Writer’s Block and the Inner Censor

Last episode, we talked about the two different forms of writer’s block. The first kind is the obvious kind of writer’s block– you’re just not writing. And this is actually the easier form of writer’s block to solve. 

The second, much more insidious, form of writer’s block exists where you might be writing a lot, but your writing is flat. 

We also talked about the confidence game of writing, about doubt, and how to overcome doubt. 

This episode we’re going to be talking about how to deal with another key component of writer’s block and procrastination: The Inner Censor.

As we discussed last episode, screenwriters have three different gods that we’re always serving on every project.

First, there’s the Project god, which we actually want to serve. 

But there are two other gods we also try to serve, which actually just get in the way. 

The Commercial/Career god, “Can I sell that?”– which gets in the way of us having the curiosity to explore with our authentic voice. 

And the Identity god. “Am I an artist? Am I a good artist? Am I deserving of being an artist?”

Asking these kinds of questions only serves to undermine our creativity.

If you’ve listened to my podcast on The Two Kinds of Writers Block, at this point, you have a pretty strong foundation in what causes writer’s block. But there’s another element that we still need to talk about to really understand how writer’s block works and how to overcome it.

We need to talk about the Inner Censor, how it works, how it gets developed, and how you can start to break past it to build the life of a writer that you really want, put your authentic voice on the page, navigate the challenges that press down on our voice, and keep writing even through times when you literally don’t have a single idea in your mind. 

We’re going to talk about how to deal with all of that and how all of that is related to the Inner Censor. And I’m going to give you some really great tools for getting past it.

When you were a child, you did not have writer’s block. You did not have an Inner Censor. You did not know that the Inner Censor existed.

Children just say whatever they feel. 

“How does Mommy look in this dress?” “Oh, you look fat, Mommy.” 

They don’t think about whether it’s reasonable. 

“I want to go to the soccer game. I don’t want to ride in the car!” 

It doesn’t matter that riding in the car is the only way to get to the soccer game. Children literally just express whatever they feel.

For a child, there is no Inner Censor.

If you ask a child to become a dog, the child will become a dog. They won’t ask, “Is it a St. Bernard or a German Shepherd?” 

They will become a dog. And they will do things that dogs do, and things that dogs do not do. And it will be fascinating to watch them. They will not be blocked for one second. 

Children do not have Inner Censors.

Children are in touch with their authentic voice.

It’s the only thing they know. 

Developmentally, young children are actually not able to recognize that they are not the only thing in the universe. Early in life, they believe the world revolves around them. 

That’s why children think that pretty much anything that happens is their fault. Because the world revolves around them. And that’s the developmental part of how the brain works for children.

There is no Inner Censor. There’s only what I see, feel, hear, imagine, do.

But then, slowly, the idea comes in that your words or your actions can be acceptable or unacceptable. That your words or your actions can hurt people. 

This is how the Inner Censor, and writer’s block are born.

“How do I look in the new dress?” “Oh, you look fat, Mommy,” 

And then suddenly Mommy’s crying. And you realize, Oh, it’s not OK to give my actual feelings. I have to give the acceptable feeling.

Or you say something that’s considered a bad word or inappropriate. You follow an impulse and you’re told, “No no, nice kids don’t do that. Oh, that’s very bad.” 

You start to learn there are a whole set of rules you have to conform to. You go to school, and you meet other children, and the other children have rules. And you go do something that’s just so you and the children pick on you, they make fun of you. 

You express you’re different and they say, “No, no, no be like us.” 

And slowly, you develop an Inner Censor. 

At first, the child knows that the Inner Censor is not them. The child is aware of the distance between themselves and the Inner Censor. 

The child hears the Inner Censor like a voice. 

You probably remember, when you first developed your Inner Censor, how hard it was to listen to it!

Sometimes you’d say the wrong thing and try to take it back. “How does Mommy look in this dress?” “Oh, you look fat, Mommy… I mean, I mean, you look beautiful, Mommy!” 

That’s the child learning the Inner Censor. 

But over time, the gap between the Inner Censor and the authentic self gets narrower and narrower and narrower. 

Until we don’t even hear the Inner Censor anymore. 

Until the Inner Censor is instantaneous.

Until the Inner Censor actually kicks in before the thought makes its way from the subconscious mind to the conscious mind. 

Before the impulse goes from the subconscious mind to the movement or the action, we’re censoring ourselves without even knowing it.

And we come to believe that the censor is us.

If you’ve ever sat down to write and experienced the total lack of any thought in your head… well, you have not achieved Nirvana.

You have not achieved enlightenment. You have not achieved the state of complete absence of thought that Buddhist monks spend thousands of hours in meditation trying to cultivate in themselves.

