Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Writer’s Block? No, I have Writer's Intrusive Thoughts! by Tess Berry-Hart

I don’t generally suffer from writers’ block in the generally accepted sense of a creative slowdown where I can’t come up with new ideas or produce new work. However I DO suffer from “existential block” sometimes and with it comes an attendant number of what I can only call Writer’s Intrusive Thoughts  (which I’m here rather grandiosely terming WITs) that can derail my writing even before I sit down at the computer. 

[oh my word what a boring intro! people will NEVER read this!]

So following on from my post on procrastination a few months ago I thought I'd have a crack at defining – and thus hopefully skewering – my five biggest WITs. I’m not suggesting these Writer's Intrusive Thoughts are the only ones that writers can suffer from, but they are definitely the biggest stumbling blocks that I experience, and I’m limiting myself to five so that this post doesn’t take years to write. And I look forward to hearing some of yours at the end of this blog! 


Why not start with the greatest momma of them all – the inertia-creating, anxiety-producing, existential despair that NOBODY CARES. AT ALL. SO WHY EVEN BOTHER?!

NOBODY CARES is like a cloud that periodically follows me round, finding new ways to rain on my parade whatever the circumstances. NOBODY CARES can attack at any time – whether I’m going on Twitter or Facebook (just look at all those other brilliant novels/plays out there, who gives a hang about mine!) or up in the attic with no distractions trying to bang out a first draft (WHY am I spending all this time on something that nobody will EVER READ!). It can seep down onto me when I’ve just sealed a deal with a publisher/producer (this project will NEVER get anywhere!), or it can hang around for days when I have a manuscript rejected (I TOLD you it was RUBBISH). It can graft itself finely onto any situation and augment the lose-lose aspect of a creative project which disheartens me even before I start.

So how do I get around it? Well it depends. A cognitive psychologist would identify these self-defeating thought patterns as cognitive distortions, when your brain tries to convince you of something that isn’t actually true.  Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) supplies various good strategies to get out of the slough of despond.  Identifying your thinking is the starting point, for once you’ve put a name to something you’re half-way to dealing with it. My main distortions are “looking through a negative filter” and “black and white thinking.” A negative filter is where you pick out the most disheartening aspect of any situation and blow it up large so it discolours the whole lens. Concentrating on the poor sales of a previous book, perhaps, might lead you to assuming that nobody will ever want to read anything you write ever again. Black and white thinking is an example of polarized thinking – if your latest manuscript was turned down by a publisher you might see yourself as an abject failure and not want to put yourself in the same position again, thereby convincing yourself of the futility of your project before it even happens.

So the important next step is refuting the thinking. This is something that is best done physically – writing down with pen and paper (ACTUAL writing makes you slow down and concentrate on what it is you are thinking, and therefore you can take it in more effectively.)

[ugh, I bet people are already clicking off this article and googling for better posts]

Examining the context of something to find out whether it is true gives you a base grounding in reality. For example you could write a list of all the positives – from listing people (actual people, not “likes”) who read your latest book and liked it. If you feel that everybody hates what you write, read some of the comments or reviews where people HAVE liked it. Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns, and sometimes you can interpret a couple of setbacks as a never-ending pattern of defeat, but there will always be some people who like and enjoy what you write – and listing them helps your brain recognise that it is painting a black picture for itself. And don’t restrict yourself to readership feedback either – there can be positives even from apparent defeat – the fact that a publisher couldn’t find a home for something yet is interested in seeing some of your future work can also go on that list.


The self-critical voice, or inner critic, has a lot to answer for. And there’s a time and place for that – but NOT when you’re trying to release your inner id and let it gambol free. Many writers know the feeling when they’ve spent a couple of hours on something, only to read it back and cringe. (“It seemed SO much better when I was actually writing it!”).

But wait! Maybe it is – but you’re looking at it with the wrong glasses. If we set ourselves up a mental filter (here we go again) in which you’re actively LOOKING for mistakes, you’ll see lots of them. If you’re reading it to evaluate the emotional effect, or hell, just for enjoyment’s sake – you’ll see it completely differently.

A useful cognitive strategy is to apportion a time-limit to my own self-doubts and worries. “Ok, Inner Critic, you can have your say, but not until tomorrow when I let you loose on editing. Until then, all bets are off!”  Sometimes I allow myself five minutes worrying and brow-beating just to get it out of the way so I can saddle up and ride off into the blue. The cathartic effect of voiding one’s own fears and anxieties can give rise to an exuberant and devil-may-care attitude which in turn, breeds creativity and leads to taking risks that my Inner Critic might otherwise talk me out of.


 This is one of my especial kickers. SOMEBODY’S BETTER is the ultimate comparative beat-down, the self-deprecating paralleling of somebody else’s glowing achievement with your own half-baked inspiration. They got there first! They’ve queered the pitch for me! Everybody will think I’m copying them!

[i bet there’s a MUCH better article somewhere on EXACTLY this topic ...]

