Working With Block and Flow

The words flow within supportive limits. They move as appropriate, to most powerfully affect the listener or reader. Broad, deep, wide, extreme, emotive. They carry the receiver with them. Sweeping them ever onward.

Tracking The Wild Words

Now we’re going to gather together a tool kit that you can have at your disposal, whenever you write. It will help you to counter anything that might block or restrict the flow of your writing. 

Storytellers use the terms writer’s block and creative block. Human animals in general, refer to feeling blocked. These terms refer to an inability to express, or to complete a creative process. Block is usually frustrating, and sometimes agonising. It can finish careers and sabotage relationships.

If we are ‘natural storytellers’, how is it that somehow, when we choose to become ‘A WRITER’, 'A STORYTELLER' , or 'A POET', and sit down in front of that blank page, we can lose touch with our innate ability to tell good stories?  The problem is that we get in our own way. We trip ourselves up, time and time again.

Psychotherapist, and originator of Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine, describes how the freezing of body and mind, is a life-saving strategy used throughout the animal kingdom if the flight and fight responses are not possible. However, he notes that in human beings, in certain situations, it can become “inextricably and simultaneously coupled with intense fear and other strong negative emotions.” Energy becomes trapped in the nervous system, and the cycle of activation through to discharge is unable to complete. This is block.

When storytellers are inhibited in their ability to tell a story, I often observe a freezing of the body, and mind, characterised by stilted sentences, and tense muscles. They frequently report feeling a sense of helplessness. As the course facilitator, my first awareness of their block usually arrives via how I feel in my own body, known as the transference. I find myself inexplicably feeling stuck in various ways. I note I am holding my breath, or tensing my muscles. Sometimes my thoughts are fragmented and I struggle myself to form words.

Interruptions To Contact

To be blocked is to experience the flow of thoughts or words as interrupted. Interruptions to the ability to tell stories often originates from our needs and desires having become fused over time, with the needs of others. Not infrequently, the other was a caregiver in childhood. In the storytelling group, participants may initially repeat the stories that they feel they should tell, as well as defining themselves in self-limiting ways through their stories.

My work with ‘Jed’ illustrates this. Jed approached me two years ago. He was a stooped 27 year-old man, presenting with writer’s block as well as physical health complaints. He told me that his father was a well-known poet. “I’m scared that I will never write poetry as great as my father’s” he said, “and it’s ceasing me up”. I guided him through body awareness exercises. He became aware of where the block was located in his body, as well as where he could touch into flow. Moving between the two, he found ways of “chipping away” at the block, until it dissolved into flow. I also employed narrative-making techniques. Through these he explored his sense of self.  After the fifth session he phoned me, very excited. “I’m writing. The words won’t stop coming! But now I have another problem, I’m writing a comedy screenplay, not poetry. I’ve realised that poetry isn’t my thing. It never was.”

The internalising of other’s viewpoints may manifest as negative or critical internal voices. Examples of this are looping lines like ‘You should do something more sensible with your life’ or ‘pull yourself together and get on with it’.

Sometimes we don’t hear them as voices at all. They can become part of the very fabric of our bodies, manifesting, for example as a sudden physical recoiling in the face of certain stimuli.  If the great aunt who was unkind to us always wore yellow, we might, for instance, find that we recoiled from yellow.

In the case of emotions that were not contained or allowed by caregivers, there can be a ‘hole’ on the page where they should have been at their height. Here I’d like to cite the example of a storyteller who came to a Wild Words course.  I’ll call her ‘Sue’. She was dispirited by her lack of success as a writer. We looked together at her unpublished novel. What I noticed was that every time a plot line called for anger, just before she reached the climax of the conflictual event, she cut away from the action, and began a new scene. For historical reasons, she was unable to tolerate the feeling of anger in herself, and therefore unable to write to the heart of the action. I supported Sue to learn to use the page as a vessel to contain the strong feelings in her body. When she could do that, she was able to channel anger on to the page, powerfully and vividly. 

