If I tell myself, or someone else, that “I’m a writer,” I’m basically communicating, in the language of our culture, that writing is not only my main source of income, but also the core of the contribution I make to humanity.
The more I go around saying “I’m a writer,” the more pressure I’ll feel to produce work that can be “monetized,” and that I want people to remember me by. After all, if I’m a writer but I’m not “making a living” at it, or my work isn’t garnering attention, aren’t I, in some sense, lying to people when I tell them I’m a writer? And if I churn out writing that’s less than perfect, aren’t I tarnishing the legacy I’m going to leave to the world?
For me, being under that kind of pressure when I’m trying to write produces what’s often called “writer’s block.” Because so much is riding on the success and significance of my writing, I start obsessively second-guessing every word, and it gets hard to make progress. Thinking of myself as “a writer,” ironically, makes it hard to write.
The Benefits of Being a “Dude Who Happens to Write Stuff”
On the other hand, if I say “I’m writing a story,” I don’t communicate anything about my career or purpose in life. I simply describe something I enjoy doing, just as if I were saying “I’m going to a concert this weekend” or “I’m taking a hike tomorrow.”
If I take this perspective, the fear of being criticized, or of criticizing myself, for “screwing up at writing” disappears. Making a mistake, or doing something less than perfectly, no longer threatens my identity or sense of self-worth.
Why We Don’t Have to Force Ourselves to Play
I think this is a key reason why activities we think of as “hobbies,” like hiking and going to concerts, tend to be more relaxing and enjoyable than activities we see as “work.” When I’m hiking, the possibility that someone might put me down for being a “bad hiker” doesn’t even occur to me, and thus there’s nothing to stress about.
The result of shifting my mindset from “I’m a writer” to “I’m writing something” is that writing becomes more fun and less effortful. If my legacy, and my contribution to humanity, are no longer “on the line” each time I write, I don’t need to obsessively seek perfection, and I become able to get a lot more done.
I think we limit our creativity every time we start identifying with what we create, or with our role as a creator. Creativity flows more naturally when we think of it as a “hobby” or “pastime” that doesn’t put our value in the world at risk, even if it’s what we do with a large chunk of our time.
I do something kind of unusual when I’m writing. (I know, shockingly enough.) I keep a journal of what I’m feeling and thinking when I’m faced with writer’s block.
To an outside reader, this journal would probably seem painfully repetitive, because it talks about the same worries again and again. Some common themes are:
* “I think I had the last decent idea of my life a few days ago, and the well has officially run dry.”
* “I’m not sure I have the brain cells left to do this kind of piece anymore.”
* “I’m never going to finish this article — I might as well delete it.”
Why would I want to keep an angst-filled journal like this? Because I’m a masochist?
I’ve Been Through It All Before
Actually, this has been one of the most helpful techniques I’ve discovered in a while for staying focused and motivated as I write. The fact that the journal sounds like such a broken record is really what makes it so helpful.
Why? Because the goal of this journal is to remind me that, no matter how much hand-wringing I may be doing as I’m writing something, I’ve been through it before. There’s no moment of blankness, doubt about the originality of what I’m saying, or concern that I’ve “lost my mojo” that I haven’t experienced in the past.
And yet, even in the face of those doubts and fears, I’ve managed to finish my piece.
On one level, this is simply a reminder that I have the strength to handle whatever writing-induced suffering I’m going through. But at a deeper level, it’s a way to keep in mind that, just like every experience we have as human beings, that creative blankness we call writer’s block is fleeting. It passes away quickly.
From Black Hole to Break Time
My sense, from looking inside myself and talking to people, is that a lot of the suffering we do around writer’s block happens when we worry that it will never go away. That sense that we’re empty of ideas can actually be kind of scary — almost as if the emptiness might grow and swallow us up if we let it.
Naturally, many of us tend to write in fits and starts, running off to fold our socks or play Solitaire when the emptiness arises. Unfortunately, when we write this way, we usually don’t make as much progress as we’d like.
But when we keep in mind that the emptiness is fleeting, those blank moments become so much easier to be with. Instead of looking like a black hole threatening to devour us, that blankness starts to seem more like a welcome moment of rest before we unleash our creative energies again — just as our bodies naturally cycle between waking and sleeping.
I think “this too shall pass” is a great mantra for moments when we’re feeling creatively empty, just as it is in other parts of life.
There’s a lot of advice out there about “how to be creative.” On the surface, this sounds great — everybody wants to come up with useful and profitable ideas, right? But when I look more closely at this kind of advice, and what drives us to seek it out, I feel concerned.
On one level, none of us needs to be taught how to create. In every moment, we’re creating (or, at least, playing a part in creating) our lives. We’re choosing where to go, what to eat, what to say in a conversation, and so on. We make many of these choices unconsciously, but that doesn’t change the fact that we make them.
Yet, somehow, I doubt this would satisfy most people looking for creativity tips. As someone I know who often complains about her “lack of creativity” put it: “sure, I choose the words I use when I’m talking, but so what? Everybody does that.”
Being Creative and Being “Special”
I think my friend’s words illustrate the real concern that often motivates people to seek creativity advice. They aren’t actually interested in being creative — what they really want is to be special and unique. What’s more, they worry that, without outside help, they’ll always be mediocre and average.
