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Tooling Around the Block

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By Alyce Barry

I've had different kinds of writer's block in my life. From writer friends and books, I've learned techniques for getting past these different kinds of blocks.

I've been thinking about these techniques lately, and I've come to the conclusion that there are four basic kinds of writers' block, and that the techniques for getting past them correspond nicely with tools we use in Shadow Work®.


As you probably know if you're at this website, the Shadow Work® model is based on four archetypal energies: Lover, Sovereign, Warrior or Magician. When a person comes to Shadow Work® to get something they've been wanting, the facilitator or coach watches and listens to them carefully to see which of the four archetypes seems to be involved and then reaches for the tool associated with that archetype.

For example, if the person is dealing with a Lover issue such as relationships, sexuality, feelings or physical symptoms, the Shadow Work® tool is to locate a metaphor for the issue inside the body, such as an image or sensation.

If the person has a Sovereign issue such as self-esteem, support, balance, or life mission, the Shadow Work® tool is to find an ideal being or value that can provide unconditional support.

Warrior issues such as identity, existence, or boundaries call for the setting of a limit or a goal.

Magician issues such as trust, control and intuition call for a split, which involves stepping into a part of the self so that the issue can be viewed from a distance to get some perspective.

So how do these tools correspond to techniques for getting past a writer's block?


Writer's block with a Lover flavor feels like being stuck on overwhelm: I can't go forward with it, and I can't let it go. It feels as if a big mound of water is welling up inside me, and it can't come out, but neither can it go away and leave me alone.

The Lover tool is the metaphor, and the block-busting technique that works best for me is baby steps, a common metaphor for tackling small pieces one at a time.

To use the baby steps tool, I carve up my writing project into small pieces, and I get a little lift of accomplishment with each one I check off the list.

Since Lover energy is also where the Inner Child lives, I like using techniques reminiscent of childhood. These include working with clay, paint, crayons or sand tray to picture either what I want to write about or what's standing in my way as I cross the creative terrain. All these techniques have helped me get unstuck.


When the block has a Sovereign flavor, I find myself thinking, "It's hopeless, I might as not even try, because it's not going to be any good anyway." I lose my belief in my ability to write, and my dream of being a successful author looks too good to be true.

The Sovereign tool is some form of ideal support: perhaps talking to someone I consider a mentor, who helps me work through my stuff, or bringing in the presence of the Divine. For me, creativity is a spiritual endeavor: I believe that when I write something, I'm allowing something to come forth from the unconscious in a way that's never been done before.

I call on the Divine by walking in nature, lighting a candle, or reaching for a book that gives me spiritual support. Some of my personal favorites are works by Jamie Sams, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Laurens van der Post, and Joseph Campbell, as well as Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

I also call on friends for support, to help me believe in myself and my skills again. My friends often remind me of accomplishments that I've let myself forget.


When the block has a Warrior flavor, I find myself thinking about my identity: "I must not really be a writer after all, or I wouldn't be finding this so difficult." My Warrior's sword has slipped from my grasp, so that I can't even carve out the time and space I need to write.

Sometimes I hit a Warrior block after I've been bullying myself by forcing myself to write when the motivation wasn't there.

The Warrior tool is a goal or limit, and I learned my favorite technique here from Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones. I set a timer for a short period of time (I generally start with 10 minutes), and while the timer is going, I write quickly, without looking back at what I've written.

When the timer rings, my excitement has returned because the timer has given me an easily attainable goal and a safe limit within which to write.

Another limit I set is a commitment to myself to finish a first draft before I edit any of it. I've learned from my own writing, and heard from other writers as well, about a dangerous trap that a writer can fall into, of writing and then editing what's already been written instead of moving forward. This tool actually draws on other archetypes as well, including the Magician tool of trusting the process. That is, I know from past experience that the commitment to finish a draft before editing really helps, and that memory helps me trust the process.


When the block has a Magician flavor, I feel caught in a game of predator and prey and am unable to trust the process. I am criticizing my work too harshly, tearing it to shreds even before I've finished the first draft.

The Magician tool is the split, which means to consciously "step into" a part of yourself.

To do a split while sitting at my computer, I shift my position slightly. All it takes is shifting an inch to one side on my chair. I shift an inch and "step into" either the predator or the prey. Once there, I write out everything it has to say, until it's finished speaking.

For example, if I'm in more of a predator role, I'm my own worst critic. I imagine that I'm looking at myself, and I write something like this: "Look at this pathetic material you've written! It's completely worthless! Whoever told you you're a writer! ..."

If I'm in more of a prey role, I'm feeling frightened of the Inner Critic and too scared to move. I'm like a rabbit cowering under a bush to hide from the eye of the hawk. I imagine that the Inner Critic is nearby, and I write something like this: "I'm so afraid, I don't know how I'm ever going to get started, the Critic is standing over my shoulder, I'm terrified of what she's going to think..."

In either case, I write whatever words come to me. I write without stopping. If I'm writing by hand, I hardly let the pen leave the paper. If I'm at the computer, I keep my fingers on the keyboard. I let the words pour forth exactly as I hear them inside.

After a few minutes, the energy is spent. I've driven the wagon until its wheels came off.

I shift back to my original position to come back into my normal self. If it feels right, I destroy what I wrote by ripping rip it up into tiny pieces, or crumpling it up and throwing it in the garbage.


The voice that many writers call their Inner Critic is what in Shadow Work® we call the Inner Predator. The Predator can be a viciously critical voice that can destroy your work along with your sense of self.

It's our belief in Shadow Work® that Predator energy isn't bad, although it can certainly be used in harmful ways. The energy itself is our innate power. Most of us have learned to use it in destructive ways, both from the people around us who used it in that way, and from the world around us where it is used to attack and destroy.

Predator energy can be reclaimed by doing Predator work with your Shadow Work® Coach or Group Facilitator. When you do Predator work, you get a chance to run the wheels off the wagon in a setting where nothing bad can happen, and you get to find out what the Predator really wants to use its energy for. What it really wants is something very different from destruction, often some kind of connection. You can read an account of Predator work in my book, Practically Shameless.


What my Inner Critic really wants is to help me write my best. Her mission in life is to help me achieve excellence as a writer, by standing over me and watching what I do and pointing out everything I do "wrong." I like to picture my Inner Critic standing at my elbow, her hands reaching for the paper issuing from my printer. She wants to grab it the moment it's done, and look it over, and mark it up with a red pen. She wishes she could be the one doing the writing because she wants to make sure that it's the very best I can do, and that's why she's such a powerful voice. Without her, I wouldn't be able to write well, because she's been at my side these many years, encouraging me to do better.

Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Read more about Alyce.


This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in November 2004 and has since been updated. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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