Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 2: Content Needs Emptiness | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 2: Content Needs Emptiness

I’ve written before about how it’s helpful, when you’re facing writer’s block, to just sit with that sense of creative emptiness, and allow it to pass away on its own — rather than beating yourself up for being uncreative, or distracting yourself from the emptiness by playing Minesweeper.  When we learn to just let the writer’s block be, instead of resisting it, we get more inspired and productive in what we do.

In this post, I want to expand on why this is.  One thing I often say is:  “If you can’t be with emptiness, you can’t be with content.”

Emptiness and Procrastination

What I mean is that, no matter what creative project you’re working on — whether you’re painting a picture, drafting a business plan, or something else — you’ll inevitably encounter moments when your mind feels empty of useful ideas.

Many people, in my experience, can’t bear those moments.  For them, staring at a blank screen, canvas, or other empty surface, is agonizing.  Because they know, consciously or not, that working on their project will involve empty moments, they find it easier to put the project off, or perhaps never to start in the first place.

So, because they can’t tolerate creative emptiness, they can’t generate the creative content they want to bring into the world.  It seems we need to get comfortable with emptiness if we want to make sustained progress in our work.  But how can we do this?

Why Is Blankness So Bad?

In my experience, it’s helpful to become aware of why emptiness is a problem for us.  When we closely examine the reasons why we see writer’s block as a threat, we often recognize that it isn’t so dangerous after all.

What I’ve found is that the fear of blankness is often driven by a sense of urgency.  We think “I’ve got to put my work ‘out there’ as quickly as possible.”  If you can relate, I invite you to ask yourself, in those anxious moments:  “What will happen if I don’t finish this project immediately?”

Often, the answer to this question is rooted in a desire to be seen and appreciated.  In other words, it comes from the ego.  “If I don’t finish this project, the world may never recognize my brilliance.  I may never get written up in the New York Review of Books.  I may ‘die with my music left in me.’”  And so on.

Now, I don’t mean to put down the ego — we all have one, and without some degree of concern for our own advancement we probably couldn’t survive.  But I do think it can impede our progress in our creative work.

Content Needs Emptiness

So, if you find this fear that you’ll “die with your music in you” arising, consider these questions:  what if it isn’t really “your” music at all? What if the ideas at the core of your project aren’t really “your” ideas?  What if you are simply an instrument on which the universe plays its music?

At a deeper level, what if you are not just the instrument, but also the music? What if you are not just a body, small and limited in time and space, but a limitless creative energy suffusing all that is — just as a wave on the ocean, in some sense, is the ocean?

If all this were true, why would a moment of blankness bother you?  A pause in a piece of music creates tempo and expectation — without space, music would be a confusing, unpleasant jumble of sounds.  Without emptiness, content cannot exist.

The next time writer’s block comes up for you, see if these questions help bring you peace and focus.

20 thoughts on
Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 2: Content Needs Emptiness

  1. Jenny Ann Fraser

    Hi Chris!
    It’s been a while since I’ve been here, but I’m so glad, (as always) that I finally had the time.
    What a refreshing perspective on the whole idea.
    I did discover some months ago that if I sit down to write immediately after meditating, the work just seems to pour out of me.
    I also love the idea of being an instrument that is played. I have considered this concept before but somehow, the ego seems to get in the way and drown out my memory of it. Even though I believe it to be true.
    If we were to look at it that way, I believe it would erase the stress and the fear that often comes with creativity. We could simply understand that even when we don’t do our best work, that is simply the Universe’s way to help us to grow.
    Thank you for this. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts!

  2. Davina Haisell

    Chris, I LOVED this post!

    It reminds me of something a friend once told me, “It’s the space between the notes that makes the song.” How well that reflects what you’ve said here about the importance of emptiness. Even *it* has a place in the scheme of things. Excellent stuff.

  3. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jenny — I liked what you said about seeing ourselves as instruments giving us comfort in moments when we feel like we aren’t doing our best work. I think that’s true — that when we aren’t as identified with what we see as the quality of our work, or the reaction it gets from others, we’re actually able to make more progress in what we do because we don’t second-guess every aspect of it.

  4. Chris - Post author

    Hi Davina — I’m glad you liked the post. Reading what you said about space, it occurs to me that in music there’s so much subtlety and variety in the way space is used and shaped — space creates the tempo and time signature of the song, which are critical to producing something that’s listenable.

