A surprising number of people claim writer’s block does not exist. What a strange thing it is to suggest that something you have not experienced, can not therefore exist. It feels as weird as declaring love does not exist or happiness for that matter. Can you imagine the uproar in claiming there is no happiness?
A friend of mine stated firmly to me once that writer’s block did not exist. She said writing just required mindfulness. I was so angry I could have spat at her. Not because she was being mean – she wasn’t trying to hurt me – but because it was so personal to me in that moment I felt like my reality was being denied. If it wasn’t writer’s block, why couldn’t I write? What was I doing wrong? I was frustrated and furious and ashamed and I didn’t even understand why.
For me, my writer’s block started when my father got sick – very sick, dying sick – and my head got so jumbled up about that, that when I struggled to imagine stories my brain had so much chaos it couldn’t find the space. I was like a wombat in a washing machine, in a whirling drum fitted with a million flashing alarms going off randomly. I was trying to do a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at the time – the same time as being in that washing machine as a wombat – so giving myself a break wasn’t an option. So I pushed. I pushed myself way beyond the boundaries of reason and self care. I pushed until something snapped inside me. And then I pushed some more.
Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a phenomenon whereby every time I sat down to write, it didn’t work. I didn’t work. I would feel like I had a hive of wasps inside me and it was so uncomfortable I would have to get straight back up. Over time this feeling got less waspy but I still had ants in my pants. The great wave of ideas I’d once had for the starting lines of stories had gone.
I have to say, it has not ever really come back to the intensity it once was. But I’ve now made peace with that. And probably it is a good thing. At one point it was hard to walk ten paces without an idea for a story popping into my head and I think that’s probably not healthy… it is really inconvenient.
But I do write now. I sit down, sometimes for hours, and I write. This year I wrote a novel. So how did I get from wasps in my gut and ants in my pants, to here, writing again? Well, there have been a number of things. Hypnotherapy helped. Sitting with uncomfortable feelings was important too. And yeah, if I am honest, some more mindfulness was actually pretty useful. But something that has been extremely helpful in improving my relationship with creativity is… drumroll please…
I tried improv at a time when I was so frustrated at my inspirational block that I’d convinced myself I wasn’t a writer anymore. I had this idea in my head that I was fooling everyone I was still writing but I just wasn’t. And at that rate, I probably never would. I was terrified to even have an idea. I’d become so precious about inspiration that the stakes had become really really high. I couldn’t possibly live up to the enormous expectation I had placed upon my pen.
Loosening up and letting things go
In some ways improv feels quite the opposite to writing. With writing we are recording, we are preserving, we are leaving a mark (or many hopefully). With improv we are throwing ideas into the wind and watching them blow away. Sometimes, when we are creatively constipated, I think that is exactly what we need to do first: get out all the detritus, clogged up hair and grease. Improv can do wonders for washing out the pipes.
Inspiration in. Expression of inspiration out.
A simple formula. It can be quick, like melon travelling through your digestive system. In. Out. Job done.
When all the ideas get backed up, it feels like there’s just no more room. For me it was like all those ideas were all trying to get through the doorway at once. They had got stuck because there was just too many of them for one frame. They weren’t even sure if they wrestled their way through into the hallway, they would be welcome, so there was safety in numbers, stuck in the limbo state of being trapped in a block. So there they stayed fighting amongst themselves about who would be receiving attention next, being quietly confident it would be none of them. When I gave them a new creative outlet, some of them started sneaking through, when it felt safe-ish. I did a scene where I was a character talking about a father’s death. I did a scene where I was a lost child. I did a scene where I was a broken umbrella. I didn’t know this at the time, but I now know I was shifting some of those stuck ideas. I was making space.
We can’t do all the ideas at once. In improv we are forced to make decisions. If we don’t, nothing happens. So having to make choices about where a scene goes is also really good practice for choosing which stories to write. Because some ideas make shit stories and we need to be able to acknowledge that and wave them along. Improv is also great I find for inspiring the creation of stories that move. I used to write so many characters that just stayed in one place. It sounds quite funny now thinking about it but that is where I was at… with lots of characters standing around in limbo, looking at me, shrugging and saying, “Yeah, so, what now?” In learning the skill in improv of moving things along, I saw it creeping into my writing. It gave me the confidence to choose what was going to happen and also what was going to happen next.
