Pascal Gambardella, who holds a PhD, is an author and lecturer specialising in creative thinking. Over the years, he has taught students how to become more prolific and how to overcome problems like writer’s block.
In this interview, Pascal explains:
- How he encourages prolific writing
- The questions you should ask yourself at the start of any writing project
- Why every writer should trigger a creative state and how to do it
- What his writing routine looks like
And lots more
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Bryan: I suppose my first question, Pascal, is if you could give me a bit of background about your experiences as a writer and as somebody who has taught people how to get into mental states and overcome problems like writer’s block.
Pascal : Well, my first experience was with writer’s block, when I had it, when I went to college, my SAT score was very low for English, so they put me in remedial English class in college, and I barely could write two paragraphs. I had all these rules on one side and I tried to fit the paragraphs into rules. I tried to write based on these rules, and I got nowhere fast. I was treating it like mathematics. So that was my first experience. But over, I don’t know, 40, 50 years, I have gotten past that. And the irony is that now when I sit to write…Well first of all, this may be odd, but when I write, I enjoy doing mathematics, I relax when I do mathematics. So when I write now I get into a state as if I’m doing mathematics, but yet it’s a more relaxing, calm state, and I can go into it and come out of it. So that’s the irony.
Bryan: Does it take long for you to get into that state?
Pascal : No, I just need to sit in my chair, have a cup of coffee and relax. And it doesn’t need to be perfect. I’ll write something. I’m writing a paper now, 12,000 word paper. I’m just about finished with it. And it’s not that I write when I’m sitting down, sometimes I’ll be writing it and then I’ll be puzzled about something. I’ll get up, walk around, do something else but I’ll still be thinking about in the back of my mind. And then I’ll come back to it and get back into that state. It’s actually now given 50 years later, 60 years later, it’s very enjoyable to write, to me.
Pascal : So I once taught a course on prolific writing, and it was to a playwright who had writer’s block. He couldn’t write a play. And we went through this course, just me and him, and I discovered that he had mixed up a state. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but there there are states, for example, fear. If I’m, I can be very fearful, but yet I can bring the frame of calm to the fear and have calm fear. Well he had that, something like that, mixed up. Rather than calm fear it was like fear calm. And once we figured that out, he was able to proceed.
Pascal : So much of this makes no sense, but the states in which you use are important, and uncovering, particularly when you’re coaching someone, what is the strategy they used to get into the writer’s block? What are the issues that they confront? By strategy I mean when they’re there, sitting in their chair or wherever they’re doing it, and they’re looking at the words and they’re typing or writing, what’s going on in their minds? What do they see, feel and hear? And what’s a trigger when they say, “Oh, I can’t do anymore”?
Pascal : Write the sentence. Some people have writer’s block when they write emails. What’s the trigger? And then find out what’s behind that, what’s going on in it? Do they feel like they can’t separate themselves from the behavior if this writing’s reflecting on who they are as a person as opposed to… Like some people confuse being with doing.
Pascal : My feeling is that self esteem is inherent, everyone has self esteem. You can’t take that away from anyone. Self esteem is there. It’s self confidence, it’s the ability to learn and create, which is something we learn. Some people confuse that. Was that the issue? So my thinking is when I’m looking at someone going through issues, I’ll find out what the issue is, where it comes from. And I’ll be listing these issues, and then we’ll find out what’s the most important one. What’s the one that if I change that one, if I coach to that one issue, it’ll help them get beyond where they are.
Bryan: A lot of new writers feel like their writing isn’t good enough and that puts them off.
Pascal : Right. Or they’re not good enough or they’re an imposter. Oh, if I write this, they’re going to discover I’m not really who I say I am. I’m someone else. And my frame for that is I don’t feel like I’m an expert in anything. If I said I’m an expert, that means that, well, I’ve given up and I’ve had this fixed sense of who I am. I can’t learn. So I think sometimes it’s important to change the frame they’re putting around something. I don’t have to be an expert. I’m someone who’s learning about this, therefore I can make mistakes, therefore it doesn’t reflect on me as a person. I don’t have to be perfect.
Pascal : I mean, whoever, whatever it is for a person, there might be some critical things that are involved, but I think it really is dependent who you are, and working with someone, I like to work on their particular issues and find out what they really want. Why are they writing? Sometimes you say I write because I like to share things with people. I write because, so I’m thinking when I’m writing something, if I think of my higher intention of sharing things with people and I bring that to bear on my writing, then it makes it easier. I’m writing for someone, and when they see it, hopefully they’ll experience something of value. So there’s a lot that goes into it.
Bryan: I’m if writing a book for example, I should reflect on why I’m writing the book.
