Befriending Writer’s Block

By Brock Swinson • May 4, 2021

Philip Ruddy is a depth psychotherapist with a masters degree in Counseling Psychology, who also happens to have fifteen years’ experience working as a writer and producer. As such, he is well-equipped to understand the creative mind, and he works with writers, artists and performers to help them with creative blocks, anxiety, depression, and the unique stresses of the film and television industry.  

We spoke with Philip about  breaking down writer’s block through exploring the unconscious, Active Imagination, and courage.

Let’s start at the beginning with your background and perhaps an insider view of Depth Psychotherapy.

I have great respect and empathy for writers and artists. I was an English major at Berkeley and wrote a lot of short stories. My literary heroes were Ray Bradbury, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver. That’s what I was weaned on and what I loved. After graduating, I moved to Los Angeles and got a dream job as a script analyst and creative executive for British Film Director Michael Apted. He did movies like Gorillas in the Mist and Coal Miner’s Daughter. For an English major, being hired to analyze text and work with writers was a dream come true.

After working on a number of projects for both film and television, I ended up getting in on the production side. I wanted to get more experience actually making things so I produced some shorts and documentary projects until I eventually got into commercial advertising. It’s one of those things you get into temporarily and then, ten years later, you look back thinking, “I’ve done a lot of that.”

My life changed into the therapeutic mode when I got into my early 40s and realized that a lot of my life had been really career-focused, and there was a lot of living that I felt like I was missing. Maybe not so coincidentally, I met my wife about that time. We got married and then a year later, had a baby boy, and having a child really helped to change my perspective even further. It really made me contemplate and do some personal reflection about what it takes for me to have a meaningful, authentic life. Then, one morning it hit me that I wanted to be a therapist and I wanted to work with writers and artists. That concept was a moment of clarity and it seemed like after I had it, doors just started to open for me. I enrolled in a place called The Pacifica Graduate Institute near Santa Barbara.

The focus of Pacifica is inspired from writers and researchers like Carl Jung, James Hillman, and Joseph Campbell, who actually spoke there many times before I was a student there. [Campbell’s] work is vital for the writing community. They actually have his writing desk and personal archives housed on campus at the Opus Archives. I remember seeing his writing desk and thinking, “This is where it all began, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).” For me, I knew I was at the right place.

I graduated with a Masters in Counseling Psychology. I then did clinical training—which is hands-on training—at a place called the Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills, where I worked with a lot of writers and filmmakers. That really confirmed that this was the path I wanted to be on. I wanted to use my fifteen-plus years of production to help in a therapeutic way. After two years, I went into private practice, which is what I still do now. I have an office near Paramount where I work with fiction and TV writers, as well as filmmakers and performers, stand-up comics and actors.

When working with artists, do you believe there are levels of creative blocks?

Yes. I feel that, just as no two clients are alike, no two creative blocks are alike. If you were to ask me the most common type of creative block, I would say that it is an expressive creative block. But what usually lies beneath that is some form of anxiety or depression.

For some writers, that means they can’t write at all. They say that they haven’t written a word in two or three months. For others, they say, “I’m just writing so slowly. I’ve got these deadlines and I just keep missing them. I just had to send a treatment over to an agent and I just couldn’t get it done.”

Then, there are those starting out in the business that may express a loss of confidence. They wonder if they’ll ever make it. For guys already in the business, they wonder if they’ll ever sell another project or maybe they’ve sold five projects that haven’t gotten made or fill-in-the-blank…

One common illusion in the film and television industry would be that people have these benchmarks in their mind and they think if they cross certain hurdles, their problems will be over. The truth is that fame or fortune doesn’t really make our problems go away, it often amplifies them. So someone will reach a benchmark and then have this feeling of emptiness afterwards. Whether they’ve sold a spec, got hired as a writer or show-runner, they still feel stressed out and they still feel like a fraud. I look at that as anxiety or depression and we then work together to see what that is about.

Every artistic path has different obstacles or hurdles. Why do you think that Writer’s Block is perhaps the most common, or most well known?

I don’t have an exact answer, but it may be that it seems more accessible to more people—this idea of being a writer. Many people can say that they definitely aren’t a sculptor because they know they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, ever do anything with clay. Or, I’m no Rembrandt, because I definitely can’t paint. But these same people assume they could be a writer if they could focus the time to do it.

I think it’s something that we think we all have access to and who is to say otherwise? There are plenty of first drafts of famous novels that are absolutely terrible, so sometimes it is just the work they put into it. The polishing; the devotion to the craft; that ability to stay with something:  those things beyond talent.

Writing seems to be something that can appear easy because most people have a laptop or typewriter and they can move their fingers. Some people feel that they can direct because they’ve seen a million movies, but that same logic doesn’t apply to someone who wants to perform brain surgery because they’ve seen a million operations. Those who devote the time and are willing to learn tend to have the most success in the long run.