The Fear On The Page

We can observe how blocked words jerk out on to the page. They are stilted. They shuffle along. They squeeze themselves through narrow, uninspired channels. Suddenly key points in the plot are summarised, or skimmed over. Or the plot diverges altogether. The listener or reader disengages from the story, thus mirroring the teller’s experience. When a flow is momentarily found, it is stopped dead in its tracks. Just when the reader allows themselves to be taken, they are pulled up abruptly, shockingly. They don’t dare to trust again.

Becoming The Wild Writer

Our embodied experience is the starting point for freeing up block, and coming back to a ‘natural state’ of storytelling, one of flow, creativity and ease. My workshops are called ‘Wild Words’ because, in the wild animal, the body and mind work as one unit. This enables the animal to thrive, and achieve its aims. This is what we must learn to do as storytellers. When information from our senses, body sensations, and emotions informs our storytelling actions, when the thinking mind supports and contains rather than taking over, only then can we truly unwind creative block, and find creative flow.

What we must do is to separate out the voices of others, from the expression of our own needs and desires. We must bring into awareness those aspects of self that have been disowned. What emotions have you, the storyteller, forgotten how to feel because they were unacceptable to family, friends or society at large? What emotions are you afraid to contact because you don’t know how to contain them and therefore fear being consumed by them? As Peter Levine says, the storyteller must “safely learn to contain” his or her powerful sensations, emotions and impulses without becoming overwhelmed.

The aim is for the individual to be able to tell their story whilst staying in steady contact with the emotions involved, at an appropriate level of detail, and without either diverging from, or drowning in them.

Unwinding Resistance

However the voices of others manifest now, they were often originally well intentioned. And even if they weren’t, it’s helpful to remember that they were most likely a reflection of that caregiver’s strategies for surviving themselves. Sometimes those voices have been passed down through the generations, and it’s near impossible to trace their source. Luckily, we don’t need to know the answers to any or all of these questions, in order to work with our behavioural responses.

If you were maltreated at the hands of another, I’m not suggesting that you forgive what you do not feel ready, or able to forgive. That’s a separate question, and a personal choice. Here we’re looking at practicalities. How can we gain awareness and understanding, in order to work with what arises in any given moment in our story process?

We can choose to assume that the original intention of the message or instruction was wholly good. We can re-frame our view of the caged words and treat them as ‘evidence of positive strategies’ rather than ‘problems’. This doesn’t immediately change what happens on the page. However, that re-framing, from a negative to a positive effect, makes a huge difference in how we go about addressing them. Regarding them in this light is important because it stops us meeting them with anger and resistance. It stops us hardening in their presence. It stops us declaring war on them. We don’t want to go to war with them because resistance just breeds more resistance. The more we harden, the more they will too, and the more difficult it will be to find a way through to wild writing.

There’s a natural metaphor that I find helpful with regard to choosing to see obstacles and limitations as positive, rather than wholly negative. Think of a lake or river. It is made up of water, as well as those things which contain, channel and sometimes block the water. The banks and bed of the river, the rocks, as well as any build up of sticks, are often helpful for guiding the flow, and for giving character to the body of water.  Here we see that it’s a positive thing that the body of water is sometimes limited, curtailed, or shaped. Sometimes, it’s true, the blocks can seem too big and restrictive. A logjam can stop the flow completely, for example. But the most creative choice here would be to reposition the offending branches, leaves, silt. If we remove it completely, we remove the character of the river.

In the experiments this month we’re going to look at ways of moving from block to flow. This journey is beautifully illustrated by the path of writer Susan Griffin in her book, What Her Body Thought. shudder as you become aware of the others. A sea, an obdurate mass, a jeering crowd disappointed with your feeble efforts.”


 ...slowly, by almost imperceptible degrees, the gaze of the others no longer troubles you. Not because you are pleased with your efforts—you are still erasing, adding, altering—but because you too have joined the audience yourself. Curious and attentive, you too are watching, eager to see how the plot proceeds. 

When we can tell our stories, unashamedly, we are able to stand proudly in the fullness of who we are. That also enables us to delight in the potential of who we might become. We can then relate authentically to others, and to our world. We discover a quality of connection that we could previously not even of dreamed of.


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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.