Your brain is full of thoughts all the time. It’s talking to you all the time. A lot of positive, a lot of negative, but it’s talking to you. There’s a soundtrack, all the time. And it’s usually a repetitive soundtrack. Well, I’ve heard this song before.

You did not suddenly break free of your mind the moment you sat down to write. That is not why your mind is blank. 

What’s actually happened is that the Inner Censor has come down and put a hood over the thought before it can reach your conscious mind. This is the Inner Censor’s role in writer’s block.

What’s actually happening when you experience that total lack of thought is that the Inner Censor– which you are falsely identifying with yourself– is smothering your thought before it can reach the conscious mind. 

So how do you deal with the Inner Censor, which arose to keep you safe but has now become an agent of repression, an agent of silencing your voice?

If we are going to deal with the Inner Censor, we have to find that separation again, between our true voice and the the external one that denies it. 

It’s no wonder our writing comes out flat or cliché or derivative or boring when we are following the rules of an Inner Censor that we don’t even know exists.

It’s no wonder we can’t get our authentic voice onto the page– our disruptive voice, the voice that is not like anybody else’s voice, the voice that takes risks, the voice that demands attention– no wonder we can’t get that voice onto the page when we are being censored by something inside of us that we don’t even know exists.

This is the primary modality of the flat kind of writer’s block. 

And, unfortunately, education often makes it even worse.

Unless you’re studying with someone who is really great at teaching screenwriting, most of what gets taught in screenwriting classes is craft. 

“You should do it like this. You should do it like that. No, don’t do it like this. No, plan it out.

That’s what you get taught, right? 

Unless you’re being taught by at least what I consider a really gifted teacher– someone who understands that screenwriting is a dance between art and craft– there’s a good chance the focus on craft is actually feeding your Inner Censor and damaging your creative voice.

If you try to start with craft– before you’ve unearthed the writer’s authentic voice from the protective box of the Inner Censor– you’re just teaching the Inner Censor, which loves craft, a whole bunch of new rules for that voice to follow.

You’re just teaching it new ways to keep your voice in that box.

And craft itself becomes paralyzing to your voice. 

Craft is only a tool for bringing shape to a writer’s voice. 

You want to think of craft as a tool that you use to shape the compelling raw material of your voice as an artist. You want to look at your early pages, not with the Inner Censor’s expectations of what they’re supposed to be, but with curiosity and excitement about revealing the beauty that is already there:

I wonder what you are, crazy, rough, Me Draft pages that I just created? What if I applied this piece of craft to this beautiful raw material… Oh, that’s what you are!

Even if you become a complete master of the screenwriting craft, unless you build an equally powerful voice, you’re going to end up writing scripts that make a hell of a lot of sense, that are really clear, and that nobody gives a crap about– including you.

You’re also having no fun writing them, and receive none of the therapeutic benefits of writing, because you’re only writing to perform for somebody else. 

You’re performing craft for somebody else, rather than being yourself, asking, I’m so curious, what are you? What are the tools I need to get you onto the page in the most beautiful form that you want to take?

A couple of steps to get you started at breaking through your Inner Censor. 

Remember, this is a process. The first kind of writer’s block, the not-writing block, we can fix in one session of Write Your Screenplay. The second form of writer’s block, flat writing gets improved through a process. 

It’s a process of developing trust in yourself in order to let your authentic voice onto the page.

That means letting go for a while of your identity as a writer, letting go of What is it doing for me? and bringing yourself back to a place of curiosity. 

But we also have to deal with this Inner Censor. 

The easiest way to deal with the Inner Censor is to permit yourself to write badly

The Inner Censor hates this. 

The moment you try to write badly, the Inner Censor says, “You can’t do that. That sucks.” 

But one of the fastest ways to get past the Inner Censor is to go, ”Yeah, yeah, buddy, you want to put limits on me? No problem, I’m going to write badly.”

Because somewhere in that process of bad writing, you’re teaching yourself that it’s OK to be disruptive. It’s OK not to be good.

You’re just doing the practice of writing. Not the good version of writing. 

And once you allow yourself to write badly, or write freely, or make a big choice, or do something wild, or follow your first instinct, or write the first image that comes to you, or look so specifically that you’re surprised, or let go of control a little bit and write something that you saw or felt or heard even though it doesn’t make sense… 

Once you start to learn to do these things, the next step is to come back to the beautiful mess of whatever you’ve just written, not with craft but with curiosity. 

Don’t get obsessed with the bad stuff, there’s going to be so much that you judge as bad.

If you’re a new writer, most of what you judge is bad is actually your best writing. And most of what you judge as good is probably your worst.

Because your best writing… well, that’s gonna make you uncomfortable. 

The Inner Censor is not going to like your best writing at all, because that’s the writing that only you could do. That nobody else could do. It doesn’t look like everybody else’s writing. It doesn’t sound like everybody else’s writing. It doesn’t feel like everybody else’s writing.

