Oprahphobia: A new diagnostic category for blocked writers

A writer who was completely stalled confessed to me that her difficulties with finishing her book came from a paralyzing fear of being on television. She was convinced that her book (if finished) would be so good that it was highly likely that she would be asked to go on Oprah and discuss it in front of millions of viewers. The thought of being interviewed by Oprah on television terrified her, and brought her writing to a complete stop.

Getting on Oprah is the Holy Grail for writers hoping to make their mark (and a few million dollars), but many writers are also private, introverted and uncomfortable being the center of attention. You may want your writing to be successful, but the public aspect of making that happen is not every writer’s cup of tea.

Public speaking really helps to promote a book, but it is an entirely different skill from writing. In fact, a good percentage of the general population would rather die than have to do it. One writer admitted to me that he was unable to finish his dissertation after eleven years because finishing would mean he was ready to get a job as a professor, and he was terrified of speaking in front of a class.

The good news is that conditions such as Oprahphobia are treatable. A good public speaking class or a few sessions with a qualified therapist can turn these issues around.

If you find you are eventually able to overcome your fears and finish your book, tell Oprah about it and maybe she’ll let you tell your story on TV.

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“Go after it with a club!”

Jack London said  “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”  And I’m sure it felt like that for him at times. Jack was one of the founders of the California Writers Club, but I don’t believe he was referring to that kind of club, even though the company of writers can provide a degree of inspiration. I like what Jack London says about not waiting for inspiration. Developing the ability to write in a variety of moods is a huge asset for a writer – including when you’re bored, listless, confused, uncertain, blank, tired, scattered, hungover, angry, depressed, or terrified. Material has a way of coming forth when we pick up the pen, even if we’re not feeling confident or full of ideas. We have to trust in that. Feeling a lack of inspiration can be a convincing excuse not to write. Do we need to be absorbed in a special inner state of inspired passion to create? No. We might feel ‘inspired’, or any number of other things as we prepare to write, and both the quality and quantity of what we put down on the page might not be clearly linked to how inspired we felt. We just have to do it. We could be like Jack London and chase inspiration with a club, or we could just quietly work at our writing day to day. Rain or shine.  

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A few seats left for my Continuing Studies class at Stanford, “Overcoming Writing Blocks and Procrastination”

On September 23rd I will begin teaching a five week class for writers entitled, “Overcoming Writing Blocks and Procrastination.” for more information and to register, see: https://continuingstudies.stanford.edu/courses/detail/20141_EGL-96

The class will explore a variety of issues connected with writing productivity will be focused on directly assisting writers with improving their ability to initiate and sustain writing in their daily lives.

Some people procrastinate on signing up for this class…

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“You have to write badly in order to write well” William Faulkner

 You have to write badly in order to write well?

I don’t know too much about Faulkner’s bad writing, but I guess there must have been some along the way. Hemingway thought some of Faulkner’s later work was negatively affected by his drinking, and while both of these authors had a self-destructive fondness for spirits, I don’t think Faulkner was speaking about alcohol in the above quote.

Sometimes when I assign an in-class exercise of the “free writing” variety, a few members of the class become uncomfortable. They don’t like the thought that they will be leaving some passages on the paper that are in rough shape, unpolished, and incomplete. It’s almost like the imperfect sentences they’ve written are calling out and confronting them about their sloppiness and lack of ability.

Feelings such as these are sometimes connected with writing blocks. The inability to tolerate the necessary process of moving from first draft to Continue reading

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Assessing your writing productivity problems

I like to have as complete an understanding of a person’s writing process as possible before I suggest changing anything, so I created an assessment tool for identifying problems that affect productivity. It highlights a number of issues, habits, thoughts, feelings, and other factors that are commonly associated with writing difficulties.

It is a distillation of my observations of struggling writers over the years, and its purpose is to help you target the areas of your writing process that need attention. You can find the assessment in my book, The Blocked Writer’s Book of the Dead.

I find that most writers, even those who are content with their level of productivity, will have some or several high scores on this assessment, so there is no need to get upset if you end up with a number of elevated scores. These high scores are helpful in a couple of ways: they highlight the intensity of your relationship with writing and they show you Continue reading

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If you only write once in a while, should you change?

Only you know the answer to this one. Even though I’m generally a proponent of regular, consistent writing for those who have the urge to write more, there are an infinite number of ways that writing happens. The question is – are you happy enough with your current state of writing affairs?

If you only put pen to paper once a year, but create something you truly value, whose to say you should write more than that? Many famous writers have experienced long droughts in their productivity, brought on by various life circumstances, illness or alcohol abuse. Whose to say that their writing lives should have happened any other way? It is hard to sustain consistent writing practice over the years, and many issues, internal and external, conspire to undermine our best laid plans.

Still, like so many skills, if you stay engaged with writing practice, you tend to get better and generate new ideas, and this is less likely if you avoid writing for long periods of time. In addition, if  you deny yourself the many potential gratifications Continue reading

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Should I develop a writing ritual?

It depends. This is essential for some writers and a non-issue for others. There does not seem to be a universal rule about the usefulness writing rituals, but plenty of writers use them. Many people have a routine that involves preparing their writing space or desk in a particular way. Often a cup of coffee is involved. Sharpening pencils may be mostly a bygone ritual, but even just firing up the laptop and opening files for the writing session are mini-rituals of a sort. Some people like to browse email for a while, as if getting into the cool water of writing gradually, before moving into to their project. There are short warm-up writing exercises like “free writing” that some people find useful. Books by Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron explore this approach in various ways. It is a low stress way to get your fingers moving, and free writing helps with idea generation as well. If you are usually set and ready to write without any sort of preliminary ritual,
Continue reading

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