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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Master Writer’s Block: What Masterpiece Theatre Teaches Us about Writing Resistance


I’ll admit it: I’m a fan of Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey. I suppose if I’m going to publicly admit I watch TV, Masterpiece is the one to admit to – it’s literature, after all.

I’m not just confessing to unburden myself; I promise this applies to writing and writing resistance.

If you’re a fellow fan, you had to know that Mathew and Mary were going to end up together. (If you didn’t see the series, take my word for it.) We just knew that Mathew would get out of the wheelchair. It’s a trope in love stories: any hero in a wheelchair will somehow dance at his wedding. The only question is what will happen along the way.

The promised connection to writing resides in Dr. Clarkson’s confession scene. Clarkson explains that another doctor thought that Mathew might walk again, but Clarkson didn’t tell Mathew or anyone else because he didn’t want to “raise false hopes.”

Of course with all 5.4 billion of us fans wanting, and on some level expecting, Mathew to recover, how could he not? Now, I’m not suggesting that positive thinking or even collective positive thinking can cure every spinal injury, even on TV. After all, Ironside never got out of his chair.

But I will, in all seriousness, make this claim: Doctors in previous centuries who were unwilling to “raise false hopes” sentenced some of their patients to lives of unnecessary suffering. Some still do today. When people believe they can’t recover because the Authority told them so, they have no chance of recovery.

For example, we used to think that a stroke would always cause massive, irreparable damage. Doctors assumed that whatever function a stroke patient had not regained in a few weeks was never coming back. So they didn’t prescribe ongoing physical therapy and, operating on the belief that they couldn’t improve, patients didn’t take the action that could have helped them reclaim more of their abilities.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And unnecessary. With what we know about brain plasticity now, many stroke patients recover in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago.

Are You A Mathew?

There will always be a few Mathews in the world – people who ignore expert opinions to heal in “miraculous” ways, ways that might not be so miraculous if patients expected and worked for them.

But for most of us, if you think you can’t, you won’t.

If an authority figure told you – directly in a class or private consultation, or indirectly by rejecting or ignoring your writing – you can’t write X, you probably stopped trying to write X. Even worse, you started to tell yourself you don’t really want to write X. And without desire, there is no possibility of change.

Would Mathew have ever gotten out of that chair for anyone but Mary?

You might question the authority figure; teachers and editors don’t have as much influence as medical doctors. You might try to prove the authority wrong, but the seed of doubt planted in your mind makes it nearly impossible. Any future assessment of your writing that is other than, “Absolutely perfect, don’t change a thing” reinforces the doubt. For many, doubt becomes resistance.

You might work to develop your X writing skills and eventually become passable, but chances are, you’ll never be great at it. A few Mathews, like Stephen King, have such passion they defy the odds, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. Most of us do pretty much what we’re told to expect of ourselves.

Everyone’s X is a little different; for some writers it’s a specific skill like dialogue or humor, for some it’s an entire genre, like poetry or technical writing.

So what’s your X? Who told you you can’t write? What do you think you can’t do as a writer? What do you not even try to write because you assume you can’t?

When was the last time you tried to do any of those things with a genuinely open mind about whether or not you could? Haven’t you changed since then, and couldn’t your writing abilities have changed too?

How could your skills improve if you challenged yourself to keep practicing and learning WITH the assumption that you can and will master these skills?

Unlike Dr. Clarkson, I’ll risk raising “false” hopes: you CAN do more as a writer than you think you can. Please go prove me right.

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