Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 3: The Creative Test of Faith | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 3: The Creative Test of Faith

I used to believe that I shouldn’t sit down to write unless I had a compelling vision of what I’d say.  Unfortunately, this attitude was the reason why, for many years, I didn’t do any creative writing.  Sure, I wrote a lot, but only when somebody else (1) gave me a subject to write about and (2) was willing to pay me a bunch of money or give me a good grade.

Eventually, I started taking a look at why I had this mindset.  Why was I reluctant to just sit down and see whether any interesting ideas came up?

What I ultimately saw was that I lacked faith in my creativity.  I was assuming that, if I tried to write without an airtight plan, I’d squander hours at my desk, and end up with nothing but frustration to show for it.

My Emptiness Experiment

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to experiment with simply sitting, and trusting that inspiration would arise.  I committed to myself that, if necessary, I’d sit there all night.  I’d only give up if I woke up facedown on my desk in front of an empty computer screen.

My prediction that I’d get frustrated proved to be right.  I labored mightily to fill the blank screen with words, but none of my ideas or sentences seemed to satisfy me.  My shoulders grew painfully rigid, as if I were trying to physically push the emptiness away.

After an hour or two of helpless thrashing, it dawned on me that I wasn’t following the spirit of my experiment.  Instead of having faith that my creative energies would emerge on their own timetable, I was trying to force them to work.

Dropping The Need To “Just Do It”

I began making progress only when I dropped the struggle.  I sighed deeply, let my shoulders relax, erased the words I’d written just to fill space, and simply stared into the creative vacuum on my monitor.

In the moment when my flailing ceased, the emptiness in my mind, and on the screen, began to dissipate.  Effortlessly, fluidly, another article began taking shape.  Within twenty minutes, the new piece was ready for editing.

As it turned out, the physical act of typing the article wasn’t the hard part of the writing process.  The difficult part was trusting that, eventually, my creativity would come out to play — letting go of my need to fill the emptiness, and having faith that it would pass away on its own.

In other words, I see the emptiness we encounter when we’re writing, or doing some other creative pursuit, as a test of our faith in ourselves.  We pass the test when we end our thrashing and trust that, in its own time, and in its own unpredictable way, inspiration will show up.

Many people see writing as a matter of “just doing it” — of forcing ourselves to write something, no matter how much pushing, fighting or flailing it takes.  This “beat yourself into submission” strategy seems to work for some people.  But if it’s wearing thin for you, I invite you to try simply sitting, relaxing, and waiting on your muse.

21 thoughts on
Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 3: The Creative Test of Faith

  1. Evan

    Thanks, I really agree with not beating ourselves up. I write about self development which means the possible topics are almost infinite. It helps to remind myself of this when I get stuck.

  2. Evelyn Lim

    I often find it hard to just sit down and force myself to write something. I tend to go with the flow. It’s bad for productivity in a way. I can never quite plan my posts in advance. I don’t believe that I am that creative in writing either. However, I write because I would like to share my thoughts. Hopefully the same lessons for me can be a timely message for someone else too.

    I wish to thank you for your posts in the last year. I have found them very interesting, inspiring and encouraging. I hope to continue to read more of your awesome posts in the new year. Have a wonderful 2011 and much blessings to you always!

  3. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evan — yes, that sounds like a useful realization — that self-development, and even subsets of self-development like productivity, can cover an almost incalculably broad range of topics.

  4. Chris - Post author

    Hi Evelyn — yes, I can relate to finding it hard to sit down and force myself to work, or to plan everything I’m going to say in advance. I’ve found that, the more I’ve written, the more I’ve become able to just sit down, even if my mind is empty, and trust that something will emerge, without a lot of beating myself up being necessary. I wonder if that’s become more true for you the more you’ve been blogging. Thanks, and I’m looking forward to more inspiration from your blog as well.

  5. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now

    Too often we struggle through when we really need to let go. It’s hard to let go because most of us are taught at a young age to push and push until we succeed. In a lot of ways this is true, we can’t give up on our dreams and goals. The thing is we need to relax in the moment and let our natural talents shine through.

  6. Robin Easton

    Hi dear Chris, So good to read you again, have missed being here. Haven’t had a lot of time to blog, trying to rescue my blog as I lost it once, retrieved it and have had issues since, but hopefully it’s finally sorted out.

    When I came here and read some of your posts, I just felt SO happy. You have that effect on my. :) Your writing is so warmly humorous and very real. I love how you try all these various experiments. I find that so cool, and very earnest and endearing. Highly creative.

    This post made me stop and think about how writing works for me. I’d say 99% of the time I never think about writing. If I have to “think” about it, I pretty much can’t write, but if I just let my mind go and let my heart lead, which is pretty easy for me as it’s how I tend to function, the words just tumble out faster than I can write.

    I get so lost in writing that I forget where I am or that I am even typing. I become completely lost in the feelings or experience of it, almost as if something is just passing through me and I have to type it as it flows by or I lose it. But then, I tend to “think” with my heart, not my “head/mind”. I made that choice when I was about 27 years old. I decided to stop thinking with my mind and start thinking with my heart.

    So if I have to sit down and “think” about writing (using my mind), I draw a total blank, writing done this way is arduous, grinding, and grueling for me (someone put me out of my misery! LOL! :) As I write this it makes me wonder if the place I write from is what you got to when you dropped the struggle. It sounds SO similar.

