Friday, September 05, 2008

The Best Book on Writers Block, Ever

I have a shelf full of books on writer's block. It is one of the key problems authors face in Booklab (though they rarely label it as such), and I'm honored whenever I can help. I've faced it myself, and I read whatever I can find on the subject. Many books are smart, interesting, informative and comforting, but for the most part they don't really change anything. They can lessen the burden, but none I have found truly lifts it.

Then I discovered Byron Katie's book Loving What Is. She's been around for years with a fascinating model for questioning your thoughts and freeing yourself from the tyranny of what she calls "your story," the litany of mind-pictures and words that make up what we call reality, whether present, past or future. To understand Byron Katie's Work (capital W, "The Work," the process for which she is known), read her books and also watch the helpful videos on her website that show it in action.

To my knowledge she doesn't address writer's block directly, but here's an example of how I observed The Work zapping blocks. She asks participants to write a judgmental statement (the harsher and more rudely honest the better), and then analyze it using her four questions and what she calls a "turnaround." [NB: Before trying this, please read the book and visit her website -- my thumbnail version is not sufficient!] Her four questions (1. Is it true? 2. Can I absolutely know that it's true? 3. How do I react when I believe that thought? 4. Who would I be without that thought?) effectively challenge the statement in a way that most people's minds can accept.

Statement: I have writer's block

Question 1: Is that true? (Yes, of course it's true)

Question 2: Can you absolutely know that it's true? (Well, no, not absolutely. But it feels true.)

Q2: I invite you to commit to a yes or a no. (Okay, no. No, I don't absolutely know that it's true.)

Question 3: How do you react when you believe that thought? (Depressed. Like there's no use. Lazy. Unworthy of my title or position in this university. Secretive. Sad. It makes me want to write even less.)

Question 4: Who would you be without that thought? (Wow, if I didn't have that thought? Much freer. Loose. Open. Unburdened. Happier. Able to write freely like I did when I was a kid.)

Turnaround: Now turn the statement around. [NB again: there are several ways she teaches you to do this, and I'm still learning how to do the turnaround] 1. I don't have writer's block (opposite of the statement); 2. (substituting the word "my thoughts" for "writer's block") I have my thoughts (or "I only have my thoughts" or "My thoughts have me.").

Byron Katie does NOT ask you to drop the thought "I have writer's block." Trying not to think about something doesn't work. Instead, she asks you to analyze it, to submit it to the rigor of the four questions and the turnaround. The more you shine light on this area of your own mind and your story that plays in your mind, the more you free your mind to drop the thought on its own.

The result? Nothing short of miraculous. Once I questioned my own self-analysis of writer's block, and once I began helping authors in this office question theirs (I don't try to be Byron Katie Jr., but I lead them to learn The Work directly from her), things changed. Writing began to happen because there was no Story saying that it shouldn't or couldn't or that we were good or bad people if we did or didn't do it. For my own part, I began writing more as I did as an unfettered teenager, when I poured out my thoughts in spiral notebooks and enjoyed the process for its own sake. It wasn't enough just to question the thought "I have writer's block," though. I had to question a whole host of persistent thoughts that made up My Story, the one I have carried around in my brain for so long. The Work is ongoing, and whenever writing stops for painful reasons, I will continue to do The Work on my thoughts.

Byron Katie likes to describe herself as "a woman without a future" because she has questioned the thoughts that used to lead her to write a Story in her mind about what the future will be. Having no future helps blocked writers as well, by guiding us to question the future-stories about what we're writing (this will be a bestseller, this has to satisfy my agent, this won't be crowd-pleasing enough, I have to earn a big advance, etc.). As writers without pasts, and without futures, we can just be, and thus unburdened, we can just write.

Will it be any good? Who knows? In a hundred years the world will be populated by all new people and it won't matter. But for right now writing is happening, and that's the first step, yes?

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