web analytics

What Writer’s Block and Stage Fright Have In Common

Crumpled paper Stage light
Photo by pascalgenest

Photo by givepeasachance

From the outside, the writer pottering around the house while the laptop gathers dust, and the performer shaking with fear backstage might look very different. But having personally experienced both writer’s block and stage nerves, as well as coaching many writers and performers through them, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are basically the same thing.

To see what I mean, let’s take the idea of a block literally, and look at the phenomenon of board breaking by martial artists.

To see someone break a board, brick or concrete block with bare hands or feet looks amazing, but the evidence suggests that it’s a question of technique rather than magical powers. Given the proper training, anyone can learn to do it. In the Kung Fu Science project, kung fu expert Chris Crudelli teamed up with physicist Michelle Cain to investigate the physical forces at work.

On the Kung Fu Science website, Crudelli explains the key points of the technique of breaking boards, one of which is particularly relevant to creative blocks:

Speed and Point of Focus

‘The most important thing is to make sure the hand is moving fast enough when it hits the wood. Advice often given is to imagine that what you’re hitting is actually well behind the board. This ensures the hand doesn’t slow down before the point of impact. Confidence is also important here; you have to believe that your hand is going straight through the board, or you will naturally slow down to avoid hurting yourself.’

Board breaking

Photo by scottfeldstein

So what can writers and performers learn from this?

Well for starters, all of these artists, martial and otherwise, are trying to break through a ‘block’, a barrier that is more mental than physical. Michelle’s scientific training meant she could logically calculate that it was physically possible for her to break the board – but she admitted she was still nervous at the prospect of actually doing it. Similarly, there’s nothing physically impossible about writing or typing a few words, or standing on a stage and performing the required actions – the block is in the mind.

Chris highlights focus, speed and confidence as the keys to board breaking. Focus is important to both writers and performers – where they differ is in the balance between speed and confidence. Let’s look at Chris’s pointers and see how they apply to creative blocks and stage fright:

1. Focus beyond the block

Chris tells us to ‘imagine what you’re hitting is well behind the board’. If you are focused on the board itself, ‘you will naturally slow down to avoid hurting yourself’ – which ironically makes it more likely that you will hurt yourself.

Similarly, creatives can become obsessed with the obstacles in their way, to the point where they lose sight of their original vision, of the work they are trying to break through to, on the other side of the block. So the writer looks at the notebook or laptop and sees only boredom and frustration. The actor thinks of the stage and sees only fear. Like the nervous kung fu student, this makes it more likely they will get stuck.

If you are feeling blocker or nervous about creating or performing, stop for a moment and clear your mind. Remember what it was like the last time you broke through the mental barriers and found yourself in creative flow. Take a few moments to remember the sense of ease and pleasure, and notice the kind of images the memory conjures up in your mind. It may help to look at the work you created at that time, or to run through the steps of that old performance again.

Now imagine what it will be like next time you experience this kind of breakthrough. Picture it. Feel it. Tell yourself how good it will feel. Remind yourself of the things you do when you are in this creative zone. When you approach your work, make this desired future your point of focus. The more you concentrate on what you want, the more chance you have of breaking through the mental barrier without even noticing it.

2. Writers need to speed up

For the martial artist ‘The most important thing is to make sure the hand is moving fast enough when it hits the wood’, so it has sufficient momentum to break through the block.

For performers, a lot of the necessary momentum is provided by the situation – timing is critical and you are surrounded by people who will expect, encourage, cajole and even order you to get going now! There’s not a lot of arguing with ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ This means that performing is more (ahem) dramatic than writing – you often experience intense fear and excitement as you break through the barrier at top speed.

For writers, it can be hard to find this momentum. Far from split-second timing, it sometimes feels like it makes no difference whether you start writing now or next week. You approach the desk, you feel the twinge of fear, you shy away, like a nervous horse at a showjumping fence. Maybe you should have a cup of tea or a cigarette, or tidy the desk before you get going. Or just check your e-mail… Hours later, you realise the day has flown by with little to show for it.

If this is typical of your writing life, you need to inject some speed into your work. Time yourself. Five minutes on a set topic. A minute to draft the first scene. 10 seconds for the 10 most important points you want to make. Go!

Writing workshops can be a good way to get into this habit – the tutor and students give you a taste of the performers’ world, and timed exercises usually produce the goods. It’s amazing what you can come up with when you have to.

Deadline magic is a well-known phenomenon, so use it to your advantage – set yourself deadlines and if necessary tell someone else who can hold you accountable to them.

3. Performers need to relax

Crudelli tells us that ‘Confidence is also important here; you have to believe that your hand is going straight through the board, or you will naturally slow down to avoid hurting yourself’.

While performers receive plenty of impetus from the situation and people around them, this kind of external pressure can cause them to tense up in response. Like the martial artist, they have to believe they can do it or they will get hurt.

If you are finding yourself tensing up at the prospect of stepping onto the stage, it’s important that you learn to relax and go with the experience instead of resisting it.

Ironically, stage fright takes a lot of rehearsal. When I’ve worked with actors and other performers on this issue, I usually find that the nerves start long before the actual performance. When we look at their mental preparation, we often find that they are running ‘disaster movies’ of bad performances in their head – they imagine themselves failing publicly, in front of a bored or hostile audience. And the ‘inner critic’ is not far away – a negative inner voice telling them how terrible they are as a performer. All of which is taking them away from the relaxed body-centred awareness that is crucial to live performance.

