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

The Path Of Least Resistance

This month, some tips for helping you to begin to close in on what the one story is that you need to tell, as it hides in the undergrowth of your mind. And then a discussion about finding the easiest way through. 

1. One way to discover the story you need to tell is to think about what you want to achieve through the telling and work backwards. Do any of the following speak to you?

-I just love making things up.

-There’s a part of me that is always hidden away. I want to let it out.

-I want to feel creative, be creative.

-If I’m really honest, I just want to be published writer. I’d like that status.

-I get kick out of being on stage and performing my poetry.

-To express my feelings.

-I know through writing I try to bring order to my world, to feel in control.

-I’ve had a difficult time recently. I want to move on. If I write a story that’s based around my experiences, I think that will help.

-I’m an old lady now. I’ve got stories I need to tell’

-I’ve got to write reports for work. My colleagues are telling me they’re boring to read. I’d like to learn some techniques to make them entertaining.

-I want to improve my grammar and spelling in a way that keeps my interest.

-I’ve got a fantastic idea for a book/film/poem. I want some support to write it.

-I want to meet other storytellers.

2. The best stories are often the simplest. I began my writing career as a screenwriter. In screenwriting there is a term KISS- ‘keep it simple, stupid’. Myself, I’m not sure about the ‘stupid’ bit, but it remains broadly true. There is a difference between complication and complexity. Complications are plot twists and turns. Complexity is depth of character. If a story has too many complications there is not sufficient room for the characters to move through a range of emotions, and there isn’t time for the reader to experience those emotions and process them alongside the character.  Many new storytellers (and some old hands as well), try to put too much into their stories. Don’t be one of them. A good way to gauge if your story is simple enough is to imagine you are telling it to a child, (or find a real child to tell it to!) And complexity- well that’s welcome, but that’s for later in the process. As you choose your initial story idea all you need is the skeleton of the plot. For now, you don’t need more than that.

3. Choose an idea that’s ‘extreme’. When I say extreme, I don’t mean that it necessarily needs to contain battle scenes with thousands of soldiers. I mean emotional extremity. Make sure your idea has the potential for extreme emotions: happiness, sadness, jealousy, anger etc. It’s interesting to note that the stories with the fewest characters or the shortest timescales can sometimes be the most extreme in this way.

4. Choose an idea that has the potential for tension and conflict. Again, low level simmering conflict at the family dinner table is as effective as world leaders gathering to try to end a war. 

5. Pick an idea that screams for visualisation. You want your reader or listener to be able to see the story in their mind. So you need to be able to see it first.

6. Above all, remember that you are a natural storyteller. If there’s a story that swills round your brain and keeps coming back and back, there’s probably a reason. It’s probably a story that needs to be told, and a story that will work. And that’s regardless of any doubts that your rational mind hurls in your face. 

Words Are Clay

It can also be useful to remember that wild words are living, breathing creatures, adaptable and evolving. (Just like the wild animal. And the wild storyteller). Follow in the footsteps of Herman Melville when he says,

‘God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft- nay, but the draft of a draft.’                                                                        -Herman Melville Moby Dick

You can’t get it ‘right’ or wrong’, there is only engagement with an ongoing process.

Try to view words as physical substance (again, more closely related to your body than to your mind). The most important post-war Italian novelist, Italo Calvino, did just that. In a letter to one of his critics, he explained how to view his work:

The written page is not a uniform surface like a piece of plastic; it is more like the cross-section of a piece of wood, in which you can see how the lines of the fibers run, where they form a knot, where a branch goes off. 
-Italo Calvino Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

Your job is to play with form. Stay light around the process. Treat it as clay to be formed.

 

The Path of Least Resistance

In the opening of his book ‘The Path of Least Resistance’ Robert Fritz tells us an interesting fact about the city of Boston. ‘The Boston roads were actually formed by utilizing cow paths. The cow moving through the topography tended to move where it was immediately easiest to move… Each time cows passed through the same area, it became easier for them to take the same path they had taken the last time, because the path became more and more clearly defined... As a result, city planning in Boston gravitates around the mentality of the seventeenth-century cow’.

He takes this fascinating fact as a starting point for a discussion on how we can create pathways to achieve our personal and professional goals.

The challenging terrain of our lives can include mountains of expectations, rivers of anxious thoughts, and the bogged ground of habits. There is an art to moving with ease, and navigating with flow. It makes sense to put in place a structure that supports us to find the easiest route through.