    I would say this: if I go “outside myself” then it becomes a struggle. But if I just stay centered, and just be me, and not even look at it as writing, but rather “as being me” then it just happens naturally.

    love what you explored and shared here. I think letting the struggle go is key to letting the creativity that we ARE flow, and it is also key to letting ourselves BE ourselves. Letting ourselves just BE. And from that place, great things happen.

    We often look at life as, we I am writer, a painter, a potter, a musician. When I think it is that we are CREATIVITY itself. All life desires to create, whether that is the passion of two people “creating” a child, or someone’s passion motivating them to compose music, write this comment, splash colors across a canvas, take a photograph in response to the passion they feel from the world around them.

    And passion comes from allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, feel emotions, love, be open to ourselves and the world around us.

    You are a fascinating and HIGHLY unique soul. So proud of you.
    Hugs from your friend, Rob ;)

  7. Jason

    Sounds like you and I have a lot in common. I find that forcing myself leads to poor quality writing as well. Just like you, the moment I let go of the resistance, inspiration begins to flow.
    I really appreciate the insight because I tend to forget this from time to time.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Everyone — I apologize for the long delay in responding to your comments — I’ve been living for the last few weeks under very austere self-imposed restrictions that allowed me to use the internet only for the purpose of working on my book proposal. The proposal is now done, so consider this my grand re-entrance into the ball.

  9. Chris - Post author

    Hi Karl — yeah, that’s an interesting tension, isn’t it — between being able to let go of the need for success or recognition, and still pursuing what we want. Sometimes I find it helpful to let go of the need to let go of the need for recognition. :) Wanting to be appreciated seems like a very human trait, and letting myself want that once in a while probably won’t annihilate me.

  10. David Cain

    I have learned not to force it. There are nights when I have a post due the next day, and I realize I’m just spinning my wheels. In the old days I would have thrown something together, and felt bad about it. Now I just close the laptop.

  11. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. I find I write in my head – I just need to get those thoughts on to this thing – the box in front of me!! But fresh ideas do come when we’re relaxed don’t they .. I’ve just had two trips to Cornwall .. and they reminded me how much I miss my driving time .. the space and time to think .. one’s mind can wander happily along – consolidate thoughts, plan ideas etc

    Once I start writing with some concrete ideas – often once I ‘hit’ the net and look around .. new ideas come into play and what started out as one thing turns into another …

    Hope the book will be accepted .. all the best for an excellent 2011 – Hilary

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Robin — I think that’s a great way of putting it — that when we’re in the mindset we usually call “thinking,” work feels like a chore, and that in fact our most productive and creative moments happen without “thinking.” The analogy I would use is doing something athletic — when I’m sparring in tae kwon do, for instance, I don’t find myself thinking about what move I’m going to do next. Instead, the motions just happen.

    My sense is that “thinking,” for most of us (including sometimes me), means being attached to a particular outcome in the activity we’re doing — lots of people reading or liking our writing, for instance. When we desperately need to be seen in a certain way, naturally we find ourselves painfully second-guessing everything we do, and progress is slow. When we can drop those rigid expectations, my sense is, we can get into the “writing from the heart,” or what’s sometimes called the “flow,” space you described yourself getting into.

    I also liked what you said about creativity being something that happens moment to moment, and that we can’t help but continue to create ourselves and how we relate to the world moment by moment. When we put boundaries around which activities are “creative” and which ones aren’t, my sense is, we can get into that cramped “thinking” space you described.

    Hope you had a wonderful holiday, by the way!

  13. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jason — thanks for stopping by — yeah, I think we all forget from time to time that letting go of rigid expectations about how our work is “supposed” to look is something we can do in every moment. When we can forgive ourselves and stop beating ourselves up for failing to be in the “flow,” I think, this forgetfulness is no longer problematic.

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi David — good to see you again. I definitely relaxed inside a bit when you talked about letting go of your expectations about when a post must be written. I can see how that actually comes from a place of pride in your work, because it sounds like you want to move in the direction of writing only when you feel genuinely inspired.

  15. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — I liked how you described your writing as “one thing turning into another” — it definitely describes the experience I have reading your writing. It’s like I’m an intrepid explorer making a map, and I’m excited to see what new land features I’m going to find and add to the map tomorrow or the next day, as I progress down through the post and through all of your historical erudition. :)

  16. Jannie Funster

    I beat and thrashed myself for 17 hours over a blog post, kinda SpongeBob like (remember his essay on what NOT to do at a stoplight?)

    Then I stopped thrashing and the words spilled out like pearls and arranged themselves into perfect star and hexagon formations of lasting literary genius.

    I relate to this post fodder, Chris!


  17. Alice Hive

    I had to make exactly the same inside! And it’s not only that your creativity stops when you’re forcing yourself, your whole motivation to do anything might just stop!

    In order to be creative and motivated we have to trust ourselves that we will come up with the right ideas in the right moment. We have to trust ourselves that we’ll do what’s right without any need of force.

    @Jannie: I remember that Spongebob episode! :)

  18. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jannie — I’ve never read any essays by SpongeBob — to be honest, I wasn’t even aware that he could read or write. I am so behind the times! Oops, now I’m beating myself up. But seriously, that sounds really relieving, to just let the tension in your body relax and just allow the post to flow out of you.

  19. Chris - Post author

    Hi Alice — I think that’s a great way to put it — if we go to war against ourselves to “make” ourselves work, it’s not surprising that we’re going to meet with resistance, and use up our energy quickly. When we become able to let go of the struggle, and acknowledge when we do and don’t want to “produce,” I think, creation becomes so much easier.

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