Writing process: Don’t think too far ahead

During a recent class, a student told me he was worried by what one of his relatives might think about the story he was thinking about writing.

See the problem?

He hadn’t even put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) but already was worrying about the reception his writing might receive.

I suggested he focus on getting the words on paper (or in the computer) first and to remember that he didn’t have to show that writing to anyone.

Tip: Don’t let you fears stop you before you’ve even begun.

Writing process: Turning anxiety into creativity



Guest Post: Turning Anxiety Into Creativity by Dennis Palumbo

Posted: 21 Sep 2012 12:00 AM PDT

Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.
by Dennis Palumbo 

Using what scares you to motivate you

An old deodorant commercial on TV once proclaimed, “If you’re not a little nervous, you’re really not alive.”

Pretty sage advice, even though the only thing at stake was staying dry and odor-free. But there is something to be said for accepting—and learning to navigate—the minor turbulences of life. I’m talking here about common, everyday anxiety. The jitters. Butterflies.

This is particularly true for artists in Hollywood—writers, actors, directors, composers—whose very feelings are the raw materials of their craft. No matter how mundane, the small anxieties can swarm like bees, making work difficult. Those everyday distractions, like an impending visit from the in-laws, money worries, or that funny noise the Honda’s been making.

Then there’re the more virulent, career-specific anxieties, shared by few in other lines of work: Your theatrical agent hasn’t returned your phone calls. You’re three weeks past deadline with your latest screenplay draft. Your short film didn’t make the cut at the Sundance festival.

In other words, you’re the stereotypical struggling Hollywood artist: bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived, staring pathetically at a blank computer screen (or the waiting edit bay, or the silent piano keys), hoping for inspiration and yearning for another cup of coffee, and maybe a nice piece of cheesecake. A dozen nagging, self-mocking thoughts echo in your head: You’re untalented, a fraud. You’re getting old and fat. No woman (or man) will ever want to sleep with you again. Your life is over.
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These kinds of feelings are tough to deal with, to be sure, even if validated (and then gently challenged) by a supportive therapist, mate, good friend, or fellow creative type who’s “been there, done that.” These deeply embedded, childhood-derived, seemingly inescapable Dark-Night-of-the-Soul feelings can, in fact, be crippling, regardless of your level of craft or years of experience.

And, as I’ve said countless times to the creative patients in my practice, struggling with these doubts and fears doesn’t say anything about you as an artist. Other than that you are an artist.

Frankly, this difficult emotional terrain is where an artist lives much of the time—in a matrix of triumphs and defeats, optimism and despair, impassioned beliefs and crushing deflations. In the end, it’s all just grist for the creative mill.

And, believe me, this is equally true for both beginning artists and accomplished, battle-hardened veterans.

But there’s another kind of anxiety that emerges occasionally in a creative person’s life: the kind of gut-wrenching, dizzying upheaval from within that throws everything you think you know into doubt and that scares you to the very core. A puzzling, alarming career dive. A shattering divorce. The death of a family member. A spate of sudden, dizzying panic attacks.

Then, what balm is there to offer—or to receive—that doesn’t seem trivial or woefully inadequate? Catharsis and validation, the foundation of most psychotherapeutic work, suddenly feel like mere word games. Medication, while often clinically appropriate, seems at best an armoring against something primal that’s working within you.

What is an artist to do with that level of anxiety?

Use it.

Because, for an artist, when all that’s left is the work, the work is all that’s left.

What kind of work? Maybe numbed-out and shapeless at first; chaotic and unsatisfying. Maybe dark and ugly, or self-pitying and shameless. Maybe a blind, angry clawing at the air with inchoate feelings and inexplicable images.

The important thing to acknowledge, to accept and to make use of, is the fact of this anxiety — its weight, its size, and its implacability at this time in your life. For whatever reason, it’s there. As immoveable as a brick wall, as deep and fathomless as a sea.

And, for now, it isn’t going anywhere.

So you, the artist, must ask yourself this question: Is there a character in the story I’m working on who feels such anxiety? Who feels as overwhelmed, as out of control, as terrified as I? These are the raw materials of the work. Whether writing a scene, directing a scene, acting in a scene, or composing the music for a scene, you must inhabit those aspects of the character whose narrative you’re building.

If you’re willing to do so, then plunge headlong into creating the hell out of that character, giving him or her your voice, your fears, your dreads. Create situations and scenes in which these anxieties are dramatized, exploited, “acted out.”

Create monologues, rants, vitriolic exchanges between characters, letting passions and behaviors emerge that may astound or alarm you; that stretch or distort or even demolish the narrative you’ve been working with. These problems can all be dealt with, deleted, perhaps even woven into the story later, in the cool light of day, when you have some kind of perspective.