Often, we need to start by being really honest with ourselves. For example, I think I want to write words that are brave, and vivid, but when I look closer I realise that I have great deal to lose by writing in a way that challenges society, or my family. Until this conflict is resolved, the energy will not move along the path I intend, because it is not the path of least resistance.  If I keep trying to meet an unrealistic target, and continually fail, my confidence will spiral downwards.

To see the Writing Prompt that accompanies this article, you'll need to sign up on the Wild Words website homepage to receive the Monthly Newsletter, or join the Wild Words Facebook Group.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

From the archive: Writer's Block and The Beetle

As he was crawling round the kitchen this week, my eleven month-old nephew found a beetle.

With its scarab shape, hooked legs and black casing, it looked like a relic from Egyptian times. He poked it once with a podgy hand, and then steered a straight course directly over it, one knee steam-rollering the poor thing into the lino. It lay there motionless, legs splayed flat under the shell. I was about to sweep the corpse outside, when, in miraculous fashion, it hoiked itself back on to its legs and began plodding away, as if nothing had happened. I remembered that, of course, if a wild creature cannot flee, and cannot fight, its last ditch effort to save its own life is to play dead, in the hope that the attacker will eventually give up and go away. This immobility response is always time- limited in animals, and does not result in any lasting damage.  This is not the case with human beings.

When something comes into our writing environment and threatens our creative process- for example the telephone ringing interrupts us mid-flow- what happens?

Ideally, we freeze momentarily in the shock of the interruption, before taking one of two equally good, pro-active measures. Either, we move to answer it, inform the caller that we’re busy, and go back to work, or, we choose not to answer it and keep working.

But instead, something else often happens- our complex rational mind kicks in and tries to second-guess our way out of danger. Should I answer it? I wonder who it is? If I answer it I might be stuck on the phone with my mother, but if I don’t answer it, Sheila next door might think I’m rude… Repetitive, anxious thoughts cause our fear levels to rise and the flexible, appropriate immobility response becomes a semi-permanent paralysis. Our writing ceases up, sabotaged by our mind. This is the infamous ‘writers’ block’.

The way out of writers’ block is to reconnect with a way of being that is more instinctual, to act more often from an embodied place than from the rational mind. Our body knows what to do. It knows the story we are trying to tell, and how to tell it. We need to trust it.  We need to get out of our own way, to stop tripping over our own feet. This is wild writing.

A Writing Prompt

Look out for examples of animals coming in and out of the immobility response- a cat freezing in headlights, a fly staying still on a wall as the shadow of your hand passes over it…

Then when you’re next writing, notice any times that your body tenses or freezes, and try and ease it back into flow. Visualise the wild animals in your mind- how easily they enter and exit immobility.

This article was first published on August 9th 2013

A Writing Ritual: Allison Symes

notepad in wood.jpg

Highlights are important. I can paper walls of my house with rejection slips. 

It has taken me years to find my voice.  I started having acceptances when I didn’t try to fit my quirky fiction into boxes it didn’t want to go into to try to get published. It was finding a publisher that took quirky fiction which led to my breakthrough but I needed to adjust my mindset first. Another help has been accepting I am “in” writing for the long haul and knowing everyone has rejections.

There are days when the words don’t flow as nicely as I’d wish. I call it being human (!) but if I’m stuck on fiction, I switch to blogging.  If I’m stuck on a blog post, I switch to fiction. Usually the issue that has bugged me is resolved as I write about something else.  I found this annoying at first.  You just get into a piece of writing and then ideas for something else turn up.  These days I have a notebook ready!

My writing ritual starts with writing a Facebook post for my author page and/or book page.  I then work on my current CFT post.  I write by “session” divided into segments.  I finish my writing session with fiction as I find not having to stick to facts liberating!

I’m in transition as there is a lot of writing I’d like to do and I need more time so I am planning to become as full time a writer as possible.  Until recently I’ve thought of myself as a part time writer.  Not anymore!  I’m a writer, full stop. I am working out which rituals to retain and which to drop or change.  It will be an interesting process.

I specialise in 100-word-tales, which are on-line at Cafelit.  In 2017 my first collection, From Light to Dark and Back Again, was published by indie press, Chapeltown Books.  This is easily the highest point of my writing life.  I now have an author page on Cafelit (another lovely highlight).

http://cafelit.co.uk/index.php/meet-our-authors/2-uncategorised/99-allison-symes

http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/author/allison-symes/