If this applies to you, it’s time to start rehearsing success instead of failure. You have a powerful imagination, so use it to boost your confidence instead of undermining it – replace the disaster movies with re-runs of your best performances from the past, and imagining your next triumph. See the audience as receptive and enthusiastic, notice the words, music and/or actions flowing easily as you get into the performance. Notice the feelings of pleasure and excitement in your body. Give your inner critic the week off – s/he can come back after the performance to review it if necessary.

It may help you to take up a physical discipline such as yoga, tai chi or the Alexander Technique that will help you increase your body awareness and stay physically centred. If you have been practising regularly then it will be much easier to use breathing or movement exercises to calm and centre yourself backstage before you go on.

More on handling pressure in 7 Ways to Stop Worrying When You’re Under Pressure.

Over to you…

Have you overcome writer’s block or stage nerves? How did you do it?

If you’re a writer or creative who works alone – how do you create enough momentum?

If you’re a performer – how do you stay relaxed as well as energised for a show?

Comments

  1. Mark,

    Absolutely brilliant and perfect timing. I have spent the last 3 days avoiding finishing an article I am halfway done writing. The analogy was great for me given my study of Tai Chi. I now know what I need to do! Where is that board!

  2. Thanks Rosanne, I know the feeling :-) I recently learned there’s a speeded-up version of Tai Chi that was (is?) used for actual combat. Apparently it’s lethal.

  3. Thought-provoking.

    When I’m blocked, it’s usually the result of one of two things: 1) either I’m love with an idea to such an extent that I can’t see alternatives; or, 2) I’m unable to focus, and my mind is going too many places.

    When I’ve felt butterflies before a session, it’s typically the result of one of two things: 1) I’ve over-built up the power of the audience in my mind; and/or 2) I’ve not grounded myself in my own power thoroughly prior to the event.

    Good stuff.

  4. Thanks Roger. As your examples show, there are lots of ways to get blocked/stuck – in fact we can be quite creative about it!

  5. I’ve learned a lot in this article. I did experience performance anxiety way back in college and now that I am a stay home mom and maintaining my own blog, I also now suffer from a writer’s block. And for months I was thinking its the same thing. Your suggestions and tips will be very much helpful to me and the readers on how to avoid both. One of the crucial steps I took to overcome my stage fright was by accepting myself and being comfortable with my self.
    “The more confident and comfortable you are about yourself, the easier it will be for you to greet other people, circulate and introduce yourself to strangers. Smile as you greet new faces.” – taken from an article from stagefrighthelp.com

  6. Hi Ella, thanks for sharing your experience – great minds think alike eh? Yes I think if you’re basically comfortable with yourself it’s a lot easier to present yourself to an audience. One of my favourite books on presentation is called ‘Present Yourself’ by Michael Gelb and is based on exactly that insight.

    Your business looks interesting – I read Tim Ferriss’ 4 hour work week recently and it opened my eyes to the world of virtual assistants. There are so many opportunities to work from home and be more flexible and fulfilled about work these days. All the best with your business.

  7. Hi Mark, found my way here from Lateral Action. :-)

    As a performer, I think a big part of being blocked is simply the resistance to BEING blocked. “Here is the moment I’ve been working so hard toward — why do I feel so awful, what’s going on, why aren’t I enjoying this, this isn’t right!?” For some reason, I think I’m supposed to feel like I do when I’m practicing in my living room and the sweaty hands, shaking knees, etc. when I’m on stage take me by surprise each time, as if they are some bizarre aberration. Not only do I have to deal with the physical symptoms of nerves, I have to deal with feeling betrayed by my body!

    But once I realized that’s just what happens when I’m about to perform and accept it — “Oh yeah, there’s that familiar sweaty hands, shaking knees thing” — the resistance fades away, the block loses its power and everything else calms down too. (Love when that happens!)

  8. Renita — yes that’s very true. Once you realise it’s normal it becomes a lot less scary and a lot easier to deal with. Did you see John Unger’s piece on Lateral Action? He says something very similar in relation to creative burnout: http://lateralaction.com/articles/john-t-unger-creative-burnout/

  9. Perfect! Just what I needed, thank you. I’ve been blocked about updating my blog, and it has felt like stage fright and writer’s block combined, and your post has given me just what I need! I’m envisioning pages and pages of updates on my blog now, thanks to you. :)

  10. Thanks for the feedback Abigail, glad to hear it did the trick!

  11. Ha! I have to deliver paintings to a gallery for a show in two days and I was sitting here procrastinating (4 are not done) when I stumbled onto your article, ok, off the IPad and back at it! I would get very little done without deadlines and sometimes when I procrastinate I am forced into a “work without over thinking” state that can really help my creative flow, as long as I don’t over do it. Thanks Mark.

  12. Greetings Mark,
    I wanted to share how potent & simple your advice is. Particularly useful is your view of training ourselves to generate more “speed” as a writer. One way I’m learninghow do this (which I also feel you are saying is to develop more spontaneity), is by writing from my gut on a topic. I’m a somatic/kinesthetic person, along with many others in our society. If I can feel the emotion of the topic viscerally, I have an easier time writing with greater focus. That flow of urgency you hint at about above, tends to manifest more quickly.

    Blessings to you and your continued work – your advice is greatly needed and always on time!

Trackbacks

  1. […] What Writer’s Block and Stage Fright Have In Common: For writers, it can be hard to find this momentum. Far from split-second timing, it sometimes feels like it makes no difference whether you start writing now or next week. You approach the desk, you feel the twinge of fear, you shy away, like a nervous horse at a showjumping fence. Maybe you should have a cup of tea or a cigarette, or tidy the desk before you get going. Or just check your e-mail… Hours later, you realise the day has flown by with little to show for it. […]