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“Is there such thing as writer’s block, Woody?

One of my favourite screenwriters is Manhattan weirdo Woody Allen.

A lot of people quote Woody’s saying: “80% of success is showing up.”

What they don’t know is that he found it easy to show up. Because apparently Woody Allen has never suffered the dreaded ‘writer’s block.’ Even when he was caught doing the dirty with his wife’s adopted daughter, Allen made Hannah and Her Sisters, probably one of his best movies.

Look: I don’t think Woody Allen sounds like a particularly terrific guy.

I also don’t think all of his movies are wonderful. (Did you see To Rome With Love?) However, Woody Allen is prolific. In his prime, he would write, shoot and release a movie every year. That is ANIMAL productivity.

Stephen King seems to be a similar sort of writer.

Nobody would call King a great literary. He’s not exactly Hemmingway or Faulkner. But who cares? The guy has smashed out something like 90 novels. Some are bad, but most are pretty good. Some are VERY good. He’s every bit as impressive.

So what makes it possible?

I remember seeing a Woody Allen documentary not too long ago.

He said that one of his best traits is the ability to ‘compartmentalise’ his life. In other words, if he’s dealing with a messy divorce case, he has the extraordinary ability to switch it off in his brain.

He is able to work without burden.

It seems like something you’d be born with. I happen to believe it can be learned. It takes practice, discipline and habit-building, yes. But you can do this. It’s in your hands.

In my experience ‘writer’s block’ is not really a creativity issue. It’s a confidence issue. You get blocked up when you fear failure. When you believe that sitting down to be creative is time wasted – and you’d be more productive doing something else.

You can overcome this by setting solid boundaries of space and time for play.

Here’s what I mean.

One of history’s greatest copywriters, Eugene Scwartz, would sit at his desk and work in 33 minute blocks.

This time limit was strict.

Schwartz would set an alarm for 33 minutes. No other rule existed. He could sit and do nothing if he chose. The only concrete law he could not break was the one of time. He had to sit there for 33 minutes – and not a minute less.

When you tell your mind there is no other option, you give it freedom to play.

Whatever problem you are trying to solve, this exercise helps you find a new, creative solution. And invariably, this makes solving your problem easy.

Monty Python writer John Cleese did the exact same thing.

He would sit for 90 minutes at a time and allow his mind to play. This, again, is a way of ‘compartmentalising’ his work from the other rigmaroles of his life. For those 90 minutes he would live completely separate from the outside world.

During this time, there is no such thing as failure

Which means there is no such thing as ‘writer’s block.’

If you decide to try this for yourself, here are a few tips which I’ve found useful.

  • It’s best to set your creative time at the beginning of each day – before you do anything else. If you haven’t seen my article on ‘Mood Management,’ please read this now. It’s one of my most praised articles, and I’ve had people tell me it has changed their lives.
  • Start small – maybe 15 minutes at a time. Then work your way up in 5-minute chunks. In my experience, these creative chunks should be between 30 and 90 minutes. Anything less than 30 minutes doesn’t give you enough time to absorb yourself into the activity. Over 90 minutes and you start to get weary. Creativity is the hardest desk work you can do. You need to take a break.
  • Do try getting up early. Lots of people say they’re ‘night owls,’ and I do get it. Not everyone is an early riser. But I suggest giving it a try – at least for a few weeks. When you get up early – say, 5am – you’re up and working before the majority of people have even got out of bed with their problems. This means, for a couple of hours, you have the freedom to work without any problems at all. Save them for later.

This is your time. Make it count.