Reading a screenplay is like reading blueprints for a building and that construction will be wildly different depending on who is building it. That’s an uphill battle that writers historically face.

F. Scott Fitzgerald came to Los Angeles in the 1920s as a young wunderkind writer and novelist with plans to crank out some screenplays and found it to be a nightmare. Being a screenwriter really is a unique set of skills and you don’t get the same level of acclaim as a novelist. People are going to change many of your words and even the story because it’s a blueprint. It’s tough for a writer to get the respect they deserve in this industry. They never really have. It’s certainly a calling and it’s as challenging as it is rewarding.

Among your clients, are the majority mainly new writers, veterans, or is it somewhat across the board?

It’s really across the board. Some are new while others stick with it for a longer period of time. Depth Therapy is different than other modalities like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) where someone may want to quit smoking tomorrow and not care how they accomplish this goal. I think there is a reason why artists and writers are attracted to Depth Therapy. We look at a much deeper approach, hence the name. We look at exploring dreams or other unconscious material as it may show up in writing, or art, or images, or archetypes that seem to be reoccurring again and again in a client’s life.

We look at mythology and not just that of Greek or Roman mythology, but one’s personal mythology. If you talk to someone long enough, you realize that there is a certain narrative that they are operating on, based upon childhood events or just things in their mind. They tend to repeat those experiences over and over again because it’s coming from an unconscious place. They don’t realize that they are doing it.

Think of someone in a series of bad relationships because they keep dating the same type of person, even though this is obvious to everyone else. So working with these unconscious actions and bringing that to a conscious level, then they can decide whether or not to make a change.

We can read all of the self-help books we want but there’s the same blind spot if you’re not working with a trained therapist to help guide you and point that out. Otherwise, you’re liable to repeat the same things over and over again.

Are there certain treatments that appear to be more successful than others?

One technique that I like to use is called Active Imagination. It’s actually a very old practice and it was made well known by Carl Jung. I find it effective because many writers do something similar, almost intuitively, as part of their writing work. Active Imagination is creating a conscious dialogue with unconscious parts of our self. So you open up a page of your journal or on your laptop and open up a dialogue with yourself, or, perhaps with your Writer’s Block.

Many writers come in and tell me they have Writer’s Block and ask me to kill it, exterminate it, or remove it. Instead, I’ll say, “Let’s befriend it, then we can transcend it.” They immediately think that they don’t want anything to do with it, [much less] befriend it. I then ask what would their Writer’s Block look like if it were a person or an entity. We’ll literally have that client describe it physically. Particularly for writers and artists, they’re not afraid to enter that magical realm because they live there, or work there all the time. Then, they may tell me, “It’s this huge guy that’s twenty-five feet tall. He’s an ogre or has a club or battle axe and he comes pounding at my door to stand between me and my desk and tells me that I’m not writing today.” I’ll then encourage them to really make that character come alive to animate that Writer’s Block.

Then, I’ll encourage the writer to begin a dialogue with the Block and simply ask it, “Why can’t I write today? What do you want of me? What would you rather I do today?” Often, they’ll find that once that Block is acknowledged or respected in one way or another, it starts to give really good information. Maybe it would say, “Well, I want to write a comedy today but you keep writing these action/adventure pieces because that’s what sells.” So it’ll often say something that may make sense to the writer, but it’s something they’ve often ignored.

It’s usually that material that we oppress into the shadow-side that we don’t want to acknowledge. We tend to stick with what we think will sell, but that Writer’s Block has something important to tell us, because it’s speaking from the soul’s point-of-view, which is often ignored. The negative aspects will start to recede and the more positive aspects will begin to come back out. The overall goal is integration and it’s important to integrate your gifts with your shadow side. There is light and darkness and the combination of the two makes great writers.

As an interviewer, I ask about difficulties in the writing process and while some writers say, “Every step is difficult,” others do not believe in Writer’s Block. Are certain people more susceptible to Writer’s Block than others?

I would say that each issue is as unique as the individual. There is a theory that there is anxiety behind all of this. Whether or not you’ve mastered your anxiety, there is a way to channel that into a productive form. Workaholism is certainly common in America, especially in Los Angeles or Hollywood. You are constantly under pressure to succeed and there are always people around you who seem to be doing more or doing better. That can result in people working 24/7 to manage that anxiety or it can show up as that individual feeling frozen, unable to work.

For those that seem to be prolific, it may be that they have three shows on the air but they haven’t seen their wife in three months or they’ve missed their kid’s birthdays by being on location, shooting. My goal as a therapist is to help them define a fulfilled life and make sure they can integrate that vision whenever possible.

In the film and television world, it’s often not possible to do so on a daily basis—you can’t be the great dad and the great television producer at the same time—but, maybe you work nine months of the year and then spend three months on hiatus being 24/7 dad for a while. You have to find what works for you in your lifestyle, which can take some soul searching and other inner work. There is nothing wrong with working 24/7, but you need to be honest with yourself and the people in your life. Share your goals and realize there is not one set of rules for everyone. We’re usually working unconsciously, which can lead to unhappy results. So look at what you’re doing and what your goals are.

