From the archive: Jed, The Blocked Writer

A year ago, a stooped 27 year-old man came to me for poetry tuition.

He had a mop of black hair and smelled of spirits. He came because his father had read my CV, and thought, that with my qualifications, I might be able to help his son.

Jed told me that all he wanted to do was to be a poet, but ‘nothing comes out right’.  He didn’t care about my qualifications, but he liked the concept of writing ‘Wild Words’. He said it would be nice to feel like a wild animal when he wrote, but instead, he usually felt more like his little brother’s hamster, going round and round on its wheel.

As we talked, he asked me crossly why I hadn’t yet asked to see his writing, and motioned to the groaning backpack sitting at his feet.

But I didn’t need to look at his writing to understand what was going on, I only had to look at his body. His skin was sickly white. His hands were blue with cold, even though the room was warm. Sometimes, when he told me about the subject of his poetry, colour rose in his cheeks, but it was quickly followed by a deflation of his body, and a draining of colour. And then of course, there was the smell of alcohol.

He asked me, even more angrily, why I hadn’t asked him for the reasons for his ‘writer’s block’, the reason he couldn’t write well. I said that I was sure he already knew the reason, and that he’d probably already thought through it a thousand times, to no avail. I was going to try a different approach. He looked sceptical.

He told me the reason anyway. Apparently, his father was a well-known poet. ‘I’m scared that I will never write like my father’ he said. ‘And it’s seizing me up’.

I asked him then to remember a time when he did write well, when the words flowed.

He told me about a writing competition he had won when he was twelve. I invited him to close his eyes, to remember that experience, and to see how it felt in his body. He told me he felt a warmth, a relaxation spreading from his chest out through his limbs.

Next, I asked him to think about a time when he sat down to write but felt blocked. Where in his body was that physical sense of block? He told me it was in his stomach. At this point he started telling me again about his fears of not matching up to his father’s success. I told him not to think, but to just stay with his bodily experience. If he scanned his body, despite the feeling of block in his chest, was there a place where he still felt the warmth or movement from the writing competition experience? He said yes, there was. It was in his hand. I then got him to move his attention back and forth between his stomach and his hand, touching into the block, and then back again to a place of relaxation.

Through doing this in the session, and by practicing it at home, he gradually found that he could pick away at the edges of the feeling of block his stomach, and integrate it with the feeling of flow in his hand. Eventually that enabled him to find flow in the whole of his body. This process led spontaneously to writing ideas flowing from his body on to the paper. He was an unblocked writer.

The day this happened, he called me immediately. He was excited and laughing, but also confused. He told me, ‘I’m writing, the words won’t stop coming, but now I have another problem, I’m writing a comedy screenplay, not poetry. That’s not what I want to write. I’ve always wanted to be a poet’.

The psychotherapist Peter Levine has a saying- ‘The body knows’.

This is what I told him. Your body knows what it needs to say. From then, my work with Jed, which lasted six sessions, became about helping him to find his own voice, rather than meeting his father’s expectations, or trying to follow in his footsteps.

The Weekly Prompt

Write a 1000 word prose piece, or a poem, using the prompt ‘The Body Knows’.

As always, I’d be delighted to read what you come up with, if you’d like to send it to me. 

This article was first published on the 29th November 2013

From the archive: Stuck In Our Thoughts

As human beings in modern society, we no longer live in an environment where we are called upon to use our instinctual drives- to respond physically to danger, or to pro-create in order to survive.

We crave that sense of flowing energy, of aliveness. Unable to access this it, we try and use our rational minds as a substitute. They make a poor substitute. Human minds have a tendency to over-activity. They scroll repetitively through the same issues. They overanalyze, they worry, they are anxious. Imagine, for example, you are writing. Just as you feel the words start to flow, the telephone rings.

Instead of taking pro-active action to either answer the phone and deal quickly with the caller, or, to ignore it and carry on writing, the thoughts proliferate. I wonder who that is? Should I answer it? If I answer it that’s the end of my writing for the day. But if I don’t answer it, well, it might be Jimmy needing my help, or Gran, or it might be that new neighbour locked out of her house. I’m not sure what to do. Damn it, I’ve wrecked the writing now anyway! And round we go.

All this rumination uses up energy that could be channeled into the action of writing. It also keeps us trapped in a loop of hyperarousal that is not fulfilled. We freeze in body and mind. Energy is not released on the page, but remains trapped. The story cannot form itself fluidly and naturally. The words do not live on the page. Instead they mirror the state of our body and mind. They are static and lifeless.

The experience of being frozen is commonly referred to as ‘writers’ block’.

Some of us know the extreme form of this, when we unable to think, to get our hands to move on the keyboard, or when we stare for hours at the blank page. Many more of us, however, experience it in more subtle ways, as a sense of creative frustration, or just as an inability to get power into our writing.

 The Weekly Prompt

 Thinking of writers’ block as a physical, rather than a mental state can help us to address it. When you next write, notice any moments when you feel ceased up, frozen, or static in your body. Conversely, also notice any times when you feel movement, or flow in your body. This is the beginning of the process to free the wild words.

This article was first published on August 22nd 2013

From the archive: The London Square

The suggestions as to where I could run ‘Wild In The City’ weekend workshops have ranged from the rambling 88 acres of Hampstead Heath, to the smallest, most secluded square in Bloomsbury.

And actually, I am more drawn towards the latter. I fantasise about my assistant’s eyes opening wide as he reports back, ‘I’ve found the perfect place’. He then places a heavy, golden key into my hand.  ‘The Perfect Place’ would be hidden in the beating heart of the city, sandwiched between Georgian houses, and ignored by bustling commuters. It would be bounded by ornate Victorian railings. Tendrils of Persian Ivy and Clematis would make a climbing frame of the railings and reach for the sky. As the key creaked in the lock, a secret garden, a wild green space, would be revealed to me.

Later, when I land back from my fantasy, I begin to wonder: why is my ideal venue small and contained, rather than one vast, unbounded space, like, say, Hampstead Heath?

My sense is that Hampstead Heath is the ‘catharsis’ of Wild Words venues. It’s a great place to run wild and ‘let it all out’. But ‘letting it all out’ can be the worst thing a blocked writer can do. Contrary to what is often taught, unleashing an emotional and literary explosion often causes the writer to freeze up more, rather than doing the opposite, and enabling flow.

No, the answer lies in another approach. The answer is in the quiet containment that I’m reminded of when I think about that secret garden square. It’s in facilitating words that are charged with emotion out on to the page in a controlled way, like tendrils pushing their way out from between railings. When we do this we channel creative energy. It’s then that we find the power in our words.

The Weekly Prompt

Close your eyes and imagine:

You’ve seen a poster on a city street: ‘Wild In The City: Weekend courses located in secret wild spaces in the heart of urban areas’.

Now imagine that a heavy, golden key is put into your hand. Feel the weight of it. You know instinctively that this key unlocks a gate that gives you access to the place in your mind where the wild words live.

Imagine now that you walk through the city with that weighty key curled in your hand. Follow you feet as they lead you to the lock that the key will fit. No need to think about where you are going. Your body knows.

You reach that place. The key fits the lock. It turns.

Now, write for fifteen minutes about what it is like inside the secret, green space in the heart of the city.

This article was first published on 10th October 2013