Pascal : Yes. Why are you writing? I ask you why you’re writing this book, and then you might say, “I’m writing it because such and such.” Then I’ll ask you why is that important? And you might say such and all, and we can do this if you want. I can ask you, “Why is that important?” And find out what’s the most important thing about writing that book is, and you may not clearly understand that or you may. And then once that top level important thing, the critical thing, I want to connect with the universe or whatever it happens to be. You state, you go in that frame, you look from that frame at you sitting in that chair writing that book and it really, it brings that higher frame to bear on your current activities and writing. And it’s a powerful tool. It’s one of the tools we use.
Bryan: I like that. I like that because I normally come up with five to seven reasons before I do something that takes a while, like writing a book. One other problem that somebody who wants to write a book might have is they just can’t find time to write, or life gets in the way or there’s lots of interruptions. And you mentioned there are about five minutes ago about how you’re able to switch on and off between that space. So what would you say to somebody who’s getting interrupted a lot?
Pascal : Well, when do they write? Are they causing the interruption, are they causing it by looking at emails or other things, or is someone interrupting them? And my question to them is, what is it about the interruptions, can you move yourself somewhere else? They say no. I say why not?
Pascal : I’d be more curious as to if they’ve actually decided they want to write something, why are they putting themselves in a position where they’ll be interrupted or interrupt themselves? So I’d be curious about that with a person. I’ve read some people get up at five, four in the morning to write before they go to work. So it’s really, I’d want to know what it is about them being that… And there’s another thing, there’s a technique and semantics call it excuse flow out. So the interruptions, are they an excuse? What part of it is actually valid? What part of it’s not? And then I would go through this, it’s like a add dragon state, we’d take this person, walk this person through that excuse, if it’s an excuse, and see what the valid part of it is. And what it isn’t, we work on getting rid of it and having them realize this is really an excuse.
Bryan: So if I wanted to do that myself, I’m not working within your semantic culture like you work. How would I do that, is it through journaling or is it through something else?
Pascal : Well, there is books on some of these techniques. You can actually read them and try them yourself. One is called the Sourcebook of Magic by Michael Hall, Volume II. You can read up some of these things or you can talk to me about what you would like to do for free, or anyone can actually, and so there are books, yeah.
Bryan: So I’ve figured out what I’m making excuses about it. I’m just not getting up early enough because that’s something I had to do because I have children, but I’m still facing the occasional interruption that breaks that flow state. And it’s just something that I kind of fight, let’s say the dog barks downstairs or an alarm went off but now I have time to get back into writing for another hour. How do I get back into that state quicker?
Pascal : That’s from the accessing personal genius training but it’s called, in neuro semantics we call it the genius state, and we practice doing that. We would install or have you access resource states that align with your writing. And you might have to access those resource states and they might be complicated. To access those resource states we might have you see a word, see a picture. Like I have something, I have a friend that went through 25 years of classes with me that had a monthly NLP group. And whenever I hear a presentation I look at him, in my mind, I see him if I get into a state. Sometimes it’s a couple of deep breaths, so it’s some specific anchor that you can create for yourself. Once you have these resource states that you can get back in, then you practice. You sit there and have someone to direct you and you practice going in and out of it. So that’s an outline of the process for that.
Pascal : Before that, it might be some things that are getting in the way of you getting back into the state that you need to deal with, like making excuses or something that might be something. But I would create a state that you’re in and then create resources that you can access when you sit down, and after a while it becomes part of you. You might just pick up your pen and say, “That’s it. I picked up my pen or my pencil.”
Bryan: And I’m off. Yeah. So I sometimes use noise canceling headphones and I have a playlist on Spotify of ambient music.
Pascal : That starts you as an anchor. Yeah. Well, when you do that, what gets you into the state of writing? Do you think about anything, or just hearing the music?
Bryan: I would say when I put on those headphones and I listen to the ambient music, it’s just rainfall. My mind kind of goes blank and I just focus on what’s in front of me.
Pascal : That’s exactly what you’re doing. So you’re actually getting back into the state using that technique and those anchors, that rainforest, which can be a very calming thing for someone to hear. But this may be something different for other people.
Bryan: Yeah, perhaps it could be their environment as well. I know some people have something on their desk that they might keep. Raymond used to write in his car. But how long do you think that state can actually last before you-
Pascal : I would get up every 50 minutes, not just for physical. For me it’s physical. You don’t want to sit down for too long. Maybe an hour, get up for an hour, 50 minutes and then come back to it after you get up, come back down again. It doesn’t have to be intense, unless you’re really, some really critical piece that you’re temporarily working hard on and you want to get into it. But I would limit it for an hour or so.
