In Ancient Egypt, Writing Blocks Were Made Out of Granite

Even Thoth, the inventor of writing, probably neglected his papyrus every now and then

The earliest writings included in The Egyptian Book of the Dead were originally chiseled in stone in the tombs of deceased pharaohs and royalty. Tomb size, quality, furnishings, and decoration were all considered critical for determining the spirit’s fate in the afterworld, so careful consideration and planning were involved. The scribes responsible for carving the hieroglyphics had considerable status in their culture, but they undoubtedly endured adversities such as poor lighting, lousy ventilation, annoying co-workers, ergonomically incorrect work stations, and repetitive stress injuries. Their writing blocks were made out of granite. (No wonder their daily word count was so low!) We are fortunate to live in an age when more amenable settings and tools for writing exist.

Egyptian mythology names the ibis-headed god Thoth as inventor of writing. Whatever his role was in the creation of the written word, I suspect that Thoth blew off his hieroglyphic invention duties every so often and just hung out on the shore of the Nile, watching the barques float by.

I named my book for writers The Blocked Writers Book of the Dead   because the Egyptians revered and held holy the art of writing, and because books of the dead were the world’s earliest self-help manuals.

It also did not escape me that The Egyptian Book of the Dead is thousands of years old and still in print.

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Balzac, Coffee and Writing Productivity

This painting makes it look like Balzac suffered from heartburn. Maybe it was the coffee.

Will you be a more productive writer if you drink more coffee? Honore de Balzac knocked back countless cups and he wrote prolifically from midnight to dawn, night after night.  In his article entitled ‘The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee,”here’s how Balzac described the effect of ingesting strong coffee on an empty stomach:

“From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”

Many writers have told me that coffee is an essential aspect of their writing practice. Perhaps not in the same dose or with the same dramatic impact that Balzac prescribes, but enough to give the brain a boost as it prepares to tackle the empty page. Why not absorb a bit of caffeine? It’s legal and seems to do the trick for many.

Many procrastinators also enjoy their daily cup of coffee however, so I don’t think the brown liquid is a panacea for writing blocks, or a reliable genius drug. Balzac was aware of the limitations of the drink. In the same article he also wrote:

Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.”

I quit drinking coffee because it gave me headaches, and I mourn the mild buzz it bestowed. Balzac’s use had more severe side effects – his early death is hypothesized to be linked to his extreme habits with the bean. But he sure did write a lot of words in those 51 years.

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The ‘Ice Water Plunge’ Writing Block Cure

The little known, 2009 rom-com indie flic, Feed the Fish features a protagonist wrestling with a gnarly writer’s block.  He had a very good response to his first book, but has been unable to get started on the second of a nine-book contract. His publisher has paid him a hefty advance, and after 6 months without any hint of the sequel, they are asking for their money back.

As is typical in writer block movies, his cure occurs as he resolves personal and romantic issues, but this one also includes an impulsive escape from LA into the bitter cold of the northern midwest, live goldfish frozen in their bowl, Tony Shaloub as a bitter, gun-happy sheriff, insane ice water plunging rituals, exploding sheds, nearly-naked snow-rolling, multiple head injury hospitalizations and badger-inflicted genital mutilation.

If that’s what it takes to get writing again, I guess it’s worth it. Not all block cures are simple or easy. There are some good scenes in the beginning of the movie that illustrate how a bad writing block can harm a romantic relationship as we see Ross’s girlfriend’s mounting discontent while she watches him do nothing as the weeks go by. When her anger erupts and she flushes his favorite goldfish down the toilet, Ross’s will is finally galvanized into action by his anger.

Ross pulls a geographic intervention and goes off with his friend to the icy midwest. He shakes up his usual habits to see what will happen. I have seen this approach work with writers who are stuck. Just change something in your life and maybe a shift will happen with the writing. Sometimes it’s as easy as changing your place of writing to a new cafe, Continue reading

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Fear, Loathing and Writing Blocks

Hunter S. Thompson was able to write a book and make some money from his fear and loathing

The bad news about fear and loathing for the writer is that these two emotional states can stop the flow of words. The good news  is that they can be transmuted into writing fuel.

Hunter S. Thompson made fear and loathing famous in a book and in movies. Fortunately, the massive amounts of mind-altering substances that the writer/protagonist ingested in his tale are not required for this transmutation. There are other effective approaches that are easier on the brain, the body and the criminal record.

One way to shift your attitude about intense feelings like fear an loathing, is to fear and loathe them less. You may be more open to this idea if you come to believe that your negative emotions can be a real asset to your writing, especially the feelings you tend to dread and avoid.

