Tag Archives: writer’s block

Real Writer’s Block – What it is, and what it is not.

DespairAdele Parks gave a great talk last night at Portsmouth Central Library as part of Portsmouth Bookfest 2016, talking about her writing life, and how she became one of the top sellers of chick lit over the last 16 years. From an effervescent and ebullient childhood in which her grandfather persuaded her to write comics for 10 pence each, through globe-trotting as an advertising executive, to her decision “not to go to my grave wishing I had written that book”, it was quite a journey, and heartening, too.

With her joyous smile, lightning-fast brain and keen intellect, Adele is one of those people one can’t help liking. Blessed with good quality hardware, you can’t help thinking she would have made it, whatever she did. I’ve seen the same in other writers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was similar – proud owner of a ferocious intellect coupled with a joyous imagination, he revelled in storytelling and much more besides. Like Doyle, Adele has energy. And lots of it.

Such traits make Adele supremely fitted to talk about the business of writing. But there is one thing she announced during that evening with which I disagreed profoundly, and it came when someone in the audience asked about writer’s block. This is one subject about which I have a brimful of firsthand experience. It is also something of which Adele clearly has none.

She started off this section by make a provocative point:

“There’s no such thing. You don’t get doctor’s block, or accountant’s block. So there’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

I’ve always wondered what people who dismiss writer’s block actually think it is. Today, at last, I heard it from someone at the top of her profession.

Adele equated writer’s block to lack of direction, or disorganisation. “If you sit down and you’re not able to write, it’s because you haven’t planned what you’re going to write,” she breezed. The solution was to plan your novel better, or perhaps have a change of scene. Go on holiday, go and write somewhere else. Meet new people. Go to an Elvis convention in Blackpool.

So there it was, writer’s block was a functional problem to do with not being properly directed. It was straightforward. It didn’t exist.

During a stay on the Isle of Arran in the 1990s, during Gulf War I, I spoke with the local female GP, an ex-military doctor, and mentioned PTSD to her. She furrowed her brow and said forcefully: “There is no such thing as PTSD”. She was adamant about it.

Everyone has a blindspot for something.

Here is what writer’s block is not. It is not sitting down to write one morning and finding that it takes 20 minutes to get in the mood. That is drinking a cup of tea. It is not worrying because your cat has taken ill and thus being put off for a day or two. That is anticipating a vet’s bill. It is not having a pile of papers that are out of order. That is bad filing.

How can I say this with such certainty? Because I lost the ability to write for thirteen years. Not being able to sit down and write during that period was not a matter of tea, cats or files. I had arranged my life so that I had all the time I needed. My despair, my utter, black despair came from something far deeper and far darker. If you’ve ever wondered what real writer’s block, is as opposed to feeling a bit uninspired or not quite knowing what to write about, let me tell you about my experience. Of course, others will have different experiences, but if you have no idea at all, perhaps this will shed a little bit of light – and explain to you why if you dismiss it out of hand you might get a furious response.

Writer’s block was the moment I realised the one thing I knew I could do really well had deserted me. It left me the day I had the final argument with a lover in which she criticised my work mercilessly, then walked out on me. Her criticism combined with that deeper emotional shock so that grief became the flavour of writing.

After her departure I limped on, writing scripts for The Bill. Her stinging criticisms came back as I wrestled plot lines, rang in my ears over and over again as I tried, stomach churning with panic, to string together stories and character motives. I criticised what I wrote, using her voice to do it. Not good enough, poor quality writing. Ugly writing. And so on.

There came a point at which I found myself unable to put one word after the other because I questioned if those two words worked together on the page. I couldn’t put together a satisfactory sentence, let alone a story. I wasn’t “feeling a bit uninspired of a morning”. I didn’t need to sit down and have a cup of tea to make it right. I had a central crisis of confidence in which I felt myself whirling into a blacker and blacker swirl of helplessness. I loved that woman. I wanted to impress her with my writing. She was gone. My writing was shit.

That was the sort of equation that was going on in my head. It usurped my emotions and took over my body. I wept at nights. month after month. The grief took control of my creative life. A deep, cold sense of bleakness. The blank page became unbearable. The stories I started to write and never finished were all tales of pain and suicide, of loss of faith in people, in God, in life itself. Sitting at my desk staring at the page, in the wordless spaces between each and every second, I sat and ruminated on how best I could die.

And still I was contracted to write 4 episodes of The Bill. A job that should have lasted six months took four grinding years to complete, until finally I was free of the show. Being trapped in a contract had compounded matters further. I was going through an existential crisis, whilst simultaneously being forced to turn out episodes of a cop show. I look back now, and that is darkly funny. At the time it was hell.

