Barton Fink Blocks in Hollywood

In the Coen brothers movie Barton Finkthe main character (John Turturro) experiences some success as a socially relevant, intellectual playwright in NYC, who prides himself with addressing the plight of the common man in his art. When he is offered quite a bit of money to write for a studio in Hollywood, he accepts, not knowing what a nightmare is getting into.

You wouldn’t think that an opportunity to make good money as a writer could turn out too badly, but it does. Not only does Barton abandon his passion for uplifting the common man through his writing, he’s also completely unable to write the Wallace Beery wrestling picture assigned to him. Totally blocked, he’s a fish out of water, gasping in tinsel town. Continue reading

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Procrastination or Gestation?

Sometimes a writer needs to gestate, integrate, contemplate and maybe even vegetate for a while. This may involve pulling away from the keyboard or notepad and staring off into space, pacing in circles, or lying on your futon in the fetal position. Whether you are trying to resolve a complex plot point, refine a difficult line of verse, or create a new theory of the universe’s origin, your brain may be taxed beyond its normal capacities and you have to allow some extra processing time for that.

Someone watching you during this gestation process might think you are lazy and doing nothing. How can you tell whether you are engaged in a productive inner process or just avoiding writing? These two very different enterprises look similar from the outside. When you hit a challenging juncture in our project, do you stop writing because you feel anxious, stressed and uncertain, or is it because you need to incubate a difficult problem? Sometimes it’s both.

The act of stepping away from your desk to feel relief might help Continue reading

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A Word of Caution About Giving Advice to Procrastinators

I, like so many others, am guilty of giving advice to procrastinators. I’ll bet I do it again in this blog post. It is so tempting to offer “help”, and even if my motives are pure and compassionate, the odds are low that advice will change a damn thing. This is a difficult reality pill for me (a man who just wrote a book of advice) to swallow.

The primary problem with advice is that generally it is a recommendation to “do” something, and procrastination by its nature implies having a problem with “doing”. Whether the underlying feeling is rebelliousness, anxiety, overwhelm or laziness, there is a resistance to “doing” at the procrastinator’s core. And even when a choice piece of advice from a well-intentioned source appears to the procrastinator as the perfect thing to do; the comforting thought arises, “I’ll do it later.”

If you are putting some task off, your own mind is probably also spewing advice. You feel uneasy about not writing, and compelled to hector yourself with repetitive pep-talks and unrealistic commands. You may repeat these lectures to yourself for years, even if they’ve generated no appreciable improvements.  It’s what people do. Continue reading

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Drawing a Blank? You’ve Got EPET (Empty Page Emotional Turmoil)

Empty pages. Do you hear these pages taunting and ridiculing you? Do they oppress or torture you. Do they make you cry or scream in frustration? Do they terrorize and demoralize you?

If you feel these things, the good news is that empty pages are not able to do any of these nasty things to you. They’re just empty pages, and quite benign. The bad news is that your writing mind is besieged by EPET (Empty Page Emotional Turmoil) and that’s not good.

EPET is a killer – it murders writing productivity. One symptom of this syndrome is that you draw a blank when faced with the task of bringing out your words. Drawing a blank does not mean you have nothing to say. Far from it. It means you Continue reading

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Boozing and Blocking

Alcohol is a powerful sedative. Its effects vary from person to person, but when used in moderation it usually creates a relaxed sense of well-being and pleasure. Does alcohol help writers with their productivity?

You might conclude that drinking must be helpful, because so many well-known authors drank so much. Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Poe (to name only a few) both wrote and drank quite a bit. A romantic notion exists about the dissolute, bohemian writer whose creativity emerges from a pickled, tortured psyche.

To write well, most of us need to have the brain firing on all cylinders. Writing is one of the most demanding cognitive activities we can engage in, and our brain has to be operating effectively and  accurately in order to do it well. It can feel stressful to write, and though alcohol can provide an immediate sense of stress relief, there is a cost.

Booze is a depressant. There may be an initial period of disinhibition and Continue reading

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Childhood Writing Experiences and Blocks

If you have concerns about your writing process (or lack thereof), it may be useful to review your history as a writer. You were taught to write during childhood, and the effects of these early experiences and conditioning extend into your current life, whether they are helpful or not. Many writers report having an affinity for books and the written word at an early age.

In my book and in my workshops I ask writers to examine their early memories, good and bad, about writing. These might include interactions with parents, teachers, siblings, peers, and others. Of particular interest are those experiences where a strong message was conveyed about your capability, or how writing should or should not be done.

School experiences figure prominently here, because reading and writing Continue reading

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A Room, Womb or Tomb of One’s Own

In her book, “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf emphasizes how important it is for a writer to have the right place to do the work. This place is the womb where literary gestation, growth, labor, and birth occur. It is an important issue for non-productive writers to consider.

Having a good enough place to do your writing is important, even if it doesn’t guarantee that any writing will occur there. Indeed, many ideal locations lie fallow season after season as their inhabitants languish in the numerous psychological purgatories and hells reserved for those called to the writing life. The womb can become a tomb.

Issues to consider are, Continue reading

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