Because to be truly in the eye of the emotional storm, to create from a state of anxiety, is to surrender any fantasy of perspective. In fact, in the purest sense, it’s the ultimate act of creative surrender from which, out of the crucible of your deepest pain, you might discover a joyful, wonderful surprise.

Do this: put those trembling fingers on a keyboard, RIGHT NOW, and start stringing words together that reflect how you feel…without context, or narrative, or character. Just raw feeling, in as many vivid, living words as you can call forth.

Then look at what you’ve written. Feel whatever it is you’re feeling. And hit that keyboard some more. Soon, I believe, you’ll have a sense of the logjam cracking. You’ll feel the urgency of creative expression, the palpable release of banked anxiety. Without judging what comes, without needing it to be anything, I think you’ll find yourself creating something—even if that’s just defined, for the moment, as putting words down on a page.

Does the idea of this exercise itself make you anxious? Doesn’t surprise me. We’re all pretty scared of creating, or making art, out of the very emotional space we’d most like to avoid or deny. It’s human nature.

Besides, as famed psychiatrist Rollo May reminded us, real creativity is not possible without anxiety. In many ways, it’s the price of admission to the artist’s life.

Which means, for those artists who have the courage to embrace their own fears, to co-exist with potentially crippling anxiety and create anyway, the rewards can be significant. Consider artists as diverse as Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King and James L. Brooks, Anne Rice and Phillip Roth, Richard Pryor and Diane Arbus. They use who they are—all of who they are—as the wellspring of their creativity. Just as it is for yours.

Moreover, when all that’s left is the work…the work is all that’s left.

So trust it. Trust yourself. Like it or not, you’re all you have.

And the good news is, that’s enough.

AlphaSmart 3000

I’m writing this on my clunky AlphaSmart 3000, a portable keyboard that’s so primitive it’s cool. I bought it after reading about it somewhere and thinking Boy, that sounds simple, like writing with pen and paper but better because it creates digital text.

AlphaSmart 3000

Lightweight and inexpensive (I paid $68.99, including shipping, for a used one described as “very good” by hooliator on amazon.com), The seller’s review on amazon.com includes a lot of useful information. The AlphaSmart comes with a basic word-processing program. Mine arrived carefully packaged within a few days along with a list of tips on how to use it and a USB cord for connecting it to my PC. 

My version has a translucent turquoise case through which I can see the three AA batteries that run it. True, it doesn’t have Internet access; requires a slower, firmer touch than my desktop; has a small screen that shows only four lines of text at a time (Which may vary according to the font size; I haven’t figured that out yet); and makes more noise than the keys on my desktop; but I like its instant startup, automatic backup and long battery life.

Unlike my relatively large and heavy laptop, the AlphaSmart  fits into my tote bag and, should I lose it, damage it or have it stolen, won’t cost very much to replace. Some writers might prefer inputting notes by texting themselves on their smart phones. I don’t own a smart phone; and, besides, I like the fact that AlphaSmart’s full-size keyboard means I don’t have to type with my thumbs.

True, in order to do the heavy editing and printing, I have to upload my AlphaSmart files to my computer but the uploading has proven to be fast and easy. Most of all, I enjoy AlphaSmart’s simplicity and how it helps me focus on what I’m writing without the continual presence of the Internet beckoning me away.

Prose poems

As this definition of prose poems explains, the line between poetry and prose isn’t always clear. For more information on the topic, click here.  An example of a prose poem:

Warning to the Reader

By Robert Bly

Sometimes farm granaries become especially beautiful when all the oats or wheat are gone, and wind has swept the rough floor clean. Standing inside, we see around us, coming in through the cracks between shrunken wall boards, bands or strips of sunlight. So in a poem about imprisonment, one sees a little light.
     But how many birds have died trapped in these granaries. The bird, seeing freedom in the light, flutters up the walls and falls back again and again. The way out is where the rats enter and leave; but the rat’s hole is low to the floor. Writers, be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!
     I say to the reader, beware. Readers who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed.
     They may end as a mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor.

Writing process: Deciding what to write about

In the video “Life & Poems,” poet William Stafford says:

“In everyone’s life there’s all this torrent of things happening; and a writer, maybe one way to say it, would be someone who pays attention, and close attention at least at intervals, to that torrent.…A writer isn’t someone who has to dream up thing to write but (someone who) has to figure out what to pick up out of the current as it goes by. The current happens to everybody, the selection happens to some, and the crystallizing of the selection happens to a writer.”

Writing prompt: What is happening in your life right now? Write about that.