I eked out a living working in bars while the 6 months money I had been paid in advance dwindled out over 4 years, failing to fund my meagre existence. I began to associate poverty with writing. I hated myself, I hated the page, I hated everyone else – and most of all I hated the act of writing.

Sitting down to write meant pain. It meant loss of dignity. It meant humiliation. It meant having daily to inhabit that dark, lost spirit in the Hades of my soul who so wanted to come out into the light again but who was trapped.

I considered suicide.

In the end, I gave up trying to write, completely. I set up a series of businesses. I got into computer repairs, teaching English and bookdealing – the last of which gave me a steady income and such a rigid regime of work that for years I had no time to think about myself or my writing.

I did, eventually start to write again, but only after I got professional psychiatric help. I had a full thirteen years of writer’s block. Being told last night that, actually, that could have been solved with a trip to the local coffee bar (as if I didn’t try so many things) – that, I have to say, did not sit well in my soul.

The good news is that I did get out of that pit, and I want to tell you – if any of this seems remotely familiar – if you are another writer suffering in this way, and you’re sick of people who tell you to “buck yourself up” and “pull yourself together”, it’s okay to be sick of it. That person may be wise, they may be actually be bloody fantastic, but if that’s what they’re saying, then of the subject of writer’s block they know nothing.

Do know, however, that you are not alone and that there are ways back to the surface, to the sunlight. There are means of escape. There will come a time when you are no longer groping around in the dark and you will no longer feel destroyed. You will see yourself in a new way. You will be made afresh.

If you’ve got real writer’s block, most likely it won’t be a walk or a holiday that does it for you. If it does, then good luck to you. What you are feeling may be, in many ways, akin to PTSD. And just like with PTSD, seek help. There are professionals who understand the workings of the inside of your head.

Writer’s block is so much more than not feeling inspired. Writer’s block is feeling that your life is reaching its end because it is devoid of meaning. Be assured, however, it will go on. Writing, that little bright bird, she will fly back to you.

If you recognise any of this description and it makes sense to you, then seek help – and do it now. Don’t – like I did – take thirteen years to act. That’s thirteen years you won’t get back.

Paul McKenna and Me 10: Take-Off

On the very first day of the NLP Practitioner course, Hazel had gone up on stage with Richard Bandler, and had her bad memory removed.  We had spoken about it later.  She could still remember the bad memory, but the strong emotions that had been attached to it were no longer present.  She had been freed from the horrendous emotions that were the result of a highly manipulative and abusive relationship.

Witchcraft at Work

That first day, her eyes had changed colour.  From a dull grey to a light, bright blue.  Her skin tone, the way she held herself – everything about her had changed.  The effect had been so strong that I had even asked her if she had put in blue contact lenses in the break after she had been on stage.  It was a spectacular change.  The fear had gone, and the confidence had come in its place.

Nevertheless, there were other things that she wanted to deal with.  Getting rid of the bad memory was only part of the equation.

In my interview with her in preparation for the constellation hypnosis, Hazel had said that she wanted to become a successful NLP Trainer and teach so many others the things that would empower them and give them a better life.  But there were things that stood in her way.  A non-supportive family and an ex-partner who was still trying to make her life hell. Even though she now knew he was powerless, he still cast a shadow over her life – and she would be required to have some connection with him because she’d had a daughter by him.

She saw her resources as her personality, her determination and the skills she had learned to take control of herself through NLP.  It was a fairly straightforward combination of factors.

As she sat infront of me now, with James sitting off to one side, I began the hypnotic induction on her, all the while my mind racing with ideas.  And as she relaxed and I saw her move deeper down, into trance, I felt myself dropping down, too, joining her in that swirling half-conscious state.

A Cockpit, Surrounded By Machinery

It was then that I began to have an auditory hallucination.

As I began my tale… once there was a little witch… a white witch… who found herself trapped in the dungeon of an evil magician, staring out from the bars of a cage and only able sometimes to see the stars and the skies… something strange began to happen in my head.

The work that Paul had done with me: “Turn it up, double it, turn it up again” had at the time presented itself to me in my mind’s eye as a  bank of lights in some kind of sci-fi machine – as if a 1970s airing of the cult tv series Doctor Who was being run in my head.

There was machinery in there, in my head.

I could hear the low hum of energy running through a grid in my mind, and then I had the fleeting image of a control room, filled with banks of switches.  It was as if I was in a power station somewhere, or bizarrely, in the cockpit of an extraordinarily powerful aircraft.  I could hear the click of hundreds of tiny relay switches being flicked over in my head, and I seemed to get the image of hands flicking more and more switches and someone saying “check” as those hands moved.

