be our first red light as to its illegitimacy.
The consensus view of writer’s block is that it manifests when a writer feels stuck; unable to write; bereft of ideas and the feeling of being left hanging in the wind by the creative process, helpless and hopeless.
The form it takes is universally recognizable, but the causes of writer’s block are as legion as the devils of Hell. Some of the more popular reasons for writer’s block have also become writing memes in their own right, they include:
1. You have a blank mind and no ideas whatsoever; the well is dry.
2. You’re afraid of making a mistake.
3. You fear total failure.
4. Fear of being judged by others.
5. Pressure to produce, deadlines and expectations of others.
6. Your brain is at fault, under stress the brain goes into 'fight/flight' and is not creative.
And the list goes on...
So, the consensus blames creative void, fear, stress, neurological and physiological complications, in short: writer’s block is multi-faceted, multi-causal and multi-problematic. The phenomenon has taken on such a life of its own, that something that is in essence quite simple, has been turned into a multi-headed Siren that will lure you into the rocks of process interruptus. The good news, gentle writer, is that you do not have to buy into this; you do not have to listen to the Siren’s call.
Instead, listen to the simple logic of a reasoned argument. Writer’s block is 99.9 percent smoke and .1 percent substance. The 99.9 percent part is the consensus meme of writer’s block (the multi-headed Siren) and you can’t really do anything with it, because it isn’t based in anything related to story or the writing process.
The only part you can do something with is the .1percent piece, which is directly related to writing and the creative process: You have too many ideas; the creative pipeline is full and 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.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. All the other 'reason' (the 99.9 percent) are manifestations of other problems that have nothing to do with writing. Anxiety, fear of failure, stress, etc. are life blocks that may need to be addressed, but they are not writer’s block, because they are not sourced from writing or the creative process. The only legitimate reason to be 'blocked' in your writing is because you are too filled up and can’t prioritize, or find the right path to say what needs to be said.
Even so-called blockage due to character development problems, or plotting problems, or story structure issues are not writer’s block—these are simply story or writing problems, that every writer deals with and are part of the writing process. These things might slow you down and you will always have to work through them, but it's part of the writing process.
Writer's block doesn't happen because you can’t pay the bills, because your lover left you, because your mother dropped you on your head at 18 months. Those may all be problems, but they are not creative process problems, they are life problems affecting everything in your life—including your writing.
Many may find this 'reductionist' definition of writer’s block offensive, because we all experience life problems that affect our writing and productivity as creative people and for someone to come along and say, “writer’s block is a bunch of hooey”, can feel dismissive and insensitive. This is not the intent. Your feelings of frustration, anxiety and even anger at not being able to write are legitimate and need to be honored, but, it does you a disservice, as an artist, to cater to the fiction of writer’s block, without offering a factual and practical analysis of what is really going on under your creative hood, which would give you the tools you need to discern the smoke-and-mirrors of memes and myths from real process, productivity and solutions.
To that end, consider these scenarios:
1. When a professional musician is on stage and the pipes get stuck, the music doesn’t come and he/she can’t deliver (and it happens) what do they do? Throw their hands up and walk off stage? Hardly.
2. What does a professional actor do when the cameras are rolling or the audience is watching and the juice is gone, the character leaves them and they can’t deliver? Do they run off to their trailer in a snit or walk off stage? Well, sometimes—you know actors, but not really.
3. When a professional athlete is exhausted, spent and at the end of their physical limits how do they safely get to the finish line, or sink that put, or swing that bat when every fiber of their being wants them to just shut down and stop? Do they crumble in a heap and give up? (rarely).
When creatively blocked, professionals know what to do and they do it seamlessly. They don’t take a Yoga class, they don’t write in their journals, they don’t doodle, or take long car rides into the countryside, no—they fall back on craft skill and technique. The musician and actor has skill and technique and this saves them and is there for them. The athlete has muscle memory and technique that are second nature. Once they tap this resource (technique), the juices will flow and they will 'be back', blockage removed. That’s how professionals deal with the blocks.
So, what should a writer do? The same thing! Fall back on craft. Story structure is your craft skill. It is the airbag that will catch you when you fall. It is always there and is always available, because story structure doesn’t depend on you. It is there for you to depend upon it.
There are many 'systems' out there offered by so-called story gurus that teach structure (including mine). If you have a system you like, then use it. If you don’t know what story structure is, or why it’s important, then educate yourself—the resources are out there, but, what I’m referring to when I say story structure are the critical 'elements' that any story needs in order to be told well:
Protagonist with a problem: A main character that drives your story and is driven by an internal problem that makes him/her act badly toward others, (moral component).
Focal relationship: The relationship between your protagonist and another character (the buddy, lover, main ally, etc.) that drives the drama through the middle of your story. This other character doesn't have to be another protagonist!
