Q&A Excerpt: Steven Barnes

NAACP Image Award winner and New York Times bestselling novelist Steven Barnes is a 2023 guest lecturer for Your Personal Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Steven has published over three million words of science fiction, suspense, horror, mystery, and fantasy, comprising over thirty novels. In television, he wrote the Emmy-winning “A Stitch In Time” episode of the Outer Limits as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone, Andromeda, Stargate, and many others. He has taught or lectured at UCLA, Seattle University, Mensa, Clarion, and the Smithsonian Institute. He lives in Southern California with his wife, British Fantasy Award-winning novelist Tananarive Due.

In this excerpt transcribed from a question and answer session, Steven talks about writer’s block and what he thinks is the most important piece of advice he can give to developing writers.

QUESTION: I was wondering specifically if you had advice about writer’s block?

SB: Writer’s block is easy to deal with once you understand what it is. There are definitions of writer’s block that are not useful, so everything that I’m about to say is what my perspective on it is.

Writer’s block is a confusion of two different states of mind: the flow state, where you are creating text, and the editing state, where you are evaluating the quality of the text you have written. Those are two completely different states of mind. And therefore, the solution to writer’s block, however you do it, is to learn how to go deeply into flow state, learn exactly when you’re in editing mode—how to identify that—and to keep these states separate.

Now it might be that you flow on one day and you edit on the next. Or you flow at one desk and you edit on another desk. But people who have writer’s block are inevitably judging the quality of what they have written and saying it’s not good enough. The problem is that the editor will always be smarter than the flow part. The flow part is the youngest part of you. It’s a little baby writer, and it’s just a little sweetheart that just wants to play and dance and have fun. And the editor part went to college. The editor part has read the classics. “Wait. This sentence is not perfect. This idea, this thematic, is not professional. No, no, we can have none of that.” And the little kid is just saying, “I just wanted to tell you a story.”

If you get into the pattern of comparing somebody else’s—some master’s—final polished, published work with your first draft, you’re screwed. You have to give yourself permission to suck. You have to give yourself permission to suck, and you have to ask yourself: What are the voices in my head that are telling me that it’s not okay to suck? What are the voices in my head that tell me that my first drafts aren’t good when logically I know that these masters went through a number of different drafts?

So I’m gonna give you one of the secrets that is ordinarily taught to advanced meditators, and deep in therapy, and it works like this. … Here it is: You are not the voices in your head. You are the one listening to the voices in your head. Massive difference. Once you understand you’re not the voice in your head, you’re not your thoughts, you’re not your memories, you’re not your emotional pain—you are the space in which those things happened or the observer of those things. You’re separate from them. Once you get that, then you can see what meditation, journaling, therapy, things like this are trying to do to get you to separate from these things so that you’re not controlled by them.

QUESTION: What do you think is the most important advice that you can give to developing writers?

SB: Believe that you deserve joy. Because if you believe that you deserve joy, if you’re willing to fight for that the way you would fight for the life of a helpless child that you loved with all your heart, then you will do what is necessary to be joyful in life. And if writing is your joy, you’ll be the best writer you can be, and you’ll be giving light to the world instead of darkness. The world needs your light.

NOTE: This transcript has been edited for clarity.



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