Words have power. Writing can be risky.

A writing block sure beats the chopping block.

Numerous writers were executed during the French Revolution. This is just one of many historical examples of writers being targeted for capital punishment. Printed words are powerful and most governments seek to control them.

Even a free speech country like America has an interesting history with its writers. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s books were burned by the American government in 1956 because of his controversial ideas. During the McCarthy era many authors, playwrights, and screenwriters were prosecuted or blacklisted because of their writings or alleged association with the Communist Party. Henry Miller saw his books banned for years in the land of the free, and could only publish in Europe.

Salman Rushdie went underground and had bodyguards for years because of the Iranian government’s fatwa death threat on his life following publication of The Satanic Verses. I have met lesser-known writers from other countries who have been persecuted and even tortured for their writings. The list of authors and journalists who have been persecuted in modern times and presently is extremely lengthy, and in fact, there is even an organization (ICORN) that exists to offer them refuge.

Thinking about this is enough to give you a nasty block. In fact, fear of much less drastic consequences is often enough to put the chill on a writer’s output. It could be that you’re worried about how your grandmother will react about your op-ed piece or erotic novel. You can’t always know for sure how the public, the government, our community, or your family  will react to your work (if they react at all) but your fantasies about these reactions may control your ability to keep writing.

If your fantasies about people’s reactions are just that – fantasies, or the stakes aren’t too, too high, maybe you should push past the fear, find your voice and say what you want to say. If your words will predictably trigger a reaction by the authorities and initiate a trip to the guillotine, you could consider postponing publication until a kinder, gentler regime assumes power.

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The Titanic Hit a Block and Sank. Writers Can Do Better

The Titanic was surprised by an unanticipated block of ice beneath the dark, frigid, North Atlantic ocean. It sank like a stone into the unknown depths. This needn’t happen to your writing.

In the process of imagining, initiating and completing a writing project, we have many opportunities to observe how we deal with the unknown. Each time I begin a new blog post, I feel a combination of interest, uncertainty, challenge and angst. I wonder if I will be able to write it, and what the post will eventually be. Something always happens, and I’m always surprised.

The unknown might be a sentence not yet right, a mountain of information not yet organized, an argument not yet developed, a problem not yet solved, or a story line not yet worked out. We know something more needs to be accomplished, and we don’t know exactly how we will do it. This moment of contemplating the unknown is fertile territory for spawning sinking feelings like anxiety, self-doubt, confusion and the dread of failure. The experience of ‘not knowing’ may also make a person feel that something internal is lacking: intelligence, creativity, or other unnamable attributes that “real” writers supposedly possess. It can make you panic that the whole project will go down.

What is your characteristic mode of responding when you don’t know how to proceed? During the writing of my dissertation I repeatedly confronted new problems and Continue reading

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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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