gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Handling writer's block - the needs hierarchy

A few weeks ago I taught my students how to avoid writer's block. The fun part of the class was playing with the techniques so many people I know use to defeat the mongrel: writing prompts, everyday mechanisms for overcoming temporary silences. I spent most of the class, however, teaching my students two much larger things: how to determine where their writing was on a needs hierarchy (adapted from Maslow) and how to identify causes of writer's block within that. I realised halfway through the class that I've never blogged about this and that it's about time.

First, the needs hierarchy. Think of a Maslow triangle: Now apply it to writing. It's simple.

The basic need is the physiological and that's the same in my diagram as Maslow's. It's possible to write through illness and hurt (obviously, for I do it all the time), so it's not a simple "I need to be healthy and out of pain before I write." Healthy and out of pain helps: it's much easier to write without hurting.

What this means, however, is that one has physical needs is insufficient. There is a hierarchy of needs within needs.

The big thing is that the bottom of the writer’s block triangle, at the heart of our writing lives, is the body we have at our disposal. One day I’ll upgrade to a fully-functioning top class model, but right now my body is a rather battered vehicle that needs a lot of servicing and care. If I want to write, I can’t avoid acknowledging this. And I want to write. Always. Well, almost always. This means I need body-awareness always. Well, almost always.

The next level up in the writer’s needs hierarchy is emotional. Maybe I’ll talk about this later in this post, maybe I’ll leave it until another time. It’s complicated. Suffice it to say that writers are not machines. As not-machines, our emotions can get in the way of our working, or we can work past them or around them or they can be turned to use and put firmly into our fiction. However we handle them, we have to handle them. If we don’t, they can give us writer’s block. The good news is that if we were machines, our readers wouldn’t like our writing as much.

The top level has several levels of its own, but they all come down to writing problems. Some of them are to do with a plot bunny that has gone into hiding down an invisible rabbit hole or something else that’s nagging one’s writerly subconscious and that prevents things continuing until it’s resolved. Others might be as simple as “Which spelling did I use for that character’s name? Am I being consistent?”

In my experience, once the bottom levels of the hierarchy have been worked through and once one has faced the horrors of an unresolved deep dilemma, anything else is easy enough to work through. Not always, but mostly. Mostly, the hardest thing is identifying where the block is occurring on the triangle. Once I’ve got a clear identification I can deal with the actual problem. This is why I so seldom say “Ack! I can’t write!”

So let’s say that I have identified writer’s block inside myself.

I start at the physical level. If I’m dying, I take myself to hospital (or ring an ambulance). I do not try to work past the block, for if I do well, I will die. That’s a permanent writer’s block, as far as I know. And this is the first step of the triaging one does after one has located which level of the diagram the block is probably in: handle what needs to be handled before you panic about not being able to write. Do not put life threatening (or even rather serious) illnesses off to be solved later. Solve them now, or medicate them now (if they’re regular guests) and then wait and see what happens with your writing.

If your writing returns all by itself when your head is no longer splitting, you know you’ve solved the block. If it doesn’t, then and only then do you look for other factors.

The physiological side of the writers' needs diagram is to know what to watch for, to prevent where possible, to handle early. Not to work past danger zones. And not to die. Not to push stupid-far. So many of my students find pushing past their physical limits a source of pride, then are surprised when their writing pays the price. Most of us will do it - life is like that - and some people will let it manifest in their brain as writer's block ("I can't write.") rather than physical hurt. There's a sexiness in writer's block, after all - it's a cast iron excuse.

Not all illness and imperfect health and bodies that don't act the way they ought are equal in terms of writing. RSI and other problems that get in the way of typing is a big thing and it's preventable (mostly), so it's one of the things I check for regularly. I have it, after all, and it once debilitated me so entirely I couldn't even brush my teeth. Now it just gets in the way from time to time, so I watch my physiological needs and I make sure my desk is set-up reasonably well and that I stretch and that I do exercise. Even on the days with impossible deadlines, I take care of my body, because the next step after that is being unable to work.

Step one in dealing with writer's block, then, is to check your physical situation very carefully. And this is turning into a long post, so I’ll talk about the rest another day.

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