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On Creativity and How
to Vanquish Writer’s Block
Charles Atkins
Writer’s Block–a sort of creative constipation–is little
more than negative self talk.  It’s as
useful as a jar of marshmallow fluff added to the laundry.  And the good news is, it’s completely fixable
and here I speak as both a psychiatrist and published author.
So here’s the deal, and how I learned about nurturing
creativity and the opposite–stomping it out like the swarm of roaches who’ve
found the fluff in the laundry.  When I
was a psychiatric resident, one of my year-long rotations involved provided
psychotherapy to articulate students at an Ivy League university.  Here, I observed something interesting.  The Grad students who were zipping through
their theses had both internal and external positive regard.  They had mentors and peer networks that
supported their work.  Their sparks of
ideas got bellowed into roaring flames by doctoral supervisors who provided
necessary critiques, but were quick to underscore what was good and what worked.
On the flip side I sat through many an hour with distraught,
anxious and depressed pre-docs whose degrees hinged on shipwrecked theses.  This crew had ponderous self doubt.  Some was entirely self generated, but for
others they had problematic relations with their faculty supervisors.  My patients would complain that they’d go in
with idea after idea only to have it shot down and leave their mentoring
session feeling aimless, discouraged and hopeless.
Because this was therapy, both they and I explored all of this negativity,
where it came from, and more importantly, how to get rid of it.  As might be expected we found long histories
of intense self doubt and internal criticism.
We learned about withholding fathers and mothers for whom a single ‘B’ on
an otherwise perfect record was not good enough.  These now internalized voices, especially
when fueled by external criticism, made forward movement nearly impossible.
These observations on what feeds creativity and what shut it
down led me to a series of realizations.
The kernel of which comes down to the following–writer’s block is in
your head, and to get rid of it all you have to do is shut down any negative
self talk and doubt.  It’s that simple…and
it’s that hard.
 Around the same time I was doing this clinical work I
attended my one and only writing seminar.
It was with the Canadian author/writer Barbara Turner-Vesselago.  Entitled “Freefall” it was all
about diving into one’s writing and shutting down these negative thoughts.  Beyond this she encouraged participants to
leap into the heart of resistance.  As a
psychiatrist I completely understood this.
Because those things we don’t want to look at, talk about, or God forbid
write about, are gold mines of intense emotion.
And Ms. Turner quickly proved that our fears and anxieties can be
bottomless wells from which we draw sensually luscious writing.  You just need to take a deep breath and dive
A connected point to all of this–again from personal
observation–is that my creative juice is not to be messed with.  As a writer I know that letting doubt creep
in will shut things down.  To get around
this–and why I never get writer’s block–I have some quick fixes.  Most of these run through my brain in the
flash of a heartbeat, others require more definitive actions.  Here they are:
  •   When faced with a slowdown in writing, I ask
    myself the following:  “What don’t
    you want to write about?”  I then
    proceed to write about that very thing.
    If negative thoughts intrude, I tell myself I can always rip it up later.  As a sidebar, when I’m doing fiction, I’ll
    ask the question from the perspective of my character.  What is she/he most resistant about or scared
    of?  Let’s go there now.
  •  Editorial automatic thoughts.  These are fleeting thoughts we can all fall
    prey to.   “This
    is no good.” “Your
    argument doesn’t hold water.””Geez!  Will you ever stop making run-on
    sentences?” These I
    dismiss by reminding myself–there’s always time to edit, but at the moment I
    just             want to write and get my
    thoughts on the page.
  • Distraction.
    While different from the negative self talk I’ve been discussing,
    writer’s–and everyone else–have all kinds of things to distract us from the
    task at hand.  Here, it’s a matter of
    sticking to what I’m about, and reminding myself that the laundry, changing the
    kitty litter, shopping, ‘Words with Friends’ etc. will get done after I finish
    my day’s writing.
  • Negative outside influences.  Similar to my example about mentors, and
    others, who can pour acid on our creativity we sometimes find ourselves
    partnered with people where the creative juices do not mesh.  Sadly, my take here, is best to cut your
    losses and move on.  Your/my creativity
    is too precious to engage in this kind of head butting.
  • Necessary criticism:  Here, I want to briefly touch on vital
    critiques that aid in the editorial process, and for those of us who care about
    such things–getting published.  I’ll use
    the example of my own agent, the legendary Al Zuckerman.  Al starts each of his critiques with at least
    one genuinely positive comment–‘Charles, you have many wonderful story
    elements here.’  Soon to be followed by,
    ‘and this is why this manuscript is not working in its current form…’  Yes, my ego takes a little bruising–‘What do you mean?  Isn’t all my writing wonderful?’  To remedy this I let his comments ferment
    overnight.  I then start in the morning
    with a mental reframe–Al, wants the work
    to be strong and saleable, he’s absolutely right that there are too many
    characters being introduced too fast.
    And you wrote this once, just start in on the rewrite, do it page by
    page and it’ll be done before you know it.
  • Take a break, do something physical and come
    back to the writing.  Some of my best
    ideas have come on the elliptical–including this essay.  I also find that if there’s something missing
    from a piece, the answer magically appears in the midst of an hour’s
    cardio.  I don’t know why; it just
So that’s it.  When
faced with writer’s block, the key to forward movement is learning how to
silence negative thoughts.  Whether these
are purely internal or fueled by those around us, with practice you can learn
how to push these away and let your creativity flow.

1 Comment

  • Pat Garcia Schaack
    9 years ago


    Thanks for the points that you mentioned here against Writer's block.
    I majored in Psychology at the university and can truthfully say overcoming the points you mention, frees your creativity.

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