Desire: Your protagonist wants something and they will get it at the end of the story (the money, the girl, something tangible).
Opposition: A main opponent in the story trying to stop the hero/heroine from achieving their desire.
Midpoint complication: Halfway (more or less) through the story, something happens that raises the stakes for everyone in the story, while also raising the personal stakes for the protagonist in the core relationship, driving the middle of the story.
Doom moment: The point near the end of the story where all seems lost, the protagonist is alone, defeated and appears to have no hope.
Evolution/de-evolution: How the protagonist changes at the end; he/she either grows up or disintegrates. The ending doesn’t have to be happy.
The 7-Step Process for Busting Writer’s Block
What follows are the concrete steps you can take, using your craft as a solution to being blocked, rather than bath bubbles, binge eating, or a Dr. Who marathon on Netflix. This is a process that illustrates how craft and technique are the writer’s salvation, not handcuffs of constriction or limitation. This process will always work to get you unblocked.
1. Figure out if you are dealing with a life problem or a creative-process problem. Remember, life problems can affect your writing, but they are not writer’s block. They are part of the 99.9 percent and need to be handled, but you’re dealing with something bigger than just being creatively blocked. This process won’t help you. Go get other help—talk to a friend, call your mother, get therapy. If, however, you’re clear this is a creative problem and not a bigger life issue, then move to the next step; you’re in the right place.
2. Tell yourself the truth: this block is a good thing. You have so much flowing you can’t think straight. Be grateful and thank the writing gods. Really, take some time, think about and feel that gratitude. This isn’t psychobabble. You are not just 'turning that frown upside-down'— this is a critical shift of your mental/emotional state that is essential to move forward. Own your creativity, own your authority to solve the problem and be grateful for the 'problem'.
3. Filled with gratitude, or at least no longer feeling suicidal, map out and write down your story’s structure, as best you know it: protagonist with a problem, desire, central opponent, focal relationship, midpoint complication, doom moment and the protagonist’s evolution/de-evolution. Define these steps as best you can and work with them until you have the big picture solid in your head. Even if you know all these steps, do this anyway. If this is all 'Greek' to you, then go educate yourself and when you have a grasp of story structure, come back and try this again. This step is about getting in touch with your story and it’s structure—up close and personal.
4. Assess the output of step three. Think about where you’re stuck in your story and look at the list of structure steps you just completed. Which step does it relate to most closely? If you are just starting your story and the page is blank and you haven’t done the basic structure work ahead of time, then DO IT NOW. Write out your premise line and structure the story. Now is the time to locate the physical blockage in your process. The story will tell you—listen.
5. Once you find where in the structure you are stuck, then pull this out and work with it separately. This means - brainstorm scenes, possibilities, scenarios, but all of this needs to be geared toward moving you forward to the next step of the story structure from where you became stuck! For example, if your protagonist doesn’t have a goal, then solve it and then think about the next step: who’s trying to stop him/her from getting what they want (i.e., the opponent)?
Just write. Maybe everything you write is gibberish. That’s okay. This is where you have to just force yourself. Like the musician or actor earlier—just do it. Don’t censor, don’t correct spelling and don’t judge it, just write. DO NOT STOP. No breaks, no interruptions.
6. At some point the writing will start making sense. Keep going until you feel you have moved forward—even if you can’t fully define what that means. The feeling of it is enough to bust to jam. This might take two pages, five pages, or ten pages. Keep writing until you make that breakthrough. Once you do, you’re unblocked. Celebrate and get back to writing. If you get to page 30 and all the writing is still nonsense, then stop, because you’re just playing a game with yourself and is now a form of self-sabotage. Back off and come back when you are ready to really be done with this. Go back to step one and start over.
7. Drink lots of coffee. You’re unblocked, so you need caffeine! This is a serious step, by the way.
This process always works. Writer’s block is 99.9 percent smoke and .1 percent substance. So, don’t fall for all the hype about writer’s block; that only feeds the monster. If you are blocked, it is a good thing, because it means you have ideas and creativity ready to flow. Use this process, trust in your story’s structure to break the logjam—and bust the myth of writer’s block once and for all.
About Jeff Lyons:
Jeff Lyons is a published author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years' experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories.
Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University's Online Writer’s Studio, University of California at Riverside's Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American's "Power of Diversity Producing Workshop," and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Over the years, he has been a trusted story development consultant to many indie producers, produced screenwriters, production companies, and VR and new media content developers.
Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His other book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in late 2017.
In addition to his nonfiction work, Jeff is co-authoring (with Stephen David Brooks) the Jack Be Dead Series, the first volume of which was published on Amazon in March 2016, Jack Be Dead: Revelation. This, and his other genre fiction work, is published through Storygeeks Press.
Jeff's author site can be found at: www.jefflyonsbooks.com
Jack Be Dead can be found at: http://www.jackbedead.com/.
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