Being less precious
Practicing improv helped me to see that there are loads of ideas flying about and some of them will get done and some won’t. Some will wait to be heard and some will fly off to somewhere else. Elizabeth Gilbert includes an amazing anecdote in her book Big Magic, about how she had an idea for a novel, conducted lots of research, and then for one reason or another, she put it away all the notes in a drawer to work on later. That later got later and later and eventually she was having a chat with another writer and discovered that this other author was writing that drawer book! They hadn’t discussed the idea but somehow it had passed between them. It might sound devastating but I find it oddly liberating. What a reprieve that we don’t have to feel guilty about the things we don’t write! In improv there are also things we think of but for one reason or other, they don’t get out into the scene. Lost lines. Lost character explorations. Lost moves. And they are lost forever. We can either let them haunt us or move on and find others. There is always plenty to do.
I had started seven novels and didn’t know which to finish writing. It took me years trying to pick on and in the interim I would create more starts. Because I’d spent ages trying to decide which one would be the most important to LITERATURE (to be said in a booming grand voice), I changed tactic and picked the dumbest one. This one was the least serious and would be the most fun to write because it was silly. It was even sillier than when I started writing a space drama that took place on a boob-shaped spaceship (one day I’ll finish that one too maybe).
I wanted to see what would happen to my writing if I just followed the fun. And this is improv thinking again, sneaking across the divide. It’s my spirit of silliness that once I felt made me insignificant. But thanks to improv, I have learned to feel differently. So I wrote it. That silly novel idea. And my main thinking was by then: this does not have to be good. It just has to be written. If I can get this written I can learn the lessons I need to learn from having written it. There is no other way than doing the thing you need to do.
Letting Go of Perfect
You can spend a ridiculously long time wanting to write the most perfect paragraph, wanting to do the perfect scene but if you don’t step forward into the space and just get going it isn’t going to get done. What I learned to love about improv is that it fucks perfect in the face. There are a million different types of perfect scene and you’ll never know if you can pull one off if you don’t get on with it. One person’s perfect scene isn’t another’s anyway so fuck perfect! Practising improv helps us practice fucking perfect, imperfectly. Because in improv you have to fuck perfect, imperfectly… A LOT. And it is this practice, we can take into other art forms. I believe giving ourselves license to be shit to start with is the key to doing much art.
Writing can be a very solitary pursuit but practicing improv with others is a great confidence boast to your ideas. You can discover that your ideas are pretty good and sometimes so good someone else has them too, even at the same time, and you can create that dynamite idea together. And even if that original idea needs some work too it can help you see the potential. Fabulous Katy Schutte says: “All I need is half a shit idea” and this can be applied to writing. Even though you get to choose whether to use it or not, all you really need in writing is half a shit idea to get you started. You then get the chance to play all the parts at forming that into an idea that flies. In improv you most often have someone to bounce off. In writing, that person is you, as you discover more and more about what you want to write. There are a lot of authors who ascribe to the difference between the hat they wear to write and the hat they wear to edit. This can be seen as a creative collaboration with one’s self.
In learning the skills of improv could help my writing practice I was hugely helped by wonderful teacher, insanely talented person, and fabulous writer/improviser Jenny Rowe. Jenny runs regular courses combining writing with improv as an exploration in inspiration and discovering the relationships between these two forms. If you happen to not be geographically placed for an in-person course, she also runs them online at the moment through The Nursery Theatre.
I attended a session which gave me lots of ideas to scribble about. If you are interested in trying out this creative cacophony I can highly recommend you do. Second City have also been combining the worlds of improv and writing for a long time to create sketch comedy, in particular.
I am a believer that sometimes you need to get blocked to grow. I am a better writer now than I was before I got blocked. In the time before, I was chaotic and undiscerning. I grabbed at everything and didn’t have the discipline to see things through. Getting blocked meant I had to find creative ways around it. It helped me mature as a writer, find balance, and showed me what mattered. It was terribly hard to struggle through but without it, I may never have found another art form that makes me feel alive. If you are blocked, I hope that my experience may help in seeing that there are things to try and ways to work through it. I wish you well in your creative explorations. May your creative force be free to move unimpeded through your inspirational pipes.