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.
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 just published a guest post at The Change Blog called “Productivity and Owning Our Shadow.” It’s about how we’ll often put off working on a project when making progress requires us to tap into part of ourselves we aren’t fully okay with — maybe the part that’s ambitious, sentimental, childlike, or something else.
I sometimes notice this in myself when I’m writing fiction, which I’ve been trying my hand at lately. For some time, I had trouble making progress on writing a scene where one character is darkly, primally angry — because, of course, writing it brought up the part of me that can feel that way.
But as I wrote the scene, I got this interesting sense that I was making peace with that part, and integrating it more deeply into who I am, instead of treating it as a weird, dangerous outsider.
Anyway, enjoy the piece!