The low hum grew stronger, until it finally sounded as if the whole of that strange room, that powerplant and cockpit, had been flooded with power and white light.  A deep, low, earthy hum that seemed to vibrate the core of my being, and which at the same time seemed endlessly and ultimately powerful.  It was as if I had discovered a massive spaceship that had been mothballed for a long time, and now was at last being dusted off to work again.  I eyed the banks of lights and switches with wonder.  Had they always been here, and I just hadn’t noticed?

All the while, on the outside, I continued to talk – a stream of metaphors about a little white witch who one day recovered the book of spells that the evil magician had taken from her – she was handed it through the bars of her prison by a wise old wizard.  And so she went about secretly collecting the things that she needed, using her magic arts to gather them to her.  A pole of hazel wood, and the twigs to make a broom.  A wand that she learned from the book how to wield with a power that made her invincible.  And all the while she would stare up at the stars and at the moon.  One day, she uttered a single spell and broke down the walls of her prison, and found that it was nothing at all, except a pile of words, and that squirming in the pile of words was a sickly, squirming weak old frog who she trapped in a box and cast in the sea, forever.

On her broom, she took to the sky, and flew upwards and upwards towards the light of the full moon, and she became a star, hanging there, the brightest in the sky – and acted always to shine her benign light, this Witch Hazel, to guide those who were lost and take them to safety.  Because she was the brightest light in the sky, whom the lost blessed and loved.

And as I told this tale which was, after all, a simple but beautiful tale, I felt a tear drop from my eye and run down my face.  All around me I could feel and hear the power surging, I could see the night sky from the windows of my ship, and knew that I was about to launch on to my own journey.

Then the room of the hotel came back into being.  I looked at James.  He was sitting looking at me with his mouth wide open, as I guided Hazel back from trance.

“Wow,” he said.  “I don’t know what just happened.  But wow.”

Back in the room,  I felt suddenly deeply excited.  “It’s about using archetypes,” I told him.  “It’s about just plugging into the archetypes and using them exactly how you want to use them.  You are completely free to do it.  And – God! – it’s so easy.  It’s so goddamned easy!”

Hazel, out of her trance was smiling at me with the most radiant smile.

It worked.  The ability to just think on the hoof and tell a story from nothing.  It was mine again!

Paul McKenna and Me 1: Getting Into A Pickle

I first encountered Paul McKenna as so many others did, doing hypnosis shows on the tv in the 1990s. He was an interesting phenomenon. To a young man, it all seemed pretty miraculous, the way he got people to do things without apparently knowing they were doing it. My testosterone-driven brain swam with the possibilities that this amazing “casting of spells” seemed to offer. Not all of them were wholesome. Some of them involved women and not many clothes. I was, after all, a young man, and this had fired my imagination!

But then, Paul disappeared from my consciousness. I grew up. I went on to do things. I developed a really huge view of life – a massive embracing of all its possibilities. I was wild with excitement for life.

In my early 20s I became a scriptwriter for Thames TV’s The Bill. Then I went on to university. Life bumped along nicely. I paid for my university life from the scripts I wrote for tv, and I had a grand time.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Something, somehow, got in the way. And the seeds of disaster were planted right there, at York University.

Some of it had to do with the academic approach to life. My degree was English Literature and Philosophy. I cannot now think of two subjects more likely to handicap me as a writer. Why? Because I was an instinctive writer, and whilst I enjoyed the cut and thrust of philosophy and the way that it encouraged one to order one’s thoughts, with its obsessive system building, it was really inflexible.

On the other side, the English Literature was like a long extended joke.

One of the jokes was in the complete futility of the enterprise. It was fashionable among many of the geekerati that ruled the English Department to “deconstruct” (ugly word) everything in print.

It was such a dry and pointless approach. I remember in my first week at the uni, a tutor introducing us to Othello (not personally). Discussing the speech that Othello makes after killing Desdemona, that begins: ” Oh, oh, oh… Othello…” our lecturer asked us in all earnestness why Othello prefixed his utterance with the words “Oh, oh, oh…”

I had no idea what was coming, and so I engaged with the text instinctively – and at face value:

“Because of the strength of the feeling…?” I ventured. “He is mourning and in shock.”

That seemed a pretty good answer to the “Why” question.

“Yes, but why does he say oh, oh oh?” Came the question again.