Bryan: Okay. How many hours would or should a person need to do on a given day?
Pascal : Well, I do about four.
Bryan: Four? That’s pretty impressive.
Pascal : That’s throughout the whole day. I go back and forth. And it could be, not just writing, but it’d be modeling. So I look at this, I might be modeling something and writing about it. It really depends on what you’re doing, but I like to work at least four hours a day on something that requires my focus.
Bryan: And I presume that means no multitasking or distractions like with your phone or social media or any of those other things?
Pascal : Minimize them. At 50 minutes, okay, now I’ll do the multitasking. Oh, not multi. Not multitasking, but yes, I might designate it for the time after I’m doing this. Yes.
Bryan: Any thoughts on digital versus analog tools?
Pascal : Oh, I’m very visual or visual kinesthetic, so you mean talking into a microphone to record what you’re going to write?
Bryan: Potentially, yeah, or pen and paper?
Pascal : I use mind maps to… I use Mindjet, Mind Manager by Mindjet to get my ideas through back and forth. I use mostly digital. I use mostly the computer, although I do, if I’m somewhere else, I carry a notebook, a graphical notebook in my pocket. A small one, and I have a bigger one that I carry on trips. So if I’m on a plane, I’m not going to pull out my computer, I’m going to write on a book. If it’s convenient writing on my computer at home or someplace, then I’ll type on my computer. Otherwise I’ll write, but I use that plus I use Evernote. I’m multitask, multi media, but mostly I like pictures. I like to make a picture what I’m doing, a mind map of what I’m doing.
Pascal : If I’m going to write a blog post, many times… Now I’m using Unsplash, but many times for many things I draw my own diagrams. I draw my attention.
Bryan: Okay. And do you find that supports the creative process, drawing versus writing?
Pascal : Yes. I really, yes, I definitely think it supports the creative process. For me it does. Being mathematically oriented and scientific, my background is physics, I definitely appreciate that. I relax, when I draw I relax, so sometimes to express something as a picture helps me write the words. You’ll see many pictures and words with my text. I’m sometimes writing for the picture, but I’m writing for the mind map many times.
Bryan: One of the other courses you’ve taught is in prolific writing, so what is prolific writing?
Pascal : That was an early version of this assessing piece, personal genius, applied to writing class where you, it’s about what we talked about, that managing the state, and it’s also about they were referencing that how to become a bestselling author, the current ref, wherever you are in your timeframe. It’s about who’s written about what does it mean to be a bestselling author. It wasn’t much, at this time, that was about 10 years ago, it wasn’t much about tools you can use like the editor or the grammar tools. It was more about what books are available to help you with your writing, what can you learn from them? What dragons get in the way? Like perfectionism. It was this accessing personal genius training that we do, which is getting to the state, but it was more for writing. So it was basically the same thing, but an older version of the success and personal genius training.
Bryan: So I mean, is a prolific writer somebody who produces a certain amount each year or is it somebody who is able to get into a certain state?
Pascal : I think that it’s… The person who created the course, Michael Hall, he must write a book a year or two books a year, and I’ve edited some of his books. So for him it was writing a lot. He writes three blog posts a week. He writes, he’s definitely the epitome of a prolific writer. For me, it’s being able to go into the writing state and write a blog post every month or two, being able to write research papers. To me, it’s not the quantity, but the ability to write easily. But I would say prolific is, it’s a frame. If you can be a prolific writer, then you probably have no problem with writer’s block.
Bryan: Yeah, you’ve got a point. I think maybe new writers would struggle with writer’s block, but then they get over that problem and then the next step is how can I write more?
Pascal : And then my question to that writer is, what is it about writing more? Is it I want to reach more people? What’s important about writing more? And then to say how fast you want to write to get what you want. And I guess me, that’s a balance. I can be writing every minute of the day, but the rest of my life will fall apart. So the question is what’s that balance? And some people may like that, all they care about is that’s my life, I’m writing. So when I hear that’s what I would think. I’m always thinking about what’s the balance.
Bryan: So what’s that balance for you at the moment?
Pascal : The balance is one research project at a time. Writing blog posts. And I’m also thinking about a book on modeling. And my current title is The Psychology of Modeling, my current title. What’s the psychology that goes into modeling anything, researching in physics versus dynamics or NLP? What does it mean?
