"Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within," Dennis Palumbo

Pros: Great suggestions for dealing with the ups and downs of the writing life
Cons: Some prejudicial attitudes that get in the way
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 6/20/2002

One of Palumbo’s best-conceived ideas is his suggestion that in order to be happy with our writing, we must learn to enjoy our writing for its own sake. It is the process that we must primarily derive pleasure from, not external events such as sales and good reviews. As a therapist specializing in creativity issues (just as Eric Maisel does), Palumbo has seen writers in all stages of misery. Lack of ideas? He’s seen it. Burnout? He’s treated it. Writer’s block? Been there, done that.

Among his good ideas:

  • You are enough. You don’t have to be a perfect or well-adjusted person in order to write well. See your misery and unhappiness as fuel for your writing.
  • Have a good relationship with your talent. Many writers refer to their latest piece of work as their “baby.” Yet few people would want to talk to or treat their children the way writers treat their talent and work! Stop hating what you do, and love writing for its own sake.
  • Writing begets writing. No matter what you do, write. If you’re blocked, write about that. If you hate the changes your editor asked you to make, write about that. If you’re terrified by an upcoming deadline, then write about that. If you can just get your pen moving, you’ll find yourself writing about other things as well.
  • Take the long view. See your writing as an integral part of your life, as your calling, not as a series of external events such as pitch meetings, sales, and reviews.
  • Being blocked isn’t necessarily bad. Being blocked might just mean that you’re ready to go in directions you’ve been afraid to go in before. Examine why you’re blocked, and work on the feelings that emerge.
  • Writing requires commitment. You must commit to your writing the way you’d commit to a relationship.

I particularly like Palumbo’s view of writing as meditation, “a hushed, private space,” a calling more than a career. He talks about the problems all writers face, and it might help you to realize that you aren’t so alone after all.

You can trip over the dog on your way to the office, where you fret and anguish at the keyboard waiting for the Big Idea to come to you – or you can write about the dog.

So Why Did Maisel’s Book Get a Higher Rating?

As much as I loved the good parts of Palumbo’s book, there were definitely some parts I didn’t like. Take, for example, what I said above about not needing to be a happy or well-adjusted person in order to be a good writer, and how you can view your problems as good material to write from. This is a great idea to push, but Palumbo seems to step over the line into implying that you’ll be a better writer if you have problems to write about. Thus by inference he implies also that you shouldn’t try to make yourself a happier, healthier person if you want to be a really good writer.

No, I don’t honestly think that he believes this or that this is what he meant to say. But I can certainly see people taking that message away from what he wrote, and that’s just plain sloppy. It’s a dangerous message to give, even unintentionally.

It doesn’t help that he briefly addresses the correlation that has been suggested between bipolar disorder and creativity and dismisses it pretty much out of hand. Not because of any special knowledge that he has, but because he thinks that suggesting any sort of link between the two devalues and demystifies our creativity. (Frankly, I think that such a link, if it exists, adds to the mystery that is creativity.)

There was no need for him to do this. All he had to do (since his big hobby-horse seemed to be that he didn’t want people thinking that bipolar caused creativity) was to point out that a correlation does not necessarily imply causality. Simply because there is a high correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity/intelligence does not mean that bipolar is the cause of those traits.

He goes on to say that “bipolar” is simply a label, and not a very helpful one at that. As someone who has bipolar disorder, and whose life was very much aided by the proper medication, I can say that such labels can be very helpful indeed! (As a side-note that might be helpful to those who worry that medication and the suppression of their manic phases might in some way detract from their creative ability, I found it much easier to actually sit down and write once I was medicated.)

It is clear that Palumbo has some very strong feelings on certain matters, and every few chapters these feelings, in my opinion, strongly detract from the usefulness of the manuscript. Take his attitudes toward people who say they would like to be writers but who haven’t written anything yet. He jumps on the bandwagon of bashing such people, comparing them to someone who says that they’ve always wanted to give heart surgery a try one of these weeks. If there’s one thing I learned from the Maisel book, though, it’s that every writer was once a would-be writer, and that the line between “wanna-be” and “would-be” isn’t something we can assume just by looking at someone. (Besides, while the analogy holds up in that writing requires skill and practice, it falls apart in that unlike heart surgery, writing can be practiced and worked on by novices without damaging or killing anything, and they can learn something by doing so.)

Who Is This Book For?

I don’t recommend this book to the novice or “would-be” writer. Unlike Maisel’s books, it’s likely to give you a few skewed ideas about creativity and your own role in writing. It certainly wouldn’t be nice to pick up this book thinking it might give you a hand getting started, and find yourself being bashed.

On the other hand, it has a lot of very useful suggestions for writers who have some experience and are looking for a bit of help with the ups and downs of their craft. Palumbo has written quite a few scripts and screenplays, so he has plenty of advice that is of particular use to those writers dealing with Hollywood.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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