One way that writing comes to a halt is when the anticipation or experience of writing dredges up hard-to-tolerate feelings, so you avoid writing to avoid experiencing those feelings. It isn’t writing itself that you dislike, it is the emotions that are activated when you write. If you can find a way to be more welcoming to these emotions, they may grace you with fresh energy and ideas for you work.

It takes a conscious effort to transmute fear and loathing into writing fuel, and it means operating in a way that runs contrary to common sense. Welcome your fear if it comes knocking, and ask it what it wants to say. Invite loathing into your living room for a chat. It might feel weird to do this, but certainly less weird than a taking an acid trip to Las Vegas with Hunter S. Thompson.

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Your Duty to Protect Yourself from Harmful Feedback

Many people in your writing life will not be highly skilled in the art of giving useful, non-traumatizing feedback about your work. As the primary custodian of your writing, one of your responsibilities is to protect your ability to do it. Real threats to your ongoing writing practice do exist, and one of them is harmful feedback.

When you do receive input of the wrong variety, it can shatter your confidence, confuse you and stop you from working. Usually people mean well and are simply clumsy or misguided in what they say or how they say it. Even so, damage can still be done.

Your writing may also inspire reactions from others whose motives are not so innocent. Friends, family members, colleagues, mentors and significant others often have complex and ambivalent feelings about the writers in their lives, and the feedback they supply can be tainted by envy, resentments, judgments, the need to control, the need to be overly protective, unresolved past grievances unrelated to writing, etc.

If you tend to feel vulnerable about showing your work(and almost everyone does), it is crucial that you identify the proper people to help you with your writing. Not only do you need input from people who actually have something to offer, they also must be Continue reading

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I Hate Writing…I Love Writing

A woman author once said this to me during a workshop on improving writing productivity. ‘I hate writing, but I love writing.” It sounds absurd, but I knew what she meant. Writing was her primary passion and yet she felt emormous resistance to doing it at the same time.

This inner contradiction is a common feature of writing blocks, and a source of great turmoil and suffering. It’s as if your psyche is divided by powerful, competing impulses, neither one of which wants to give up. In addition, if you avoid writing  a profound uneasiness will plague you, but if you pursue  it a monsoon of dread descends upon your head. Sheesh!

This hardly seems fair, and it isn’t. And if you attempt to find someone to blame it on (which is only natural) you’ll soon see how hard it is to conclusively identify the culprit. Even if you have a pretty convincing theory about who is to blame for this mess (self or other), it doesn’t really help you. It is you alone who needs to sort the problem out and find a way to contain the love/hate contradiction and not let the inner turmoil prevent you from writing.

Walt Whitman sheds light on this problem in his poem Song of Myself, when he wrote,

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Perhaps Walt provides a a clue to working with the issue. After all, he contained a bunch of contradictions and was able to write quite a bit during his lifetime. What if we allow  these two supposedly antagonistic forces both have their appropriate place in our mind?To just feel these different impulses and to consider them as only two parts of the multitudes you contain. Maybe then uneasiness wouldn’t make you feel so uneasy and dread wouldn’t be so dreadful.

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Fear the Bubbles

These seemingly innocent bubbles have enormous power

Sometimes I think it’s amazing that we are able to do anything, much less write a story, novel, poem or article. The process of fixing on a goal and making it happen is not as simple one might think. This is especially true about goals that we are ambivalent about, like ” I will write for an hour this morning.”

When I witness my own process of intending, hesitating, considering, postponing, self-reproach, rationalizing, moving toward, moving away, seeking distractions, and then hopefully finally sitting down to write; I feel fortunate if I am actually able to do it amidst all the conflicting mental and emotional pushes and pulls.

All it takes is one convincing distractor thought like, “Instead of writing in my scheduled time this morning, I really should take a long, hot, bubble bath to get myself in the right mood…” and all is lost. Somewhere inside you know this is a mistake, but if this wisdom is overridden by the urge to avoid for just long enough, you fall out of the saddle.

The procrastination issue with writers resembles the addiction recovery process. The recovered addict knows that using the drug will be predictably bad for his or her life, but in any particular moment, the inner hunger to use again might assert itself in wily ways that undermine the commitment to stay sober.

It’s humbling to realize and accept that your mind is not in your full control. This is especially true when you take on a challenging task like writing a book. Your resistances and fears get activated and you have to manage the contrary impulses, day after day. To succeed it helps to set your writing life up in a way that best supports the enterprise, and stay with it as best you can, one day at a time.

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