Pascal : I went into a system dynamics society conference this year and I got to help people who are PhD students with their issues. And it’s much like writing. One person had this complicated diagram and I said, she asked me, “Okay, when do I know when I’m done?” And I looked at the diagram, I heard the question and I said, “Are you a perfectionist?” And she said, “Yeah.” So the question, my entire thing was like, “Maybe you need to chunk up a bit, rather than have 20 things in your diagram, thousands of arrows and connections, maybe you just need to go up a level, a couple of levels, and then…” So that’s my thinking at the moment. If that makes sense.
Bryan: It does. And do you have an ideal early morning routine?
Pascal : Yes. Now, nothing major. Getting up, maybe playing Words with Friends with my friend for one or two moves. Having breakfast and then getting my cup of coffee and sitting down and working. I like to work in the mornings.
Bryan: What was the game you mentioned?
Pascal : Words with Friends. It’s like Scrabble for, I have one friend and we play.
Bryan: Ah, okay.
Pascal : We are high school friends so we played chess when we were going to high school, now we’re playing this game. You can message each other and keep in touch with your lives, so it’s more than just a game, like everything else.
Bryan: I like that. I just want to ask you, you touched on there when you were coaching that you asked the student that was perfectionism, what do you think is the root cause of perfectionism for creative people?
Pascal : Well, there are different fears people have, and it can be fear of not being good enough. So they have to keep working on it to prove that they’re good enough, to prove that in that sense they might be confusing who they are, what they do. I need to do this better and better so I can prove that I’m a good person or an adept person or an expert or something, so that could be a possible cause of it. Also, they might have an external reference, so there might be a reference… Usually what’s happening sometimes is that they need the extra reference, someone to say that this is good. When I ask a person, “How do you know you’ve done a good job?” I listen. Do they say, “Well, I see it and I can clearly read it and I understand it,” or do they say, “I only know if someone else tells me it’s a good job”? And in reality, there’s really a balance.
Pascal : You need to think about how well you’re doing, but also you need a balance of someone else saying, “Yes, I see that, you missed this.” My wife is very good at logic, so she’ll read my writing and she’ll pick up things I would never have thought, I would assume people knew. So does that make sense? Perfectionism, I’m not good enough?
Bryan: Yeah, I guess that kind of validation is one of the reasons why people write. The other reasons could be to earn more money or to share their message with the world. One other thing I was wondering was you’ve written extensively nonfiction, both academic and a book and so on. Have you ever used your approach to write fiction, or is nonfiction your kind of specialism?
Pascal : Well, I’ve been trying to write stories, so when I write my nonfiction, I’m trying to tell stories about my life or other people’s lives. So lately I even took a story telling course in DC. Going, getting warnings, telling a story. So my thinking is that, yes, I want to write, I’m tempted by fiction, but I really, but right now I’m mostly focused on nonfiction, telling stories in my nonfiction. And so what I do is I gather books on storytelling and I start practicing.
Bryan: Have you read Robert McKee’s work?
Pascal : No, I don’t think so.
Bryan: He covers storytelling and nonfiction in his book Storynomics and his course as well. So that will be something if you-
Pascal : I haven’t heard that. Yeah, I need to look into that.
Bryan: Yeah. What are you up to at the moment?
Pascal : I’m finishing a paper on the collapse of the Maya civilization. It’s this week. I’ll finish it, send it out to my co authors. And it’s 12,000 words, and we’ve been working on this project three years.
Bryan: That’s a long time.
Pascal : Yeah. I mean, it’s a process of discovery, believe me. And part of it’s mathematical, we were mistaken on our equations. We corrected them. I’m sitting in a conference, I heard someone say something, and I said, “Oh my God, we could use that.” That’s the base. So it’s just about done. And so that’s my main project. And the other thing is that we’re giving a course on creativity innovation in April. So I’ll be planning that in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The neuro semantics.
Bryan: Is that a college or a university, that course?
Pascal : No, it’s in a venue. Just the venue. We have three trainers doing it, three of us doing it. Mostly because we like working together, and this topic is a great topic for teaching.
Bryan: What type of people do you get on a workshop like that?
Pascal : We get people, writers, people in business who want to have more innovation in their business. People who want to learn more about NLP and neuro semantic techniques as applied to their work. Most anyone needs some creativity in their lives.
Bryan: If people want to learn more about you or your work, Pascal, where can they find you?
Pascal : My website is Pascal Gambardella.com and they can learn as much as they want about me.
Bryan: And that’s G-A-M-B-A-R-D-E-L-L-A?
Pascal : Yes, my last name. My first name is P-A-S-C-A-L.
Bryan: Okay, great.
Pascal : And I have resources, stories, lots of things there I post.
Bryan: Okay. Well, it was great to talk to you today, Pascal.
Pascal : Yes, same here, Bryan.
Bryan: Okay. Take care.
Pascal : Thank you.
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