How does irrational thought play into Writer’s Block? How often does actual failure happen due to anticipated failure?

I guess it would depend on when Writer’s Block shows up for someone. I’ll start by going through a person’s day, asking them if it shows at breakfast or while they’re driving or once they enter the office. What I’ll often notice is that when someone is writing, they will often switch into critic mode. They’ll start editing or criticizing as they are doing their imaginative work.

I often point out that Coppola or Scorsese or Tarantino do not invite the New York film critics to hang out on set to give them advice while they’re directing. There is a time and a place for all of that. Many writers will metaphorically invite their inner critic to sit down with them while they’re in the creative process and wonder why they are getting stuck.

Doing imaginative work is a really noble and difficult process. If you consider The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, it’s important for writers to remember that it’s not just the characters going on this journey, but the writer is also on the same journey. It’s called a monomyth because each individual is going on this same journey. If you’re a writer, that challenge is part of it, but when you’re in the deep, dark woods and can’t get out of the second act, many people will want to quit.

It’s usually better to finish that original journey and ask for help from your writer’s circle or even seek the guidance of a therapist like myself. Seeking those mentors or guides can help because imaginative work is so difficult.

Most people who work a regular nine to five do not have to consider entering and exiting that world everyday. That’s another reason why temptations like drugs or alcohol are so prevalent in this world. It’s hard to live and work inside of your head and then leave that world at the end of the day. My job is to help create a threshold for them to enter and safely exit without having to reach for a shot glass.

Are these meetings as personal as any therapeutic session or does it depend on the style of writing, meaning personal or purely fictional?

I also work with non-writers and my style is exactly the same. People tend to get as much out of therapy as they are willing to put into it. I strive to create a safe and relaxed environment. I avoid most jargon and theories. It’s really just two people in a room having a frank conversation. We can talk about whatever issues come up. It’s a non-confrontational, non-judgmental space. 

Some people are really willing to go into some deep places while others simply are not. It’s really a partnership and my goal is to meet them where they’re at. When they’re ready, then they’re ready. I don’t push. I’m not trying to be anything other than a partner for them. I’m empathetic to the journey.

When you’re helping writers get past this block—especially those who experience lifelong success—is there some key element these individuals have that others may not?

One word: courage. The people that come the furthest are those that actively take it upon themselves to make a change in their lives. It’s a really difficult thing to make change. Most of us don’t do it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary. I have a lot of respect for those who are willing to put in the work to help themselves make a change. There are so many technological distractions that it’s terribly easy to not to come do difficult, inner work. It’s easier to watch reality shows and space out for an hour. It’s hard to come into a room and face yourself.

They’re speaking to me, but I’m really just a mirror reflecting what they are telling me about themselves. I’m humbled every time someone comes to my office, willing to put in the work.

After all of these sessions, can you sit down a read a screenplay and determine things about the writer? Or, is the actual work somewhat irrelevant?

I keep my past life separate from my current profession. I do not usually read my client’s screenplays even though we will talk about their inspirations for writing these stories. As a viewer, films today are not like the films of the golden age. Personal, dark stories like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now or Taxi Driver are made less and less each year, mainly due to the economics of the industry.

Not that these are new theories, but the online buzz seems to encourage journaling or meditation to aid productivity. Is there someone you would recommend to help with either overcoming or avoiding Writer’s Block?

I’m definitely a fan of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way series, particularly the idea of morning pages. Essentially, it’s a way to derail anxiety. You’re waking up and writing so fast that you can skip over that anxiousness.

I’m always surprised when I meet writers who do not journal or do morning pages because that’s your own internal gold mine. These are your personal, individual experiences. You may not even recognize it in the moment, but let’s say you write about a surprise party you threw for your wife that turned out to be a disaster and a year from now, it may be something to help you with a story. If you don’t put in those details, you’re going to forget about it. Working inward is the gold you can mine forever. The more personal something is, the more universal it is.

Clients will often reveal something that they believe no one has ever felt before, but in reality, it’s something I hear from many clients. I don’t discuss that similarity due to confidentiality, but we all share the same feelings.

Many people will feel that they are the stupidest person in the writer’s group, even when the show-runner is telling them they’re doing great and they’ve won an award recently. There are certain times in life when we do not feel authentic and we assume we haven’t earned our recent success.

I tell my clients to do their best, do their inner work, and have an outside life. Pick a time to shut down the laptop and go play baseball with the kids or cook for your wife. When you’re 100 and looking back on life, while writing may be a big part of it, there are so many other roles we play. Son or daughter, father or mother, sister or brother—these are the roles we play and we ignore those roles at our own peril.

Brock Swinson