In my experience, this need to be special, and self-loathing for being “average,” causes people a lot of suffering. Ironically, I’ve found, it also hampers our progress in our work.
Speaking for myself, it’s hard to move forward in a project when I’m demanding that my work be brilliant and 100% original. With that kind of mentality, I’m likely to second-guess, and probably delete, every line I write, and be left with a blank screen after hours of effort. Worse still, perhaps, I won’t have fun, and I won’t feel inspired to keep writing.
It’s only when I drop my need for “uniqueness” that I start making headway again. In other words, it’s only when I’m willing to take the risk of “being average” that I’m able to produce anything at all.
Who’s Afraid of Averageness?
And when you think about it, is “being average” really such a huge risk? What would happen if someone told you that your work was average? Would you spontaneously combust? Or maybe dissolve into a pile of steaming protoplasm?
I’m no expert on spontaneous combustion, but I can tell you that some people have said far worse things about my writing, and somehow I’m in one piece. I’m still writing, to boot, and — for better or worse — showing no signs of stopping.
So, when someone comes to me bemoaning their lack of creativity, I often invite them to try this exercise. For a moment, consider the possibility that you don’t have to try to be creative. You are creating your life, through the choices you make, in every moment. Imagine what you would and could do if you fully accepted that.
If we could let go of our draining struggle to “be creative,” and trust that creativity is already and always ours, I think we’d free up a lot of energy to accomplish what we want, and give the gifts we want to give, in our work.
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.
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.
I’ve published a guest post at Kala Ambrose’s Explore Your Spirit blog called “A Spiritual Solution to Writer’s Block.” I talk about how just allowing the creative blankness we experience in our work to be, rather than fighting it or running away from it, is the best way to reconnect with our inspiration and imagination. I hope you enjoy it.
I’ve published a piece over at The Positivity Blog called “How To Get Comfortable With An Empty Mind.” It’s about how we can access our creativity and motivation by learning to accept those moments when we don’t have any ideas. I hope you enjoy it!
I recently discovered an amazing new technique for overcoming writers’ block and other temporary lapses in creativity: screaming and crying.
I was sitting at home trying to write an article, but staring at a blank computer screen instead. As I stared down the screen, my frustration at my lack of productivity mounted. After about half an hour, my irritation had grown to a point where I was sure I would scream if I didn’t take a break. Normally, in these situations, I turn my attention to something else, like making a call, checking e-mail or listening to music, in the hope that when I get back to my writing my irritation will have died down and my creative juices resumed flowing.
This time, however, I decided to try an experiment. I found a comfortable position on the floor, and fully vented my frustration with my writers’ block. I grunted, howled, groaned and even cried a few tears. I rolled around a bit. I pounded my fists on the carpet.
When I picked myself up off the ground and returned to my chair, I noticed that the muscles on the left side of my solar plexus felt a little looser. By expressing my irritation at my creative lapse, I’d released tension in my abdomen that I hadn’t even known was there before. With this relaxation came a sense of inner spaciousness, calm and focus. Not only did I feel more comfortable after venting—I suddenly felt brimming with ideas, and quickly cranked out another piece.
This experience, and similar experiments I did afterward, revolutionized my understanding of writers’ block. Before, I’d seen that depressing mental blankness as beyond my control. I thought it was just a phase I had to go through at various times of day—and sometimes for days on end—and that nothing I did, thought or felt could remedy it.
Now, however, I’ve come to believe that at least some cases of writers’ block result from accumulated tension in the body. This is because contracting your muscles—holding on to that tension—diverts your energy and attention from creative activities. In other words, by tensing up, you use up energy you’d otherwise be devoting to the task you’re trying to do.
I’ve since found that expressing emotions to release tension in my body helps me in a variety of different situations. For instance, if I’m about to go to a social occasion and I feel some nervous tension in my body as I think about it, I take that as my cue to get down on the floor and growl and thrash around for a few minutes. Most of the time, this releases the tension in my body and helps me to focus and enjoy myself.
Of course, I’m not the first to observe that releasing emotions, and thus dissipating tension in the body, stimulates creativity. As somatic psychologist Susan Aposhyan writes in Body-Mind Psychotherapy, “unconscious or habitualized emotional repression limits vitality, creativity, communication, and growth.” Similarly, psychologist Robert J. McBrien, who studied the positive impact of emotional release through laughter on patients’ brain functioning, writes that “[t]he release of tension from laughter can free cognitive blocks,” and that “this promotes creativity, shared problem solving and enhanced cooperation.”
The next time you find yourself in a creative rut, you might try this exercise. Instead of turning away from your task to do something else, or beating yourself up for being unproductive, find a place where you can be comfortable and undisturbed for a few minutes. Then, do whatever you need to do—short of hurting yourself—to express how you’re feeling about your creative block. This may involve making a noise, or breathing into or stretching part of your body where tension has accumulated. Continue until you feel a sense of relaxation or spaciousness in your body that you weren’t experiencing before.
I suspect you’ll find this a helpful, enjoyable and often amusing way to regain your focus and creative inspiration.
(This article appeared in the Energies of Creation Carnival, located at http://www.energiesofcreation.com/carnival-of-creative-growth/carnival27/.)