OK. Relax and regroup. So first of all there isn’t any copyright in an idea. Not in a formless, vague concept at least, before its ephemeral beauty is netted in words or solidified in celluloid. Plus do you really think that any book, play or film can thoroughly explore ALL aspect of an idea? Sure, you might want to angle your USP so that you’re not treading over EXACTLY the same ground, and stay away from plagiarism, but a good work of fiction would always cast its net wide. And there’s always a knock-on effect from having a group of artists tackle a subject. You could be part of a zeitgeist, or movement. Once there’s an appetite for a particular thing, you can help feed it!


One of the Gordian knots that I am often tying for myself goes like this: I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket, so I make sure I have a couple of projects on the go at all times. But that means I’m constantly in a state of flux – if one project is on the up, so to speak then other more embryonic ones need to be coddled and nurtured, often at the most inconvenient times. Or if I have a show on, promotion and publicity to audience or industry contacts is the immediate preoccupation, but when it’s gone, it’s gone, and I suddenly find there’s a big void where there should be green sprouts.

[omg you have just spent so long on this post! what about all the other stuff you have to do!]

Sometimes it feels like I'm having a long luxurious bath when I write, that the muddy plot of creative fertility is just one extended hog-wallow that often churns up little of value. Sometimes it feels that the “good” part of writing is the sharpening and tightening of a story that is already there – so you can feel that you’ve “got somewhere” with it. Or if someone asks to have a look, and all you can think of is how it’s JUST NOT READY -

 [ugh look at the time – why have you spent so much of the morning on this]

Again, for this one, compartmentalisation is your friend. Give yourself ring-fenced time for self-indulgent and non-reflective creativity, no matter how ugly the result, and whenever a WIT leaps into your brain, write it down and consign it to later. Comfort your raging anxiety with the  knowledge that in one hour (or earlier today) you can (or have) done whatever literary or theatrical admin/ naked self-publicity is required, and that you can recharge in the volcanic mud bath of invention once more.

[the time, the time! come on!]

Which brings us to ...


This last one is a toughie ‘cos it ain’t just you this time. You’ve submitted your story to a publisher/producer, it’s been received well and there’s plans afoot to publish/produce it. But now comes the editing process, and the delicately-phrased “may require some further work” comes into play. You sit down with your editor/producer and are presented with (some) well-observed and on-point suggestions that will definitely assist your story. (Obviously first you have to use your judgement to determine whether you’re happy with suggested changes or not, and I’m assuming the former.) In fact, your original story now seems but a pale wraith against a bursting rainbow of yet unrealised beauty. But what seems fine in theory leads to almost crippling indecision when faced with the problem of intertwining these new suggestions into the tightly woven mesh of the existing text. And when you do manage to do it, there’s the third eye in your forehead commenting and worrying and ...

[i am TOTALLY messing up this post now]

So I’m leaving aside any rubbish edits which you are free to contest or ignore as you see fit. Again, I’m talking about ACTUALLY GOOD edits that you can see would really help, but you’re feeling down about because you’re not sure how to do them. 

Emotional Reasoning – assuming that because you’re feeling a certain way means that something is true and Jumping to Conclusions are my particular horrors.  I’m particularly prone to mind-reading (“they obviously HATED my original piece”) and fortune telling (“if I can’t do this it will be the end of everything”) but once you start to externalise suggestions you run the risk of having a wonky hybrid story which can’t run because it has extra arms and legs grafted on in unwieldy places. Without being too hippy about it, when faced with good and far-reaching suggestions, I try to meditate on them for a few days, internalise the content, and then rewrite from scratch. Again, keeping a list of the positives helps – after all, your editor/ producer wouldn’t be spending their valuable time on it if it wasn’t pretty good, would they?! 

And while you’re at it, make a list of all the people who really don’t care – like REALLY DON’T CARE – whether you succeed or fail at this writer thing. In my case, my children are too young to even know what a writer is and my cat TOTALLY doesn’t give a toss at my degrees of failure or success. All they care about is playtime and cuddles, and when things are going badly with this writer thing, then there’s plenty of those!

[stop rabbiting on, you're boring people! WRAP IT UP! WRAP IT UP!]

There's plenty more where those came from but I'll wrap up now and I’d love to hear about some of yours!

So you missed out on the Carnegie? That sucks. Now where's my stroke?


Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant! I do all of these, but my particular speciality is the entire conversation/scenario constructed from a stray word, loo, silence - even a bit of punctuation will do it. And that totally imaginary conversation is rarely a positive one!

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Ha ha thanks Sue! Sounds like "worst case scenario" or "catastrophization" - it's so good to know that I'm not alone!

Shirley Webster said...

Hahahaha this made me crack up laughing. that little voice in your head has something to answer for doesn't it!! you always think it's just you but must happen to most writers!

Hayley N. Jones said...

Gosh, yes! My typical broken record thought is "you're a terrible writer and an idiot to think anyone will ever want to read your writing" but other popular tracks are "this is awful and a waste of time" and "who do you think you are to even consider trying to be a writer?" I tend to drown them out with diet coke and giving myself permission to write as many pages of drivel as I can!

Sue Purkiss said...

Er - meant 'look', not 'loo'!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! You've captured that inner anguish and emotional turmoil perfectly - plus with a good measure of WIT...