Others in the tutorial struggled to find a reason. After ten minutes of watching us floundering around, our lecturer said:

“Isn’t it because Othello begins with the letter O?”

At the time, I didn’t understand why I felt a massive wave of anger rise up through my body. A genuine sense of outrage. No, that wasn’t the answer to a “why” question. It was a description of alliteration.

I was later to discover that there would be three years of this bullshit for me to endure. Had I realised it then, I would probably have left there and then!

I look back on it now and see the English Department at York as a strange little island where survivors of the shipwreck of meaning had floated ashore clinging to the splinters of their own obsessions. In the same week that I was introduced to the nonsense of deconstructionism and Jacques Derrida* I also encountered another tutor with her own particular brand of lunacy.

This hairy woman in her 20s was meant to be teaching “approaches to mediaeval literature” in one seminar group. I do say “meant to be” advisedly. What she actually did was fire hostility and anger at every word that I, or any other male in the room said. Real, physical hostility to shut the men up, while she explained in slightly psychotic tones that the stories in Malory were all about the castration of men, and that the women were the true central characters throughout. She explained that although Malory had written the Morte D’Arthur as a man, the true magic in the story – that of women – shone through. No matter how much Malory acted as a male propagandist to cover or hide the importance of women, that single truth couldn’t be denied.

I didn’t argue with this. I found it quite an interesting way to interpret a text. But that wasn’t really the point. The point was that every time a man opened his mouth to speak, a look of rage crossed her face and she literally shouted him down. Only women were allowed to speak and be listened to in her group.

It was most peculiar, and just as with the Shakespearean deconstructionist, I felt it was an immense abuse of power – and responsibility.

The hairy tutor went on to talk about a knight in one story as a piece of meat that some magical maidens had bewitched to breed with and then slaughter. I thought this was quite amusing, and said in an offhand way. “Well, that’s not so bad: being used to breed…”

She fixed me with a pointed smile and said: “Oh, so you are on our side, then?”

Up to that point, I hadn’t even been aware that there were sides. This woman seemed to be going out of her way to install misogyny in us men. It could so easily have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each of the geekerati in the English Department was obsessed with some such monomania or other. It might have been socialism, or structuralism, or Derrida, or existentialism, or homosexuality, or the role of women – or the colour of sheep when it rains – whatever. But this obsessiveness was most definitely unhealthy. When I walked down the corridor at Langwith College where the English Department was based, I was sure that I could hear, from behind each tutor’s door, the low rumble and scraping ring of an axe being ground.

It was ridiculous. And to think – I had gone to that University to discover more about literature… To be enlightened… I didn’t stand a hope.

Between the hard inflexibility of philosophy and the whirling nonsense of English Literature, I had to steer my erratic course. These two thought processes in which I immersed myself were ultimately deeply destructive. They undermined everything that I wrote. After three years of this trash, when I put pen to paper, I found myself writing diary entries about the nature of my own identity. I actually didn’t know who I was any more.

As a reaction to this way of being, I drank a lot, and slept around a lot. I think I was trying to find something to hold on to in the night. But there’s no getting round it, that way of being was ultimately destructive, too. My choice in partners was a disaster, and when one of them turned on me and my work, criticising the episodes of The Bill I had written, from a position of no understanding of what was involved, my education was complete.

I collapsed in on myself.

I lost any desire to write. When I did put pen to paper, what I wrote was a sad parody of the joyful, exuberant writing I had been producing only a few years before. I found myself shrinking, caged by rigid thoughts, and at the same time, too neurotic to write anything in case I used the “wrong” word and was misunderstood. It was as if the education system had deliberately tried to dismantle my creative ability. Or is that me being slightly paranoid? Quite possibly. Because at the time I was a lot more than slightly paranoid, that’s for sure.

Then my mother had a stroke after emergency heart surgery, and by the late ’90s I was back at home with my folks. Things in my life had gone terribly wrong.

Life lost its lustre. I had been the youngest scriptwriter on the tv show when I had started writing for tv, and five years later, I was struggling to write a sentence.

I had no sense of direction. I felt hopeless. A six month contract with The Bill to turn out four episodes turned into a four year stretch. I had to take bar work to subsidise what should have been a lucrative line of work. I was struggling.

On top of this, my mum was deeply depressed. The stroke that she had suffered gave her massive depressed mood swings. Life at home was bad for my soul. Things were bleak.

At that time, I watched a programme on the box and saw Paul McKenna doing his thing. Changing people’s lives. I thought then of writing to him and asking if he could help my mum – to lift her out of depression and help her eyesight that had been affected by the stroke. I don’t know why, but there was a conviction in me that we would meet.