It’s disruptive. 

And the Inner Censor is going to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, the other kids on the playground are going to eat you alive. Would a real writer even write like this? Does this fit your identity? Is this commercial?”

That’s what the Inner Censor is going to say.

But if you free yourself to write badly and just let go of your judgment: Who cares if it’s good or bad? I want to know what it is…

If you recognize, Hey, I’ve just unearthed this thing from my subconscious mind. This piece of me that already exists, that I’m exploring, that I’m trying to make sense of. I just unearthed it…

Then, you can start to see the real beauty of what you’ve created. 

When you’re mining for gold in your writing, often what looks like gold under the ground is actually Fool’s Gold. It’s not real. 

Real gold is often encased in a bunch of crud. It looks like a rock. 

If you don’t have really adept eyes, you might not even realize that it’s gold, and there are going to be things you need to do to make it look like gold. 

You’ll need to clear off the crud that obscures it, but you might not have the craft for that yet. You might not know yet how to take a raw piece of gold and transform it so everyone recognizes it as gold. 

You might not have the craft yet.

That means you have to divorce yourself from judgment

You have to divorce yourself from looking for what’s wrong. 

Instead, get curious. I wonder what you are… 

And you can start to ask yourself questions. 

What feels true about this? What resonates? What creates a strong emotional reaction in me? What is specific, what do I love? 

And then you can start to ask some craft questions. What craft do I need to apply to transform this thing into its most beautiful form?

If this is true, what else is true? 

What could I build from here? 

Now, we can get into the creative place with our raw material. We can use mirrors and foils, which you learned in Talk to Me, Part 2 and other podcasts, and other skills you’ve learned in Write Your Screenplay or Master Class.

You can take those skills of craft and apply them, but not until you learn to see the gold in your own writing, and to recognize that sometimes in its early phases, it might only be gold to you.

The thing that’s only gold to you, that is actually what you’re looking for! 

You’re not looking for the thing that those people care about, or that a great writer would care about. You’re not looking to serve those Career/Commercial or Identity gods… at least not yet. 

You’re looking for:

What do I care about?

What feels real, what feels specific, what feels true? 

What made you feel something, even if it made you feel something negative? 

That means there’s heat, there’s vibration, there’s something that matters. 

And you’re going to get really good at yes-anding and building around what’s beautiful, doing more of what you love, and less of everything else, getting curious about the kind of skills you need to develop. 

What kind of craft do you need to develop? 

Maybe you need to find a mentor who can help guide you. “Hey, what happens if you use this tool on that?” That’s what real mentorship looks like. It’s not, “You should do it like this” but “I wonder what happens if you use this tool on this. I wonder what this wants to be.”

As you start to bring yourself to that place of creativity, you’ll realize there are so many wonderful things that you get to learn as you practice this craft of writing and this art of writing and this journey of writing.

You’re going to get to learn about this project, you’re going to get to learn about yourself, you’re going to get to grow, you’re going to get to go on a journey that’s going to mean something to you. 

Even if it never did this or never did that, even if it never did Career/Commercial and never did Identity, you’re going to be a writer by doing the practice of writing. 

And when you approach writing that way, when you have a bad writing day, it doesn’t hurt so much. 

When you don’t like what you wrote, you can now think:

OK, cool. I don’t like this yet… but what’s beautiful, what’s real, what can I be building on? What is not yet looking like gold that can become gold? What can I look at more closely?

Once you have the ability to see the beauty in your writing, it becomes so much easier to trust the process. To do the process, rather than trying to be this thing or make the process do this thing for me.

The truth is, every single one of you has talent. Because talent is just the ability to write like yourself.

And you are actually the only thing you have to sell as a writer. Because there are going to be so many people who have developed better craft than you when it comes to writing like themselves

But you are the only person in the world who can write like you.

You are the only person in the world who sees the world exactly as you see it. Who is dealing with exactly what you’re dealing with, who comes from exactly your life circumstances and is going on exactly your journey.

And what’s really incredible is that when you start to recognize that talent is simply the ability to write like yourself, you are freed from the outer standards and the “shoulds” of the industry. 

Then, you realize your job as a writer is as simple as asking three questions of your screenplay:

#1. Who are you?

#2. What do you want to be?

#3. How can I help?

I hope that you enjoyed this podcast. If you are getting a lot out of it and it’s helping your writing, come and study with us. We have a free online class every Thursday night, foundation classes in screenwriting and TV writing, a Master Class for those of you who want a grad school education at the tiniest fraction of the cost, and a a wonderful ProTrack mentorship program that will pair you one on one with a professional writer, who will read every page you write and mentor you through your entire career at less than you would pay for a single semester of grad school.

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