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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.

Denying Possibilities Creates Writer’s Block

forbidden colorsIn No More Secondhand Art, Peter London describes how the phrase “forbidden colors” freed him from an artistic block.

“It was now apparent to me that my stuckedness wasn’t my failure to use well what I had; it was a failure of my imagination to allow me access to a full range of possibilities…”

London continues, “The problem was I had forbidden myself to employ a whole range of colors (it could have been lines or shapes or what have you) that could speak of things I wished to say but could not convey without those colors.”

When London recognized this, he took immediate action. He drove to go to an art store and “ravished” trays of oil pastels.

“If a color repelled me, I took it. If I had never used that hue or tint or shade before, I nabbed it… It cost me a fortune in their purchase. It had cost a fortune in their denial.”

Your Forbidden Range

What “range of colors” have you avoided in your writing? What are you unable to say because you’ve limited your possibilities to a few genres? What stories or topics are off the map of acceptable territory?

What do you think you shouldn’t write? What do you think you’re incapable of writing? What projects do you keep postponing because you “don’t have time?”

What fortune has your denial of these genres, stories and topics cost you?

Mapping the Forbidden Range

censor yourself canstockphoto8968105 (2)

What rules and beliefs censor your writing?

What do you think about each of those forbidden genres or taboo topics? More importantly, what half-formed, half-hidden thoughts do you keep turning away from?

I’ll admit that I think fiction is more interesting than memoir in general, and that my life in particular isn’t exciting enough to Twitter about, let alone write a memoir about.

But I don’t want to admit that I also hear in the back of my mind, “Except for the story about how ‘J’ thought ‘K’ was going to kill himself and went looking for the gun. That’s a good story, but I couldn’t write about that! Even if ‘J’ hadn’t made me promise not to tell to anyone.”

Behind the Forbidden Range

These thoughts that define the forbidden spring from our beliefs and rules. One of my rules is that I shouldn’t upset my family or hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m convinced that writing memoir would shatter that rule.

Do you share the rule that you shouldn’t hurt people? Or are you more aligned with Faulkner’s perspective that “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”?

I inherited the belief that loyalty means keeping family secrets. “What happens in our family is our family’s business and no one else’s” is the homegrown version of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Subtle Costs

These rules and beliefs don’t recognize genre boundaries. You might choose to write fiction instead of memoir because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But you might find that the “don’t offend” rule that prohibits memoir entirely also subtly limits the topics and experiences you address in your fiction as well.

You may be censoring yourself and not even know it.

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2 Comments on “Denying Possibilities Creates Writer’s Block”

  1. Paige McKinney May 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Or you know it, but don’t know what to do about it, so you build a hugelkultur bed in the garden and feel like a dummkoph for not writing.


    • rosannebane May 23, 2013 at 10:32 am #

      Paige: The bed in the garden could be Process, so enjoy that for awhile and then show up for 15 minutes (max) of Product Time. Calling yourself a dummkoph is the Saboteur speaking, so stop listening.
      It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to do in your Product Time, just show up and do anything related to your writing. Stay alert to the possibility of censoring yourself, but don’t let that awareness drive you away. Just keep showing up — you’ll figure out the rest as you go.


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