The thought came and went. I did nothing to act on it.

The years rolled by and I stabilised. This mainly happened by my getting out of writing altogether. It was a hangdog time. Waking up in the morning and looking at myself in the mirror, and seeing a failure there. It was pretty grim. I trusted no-one, I was bitter and I was angry.

I had also discovered a new skill that I really wasn’t pleased that I had: I was superb at feeling sorry for myself.

I did find that I could do other things really well. I ran a computer repair company, I taught English as a foreign language in Egypt, and I discovered that I had a knack for buying and selling old books. That final interest turned itself into a job.

So I became a bookdealer. I may not have been able to write them any more, but I was determined to be near to books somehow. There was a certain magic in old tomes. It was a kind of solace, and a little torture, every day, going into the office to see how many thousands and millions of people before me had made a living from the written word. Well, so could I. But only by proxy.

Then, one day, I got scared. I was getting close to 40, and I walked into the book fair where I was about to sell my latest acquisitions. There, I saw a lot of other dealers. Miserable old bastards with beards and sandals, smelling of pipe tobacco and wearing big woolly jumpers, and suddenly a loud voice shouted an alarm in my head:

This will be you in 25 years’ time. You will have missed your life. Where the hell did all your optimism go?!?!

It was a complete shock to me to realise that the energetic, optimistic young man I had once been had allowed himself to be sidelined in this way – to have gone down a route so far removed from what he wanted to be.

My partner at the time had been working with young people, and told me all about a new system for bringing about change in people. Coming from my overly analytical highly sceptical background, I had dismissed what she was telling me out of hand. Yet she told me that she saw the most amazing turn-arounds in people. She mentioned three letters from time to time, but in my angry state, I was determined to argue that people could be stuck forever. And so I did. And to be frank, I probably affected her view of the change work she saw going on around her. That was unfair of me.

Meanwhile, I felt powerless. Could I change my life maybe my ramping up my sales? How could I do that? One day I caught Derren Brown on the tv persuading people to do things that they would never normally do. “Well,” I thought, “maybe hypnosis would make me a better salesman…” How desperate was that?

There was no clarity in my thinking and no joined-upness. While still having these thoughts, I also knew that my drive in the bookdealing business had completely gone. For six months, my secretary had been running the business for me. And one winter’s morning, on the second of January, I walked into my office, looked at the stock of mouldering old books and made a snap decision. I rang the auction house and told them to clear me out. It was a weight off my shoulders.

But what was I to do next?

I considered again Derren Brown. Maybe that ability to influence others, maybe that was what I needed… Where could I learn this stuff?

I looked up Derren Brown and hypnosis on the web. It was then that I started to take notice of the three letters that my partner had been mentioning to me for months. They came up on the screen time and time again.


What was NLP?

It seemed to be the thing that would give me more control over other people, give me more control in the world. My approach to the subject, it’s true, came from something that was unethical, but at the time, I was desperate. I needed a better life. One that wasn’t filled with the grind of miserable old bastards in bookshops. One where I was making money.

They say that when you get to a crisis in your life you start to go back down the line of your life, in order to find the branch that went wrong. Whenever I looked up NLP or hypnosis on the web, then Paul McKenna’s name appeared. And I was reminded of my earlier conviction that I would one day meet Paul. Since he was writing books about this stuff, it was time for me to take notice.

At around this time, my girlfriend went away on holiday. Not needing to work while I lived off the proceeds of the auction house’s sale of my stock, I found myself completely free for the first time in years. I was alone in the house, and I bought Paul McKenna’s Change Your Life In Seven Days. It was a fascinating time. I gave a week over to doing nothing other than Change Your Life. Every day, I woke up, put on the stereo, slept, played the CD, did the exercises, ate, slept, listened again to the CD, and so on – doing the chapters over and over again every day.

It was really intensive. I did nothing else than the exercises that were in the book. I found it deeply relaxing. And after a few days, I found that I was a happier individual. When my girlfriend came back from holiday, I was a different person. My outlook had changed. I was happier, more easygoing, and more determined than ever to get on with the approach to life offered by Paul McKenna.

I wondered – really wondered – what would happen if I learned from the horse’s mouth this magic that he taught? What would he be like?

So I rang up and booked on a course with him.

But more of that another time…


*Interestingly, I recently explained Derrida in unclouded terms to my partner Jackie, and she said to me: “But that is just evil”. What I like about this response is that it’s a gut reaction. Jackie isn’t even religious, but she recognises a force that is ultimately life-destroying when she sees one.