Overcoming writer’s block: how to write like a dream even when you think you can’t

Many people struggle with writing or experience writers block. And it’s not surprising.

As a child you are taught how to form the letters, about grammar and how to construct sentences  – but after that you are expected to be able to write.

It’s like teaching someone how to do the basics of arithmetic – and then expecting them to do advanced logarithms. No one would expect that.

And yet when it comes to writing you are left on your own. No one teaches you how to get what is within you out into a written form. You either have writing talent or you don’t. You are either gifted or not. Lump it or leave it.

When it comes to writing you are left on your own

I am living proof that this is not true. I was someone who went from a stuck wannabe writer with very little talent – to someone who was winning accolades for my writing. How could this be possible?

Wanting To Write

I had always wanted to write. Right from childhood I had written stories, and even though I knew my stories weren’t very good, I still wrote them – until my father discovered one of them and then teased me mercilessly about them. So I had all the more reason to think that my writing was pretty poor and it was pointless thinking that I could ever be a writer.

But I kept writing – even though it was hard work, even though I laboured with every sentence and could never find the “right” word. Sometimes it was like squeezing treacle out of a stone.

There was this spirit in me that wanted to write. In my head my writing was marvelous – it flowed like a dream. In my head I could be a DH Lawrence or a Mervin Peake. In my head I created a whole world of characters, places and situations. The story unfolded in a wonderful ways, the characters had intense and satisfying dialogues in my head – and I couldn’t wait to get it all down on paper.

Except when I got to writing it down, it didn’t flow in quite the same way. I couldn’t access that spirit of inspiration that I believed real writers had.

Writers block creative
Writer’s Block – It was all happening inside my head but I couldn’t get it down on paper

The image of the writer I had seen in films where the typewriter rattled away in a fury of writing, as if the writer could scarcely keep up with the flow of what “had to/needed to be expressed”. It wasn’t the writer writing, there was something much bigger at play. Inspiration.

Chasing The Muse

The poet’s called it their Muse. It was a thing, a force that possessed the writer and took them, carried them to expressing something that was much bigger than their little minds could conjure up. The Muses were the nine Greek Goddesses and the writer was totally at the mercy of  the whims of his Muse. She could drop him as quickly as she would pick him up. And when she dropped him, it was awful.  He could no long create.

The Muse was his lover – she got inside his soul – and she could abandon him and leave him utterly dejected.

Gustave Moreau, Hesiod and the Muse (1891)—Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In my experience the Muses evaded me almost on a permanent basis. There were hundreds of people like me, writing boring uninteresting stories, plays and books. I might as well resign myself to the truth and forget about writing.

I would never have believed it if someone had said – you’re going to write plays, novels, poems and books and one of your plays is going to be nominated for numerous awards.

How Did I Do It?

Well it wasn’t through going to a writing workshop. I found myself participating in an improvisation course because it was a skill I knew I needed for my acting career and because I found improvisation quite utterly terrifying.  In fact I did quite a few improvisation courses – and found this very liberating on all levels – not just in terms of my career – but also in my personal life..

And then as it happened I did find myself at a writing workshop given by Tony Craze who was then writer in residence at the Soho Poly Theatre. At the time I was recovering from a mini  breakdown –  and I just thought it sounded interesting. I had no illusions that I could ever be a writer of any kind.

Except it wasn’t the normal kind of writing course. Tony got us to write scenes based on improvisations by actors. When my scene was read out, I was stunned and so was everyone else. There was something in the scene that could not be defined by the words on the page. Tony invited me to finish the play and gave me a date when my play would have a professional reading at the Soho Poly. A great honour.

Every morning I sat down to write. Almost effortlessly I was accessing a very powerful place that enabled me to write the play like the dream. This was the same place that I had accessed during the improvisation classes. Writing was really no different from improvisation. The play quite simply wrote itself.

When the play was read at the Soho Poly, it was clear that this was a very unusual script. This play went onto become Corryvreckan and was produced at the Old Red Lion Theatre. It was shortlisted for Best Play, was nominated for three and won one award at the Fringe Theatre Awards, and two top literary agents wanted to represent me. Suddenly I was playwright with an interesting and unique voice.

Corryvreckan, the play that I wrote out of this process

How Did This Happen

I believe that what made the difference from being someone who wanted to write to someone who could, was being able to access my powerful and creative right brain.

The funny thing about writing is that it seems that you are writing from your “head”, but in fact writing requires to operate from both the right and left sides of their brain. In adult hood the right and left sides of the brain become more separate – and this accentuated by the kind of education that most of us receive – which makes us left-brain dominant.

Thus most people when they write go in their head and thus are operating solely from their left brain. They cannot access their right brain because their right brain is not accessed through the head and through thinking. It can only be accessed through the body and through feeling. A few really brilliant people are able to access it because they have a unique ability to access the right brain – and these of course are the really great writers, poets, musicians and artists.

The tricky thing about writing is that its mode of expression is in words which is a left brain activity and requires thinking. The right brain is completely non verbal.

The creative brain is basically non verbal

Improvisation had taught me how to access my right brain – but then to channel it through the left brain. This is tricky because it is so easy for the left brain to take over – but with practice there can be an easy interplay between right and left brain in which the right brain is dominant. In fact you hardly notice that you are using your left brain.

So when I came to write I was so practiced at this interplay between right and left brain, that it was as natural to me as breathing. During the improvisation course also I had an opportunity to see all the ways in which my left brain was blocking me from accessing the creative spirit that lived within me.

I had learned as I let go of the left brain’s desire to control everything and to know exactly what I was going to say and do – I could let something truly creative to emerge. And the more I did this the more surprised I was at what was being expressed through me. I see this all the time in my improvisation groups, people who consider themselves completely uncreative – suddenly discovering the unlimited creativity that lives in their right brain and that is also totally unique to them.

Accessing The Unconscious

In truth what is happening was that through the right brain we are getting direct access to the limitless creativity that lies buried in the  unconscious. Much later when I began to understand about the healing power of the unconscious – I reflected on all the bizarrre ideas we had been expressing in those improvisation courses. If we had begun to analyse what we were expressing we would have been seriously worried about what we were revealing about our inner workings. By not analysing these things and letting them flow, we were actually liberating ourselves in far more powerful ways.

We were giving voice to this deep part of ourselves and we were liberating ourselves from deeply entrenched patterns of thinking – and we were opening ourselves up to the real voice that lives inside us. And though doing this an authentic creativity was being expressed.

Keith Johnstone and Writing

It is no surprise the skills of improvisation helps writers to write better. Keith Johnstone, the founder of Impro, was brought in by the Royal Court Theatre to help their writers develop their talent. What he came up with was improvisation – and he achieved his objective superbly well. From then on Improvisation has gone on to develop and flourish to become an international phenomenon, but not many people remember it started out as a tool to help writers. And I highly recommend Keith Johnstone’s book Impro.

More details

I hope this article will help you to understand why improvisation is so powerful in releasing the inner writer in you – whether you are someone who has ambitions of writing professionally or you want to take the struggle out of writing emails or essays! And of course improvisation helps with so much more than writing – it helps with verbal communication, public speaking, self expression, spontaneity and with having more fun in life.

To me improvisation is a fundamental skill for a happy and successful life. We should all be taught it in school! See my article Is living in your head doing you any good?

© Claire Schrader 2012

If this article has intrigued you, inspired you there’s something you’d like to share please do leave a comment. Your comments may inspire others.

Want to write like a dream?
Check out the Improvisation Course which I run regularly in London and discover the surprising creativity that lives inside you and then watch, like me, your writing experience take off like a rocket.

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