  5. Chris - Post author

    Hi Christopher — I think that’s a good point — that space gives us room to breathe. If our minds were constantly thinking and never took a break, that would be exhausting. How wonderful it would be if we could just let that space be, rather than forcing ourselves to think all the time for fear of becoming empty or stupid.

  6. Jannie Funster

    WOW. favorite post of yours EVER, Chris! Being a music creator, like yourself, I LOVE how you state the perceived lulls are just “rests” in our score, valuable as the notes themselves.

    Limitless creative waves in the ocean.

    I felt a little “dry” with blogging early last week, then 3 days later many post ideas came flooding on. Instead of worrying about the slience next time, I shall embrace it.

    Bang on with this one!

    whoo-hoooo

    and a big hoooo-woooo from BB

    xoxo

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — that definitely sounds relaxing to me — the idea of allowing the silence between your blog posts or other moments of creative inspiration to be, rather than trying to force the silence away or distract yourself from it.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evelyn — that’s interesting, isn’t it — that we tend to assume that an empty space is depressing or boring — but if we had nothing but form or content, everything would be an incomprehensible mess.

  9. Mark Brown

    Chris,
    You have captured an age old issue and that is our inability to sit still and allow nothingness to permeate us. You are correct the creativity is not really in the doing, the creativity is in the spaces between the doing. We must first have thought before we can implement our creativity. Consider a chalk board that never is erased and you just keep writing over what was already there. It would be a jumbled up mess right. That is why we start with a clean slate, we start with nothing to make room for something.

  10. Sara

    Chris — This is the best post I’ve read about dealing with writer’s block. The last section, “Content Needs Emptiness,” is so inspirational. I loved your questions in this section…they are important and go deep into what our purpose is for creating.

    I loved this line, “A pause in a piece of music creates tempo and expectation — without space, music would be a confusing, unpleasant jumble of sounds.” It a perfect way to help me reflect on the value of the pauses in my life…not just the creative ones, but the regular life pauses where you keeping on hitting the forward button, but things are still paused. You make me realize that maybe I need to look deeper into what is paused and why, rather than just trying to move forward. Maybe things are paused for a good reason:~)

    What can I say…you get better and better and thank you for this. It’s a beautiful post:~)

  11. Patty - Why Not Start Now?

    Beautiful post, Chris. I feel very comforted by the notion of creative emptiness. It puts it all in perspective, you know? And I wonder – have you ever read the book “Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh? If not, I think you would like it. There’s a quote that has stayed with me for years: “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.”

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — thanks for the appreciation — I was actually a bit surprised that some people thought this was the best post I’d written, but I think that was only because I suspected the last couple of paragraphs might seem too “out there” to my audience. That’s interesting, the whole idea of looking into “what is paused” — that sounds like, in moments when we’re griping to ourselves “nothing’s getting done,” asking “what exactly is not getting done in this moment, and why is it supposed to get done?”

  13. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patty — I haven’t read that book, but I’ve certainly heard great things about the author. That passage seems so contrary to the assumption that I think prevails in our culture — “if you don’t force the project to happen, you’ll get nowhere and lose everything” — but in fact that attitude seems to discourage creativity or encourage work that’s less than our best.

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Mark — I think that’s a great metaphor — ideas need space in which to exist, and space between them to be coherent, and if we didn’t experience any space between our thoughts it would be a meaningless mess.

  15. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. I’ve been wanting to be here .. to give it due attention – but time goes on & I have definitely not done your words due justice.

    I’m overloaded with thoughts & ideas .. and ‘course work’ I want to try out, stories I want to try and write .. and my mother and me! Somewhere – so I’m the opposite – but I too need space to think, work through and correlate my thoughts ..

    Space as you say above is so important .. and getting into a new space – eg a cafe, or a good walk into nature – away from your present space is invigorating for your body as well as your brain.

    I’ve recently come across Tony Buzan’s Mind Maps for Kids .. and that helped me gather my wits on a few occasions .. just get the ideas down ..

    I feel blessed that I don’t have writer’s block .. it’s too much writer’s content block I’ve got ..

    you certainly set things out clearly .. good to be here .. all the best Hilary

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