The very idea of a creative block can be terrifying — and it can feel as though it will never end. It might seem to come out of nowhere. You’re suddenly drained of all inspiration and ability to write, and worse yet, it can feel so mysterious that you don’t know where to start to address it. You might have already experienced a creative block at some point in your life, and you know how difficult it can be to overcome what feels like a complete shutdown in creativity, in ability to write, in ideas. In the second half of this two-part post, we’ll talk about how to know which creative block you have, and what to do about it.
Everyone from writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, to singer Adele, to composer Rachmanoninoff, to Peanuts creator Charles Schultz has experienced some kind of creative drought – so know that it’s not just you dealing with this conundrum.
Aside from understanding whether you’re experiencing a creative block or bad timing, it’s helpful to think about what kind of creative block you’re experiencing and what you can (or in some cases, shouldn’t) do about it.
Once in a while, life just happens… meaning, you’ve got a lot going on. If you’re going through the birth of a child, if you’ve lost a loved one, if you’re getting a divorce or going through a hard break-up, if you’re moving… all of those are real factors in life and should not be discounted. Most of us have a tendency to say “Well, it’s not that big of a deal that my dog of 15 years just died, I should be able to work through it,” when in fact, it is a big deal. So instead of letting it be an emotional event and giving ourselves a break, we decide that we should be able to “power through it” and write anyway.
Please don’t do this to yourself. If you’re going through something major in life (and you are the one who gets to decide what counts as major, not society at large), give yourself time to work through it.
That being said, writing can help you process all of the emotions you might be experiencing. I’m not suggesting you force yourself to write the business book you want to publish next year, but I do believe that cathartic free-writing, where you allow whatever needs to come out to do so via pen and paper, can be healing. Personally, writing down what’s happening inside is one of the best ways for me to make sense of what I’m going through.
If you get ideas and have the desire to write, then sit down and do it, but don’t beat yourself up about not making the time or not feeling the inspiration to write. Trust that you’ll have the space to write when you’ve given the emotions around the life circumstance time to dissipate and heal.
Lack of inspiration
This is probably the most terrifying of all of the blocks. You have the time to write. You have your goals. You might even have a book deal and a publisher waiting for your manuscript. You sit down to write… and nothing. No creative spark to speak of.
First, what have you fed yourself lately? I don’t mean food – I mean what does your inspirational diet look like? Have you been reading books or articles that challenge you and cause you to think differently, or have you been binge-watching Workin’ Moms episodes on Netflix? Have you had any stimulating conversations lately with new people from different walks of life, or have you been hanging out with the same people who tend to do the same things, day in and day out? Have you traveled, tried something new, taken on any new challenges? Are you interested and excited about your topic, or have you done it to death?
Inspiration comes in many forms, but when we talk about using inspiration as fuel for our creative work, we need to remember that there are some things that fuel us and some that deplete us. Yes, Workin’ Moms is hilarious and makes for a good break, but I think few of us can argue that TV is supportive of our creative work. Life-long friends are important, but it’s also vital to expose ourselves to new ideas and new people. When we stretch our boundaries, we give ourselves the opportunity to make new connections and come up with creative ideas.
If you’re not consciously feeding yourself a steady stream of inspiration, whatever that means to you, see what that will do for your creative spark.
Burnout is closely related to a lack of inspiration, and they can go hand in hand. There was a point in my professional career where, for three months straight, I was pushing myself hard. I was writing two proposals and finishing the final edits on a manuscript that was going to be traditionally published, and the pressure was heavy. By the time I finished what felt like a dead sprint, I was exhausted. I had set myself up to have a low work-load for the following few weeks after the final deadline, which was fortunate because I had nothing left to give. I was suddenly left with all of this time to myself during which I had planned on writing for myself, but I was totally drained. And while the desire to write for myself was there, I had absolutely no creative inspiration at all.
I had to be very gentle with myself, set low expectations, eat well, and above all, rest. A lot. Over the span of a few weeks of taking care of myself, my sense of excitement and inspiration returned, and I had plenty of ideas to work with.
If you’ve been pushing yourself hard with little rest and no time for yourself, it’s going to be difficult to perform the way you want to. Take a look at the previous months, or even year. Have you given yourself time? Have you taken a break at any point? If the answer is no, you may want to consider how to work in downtime so you can have the energy to foster the creative spark when it returns.
For what it’s worth, I try not to do that to myself anymore because I know the cost is too high. A slightly slower work pace with more realistic expectations means that I have inspiration to spare and room in my schedule to work with it when an idea comes to me.
Fear often shows up as procrastination. We suddenly feel we have to do the pile of dishes, or clean the house, or pay all those bills – anything instead of writing. If you’re writing under high pressure, for example you might have a book deal and you’re super excited about it, but now you’re terrified about the reality that you really need to show up. That kind of fear, especially if we don’t want to admit that we’re afraid to ourselves, can be crippling.
There is no getting around fear until you admit to yourself what you are truly feeling. You don’t need to roll around in it, you don’t need to obsess over it, but you do need to acknowledge it. I hope you have some coping techniques for fear – some of us do yoga, some of us run, some of us meditate. I do all three when I experience fear, just to move the emotion up and out of my body.
Fear is a part of life, and how we manage it internally is key. However, having a solid structure to what I’m about to write helps me act in spite of the emotion. When I have a well-planned structure, I’m able to focus on what I know needs to be written. Maybe I choose the easiest part to write, the part I know by heart, because it will be easier to accomplish. With one accomplishment under my belt, I can move on to the next section, and fear has less of a hold on me. Having a solid structure is like a shortcut. You can tell yourself you’ll just work on that one easy part for 20 minutes. By the end of 20 minutes, you’re far less likely to stop.
Sometimes, creative blocks come from the work itself. You’re stuck on one area of your text, you’ve revised it over and over again, and the more work you do the worse it is.
I was ghostwriting a book for an author and had to work on a chapter about my author’s experience of mom guilt, as well as a general commentary on mom guilt in our culture. No matter what I did, I could not get this chapter right. The more I changed, rearranged, added and deleted, the worse it seemed to look to me.
At the time that I was writing this, I was a wee bit stressed out. It was a Saturday night, the deadline for the revision was Monday, and I was no closer to figuring it out. I had to be away from my kid all day and would have to work all day Sunday, which always makes me feel like a bad mom. To top it off, my partner and I had had an argument that morning. Things felt bleak.
That night, I was talking to a friend of mine about my day. He looked at me and said, “So you mean to say that you had an argument with the father of your child, you had to spend all day working, which meant that you couldn’t be with your child the way you think you should be… and you don’t know why you can’t write the chapter on mom guilt?”
With that one question, it all clicked. The chapter wasn’t coming together because I was still working through the very topic I was supposed to be writing about. What’s more, I was writing about it from a detached standpoint instead of embodying what I was saying. It was as if I was standing outside a room looking in, trying to describe it the way I saw it, instead of owning that I should be in the room with all the other moms who feel guilty. I had to get real with myself about my own feelings of mom guilt, what it meant to me, how it showed up in my life, and the moments that sparked it. And when I did, it became one of the strongest chapters in the book.
If you’re struggling with an aspect of what you’re writing, get real with yourself. Sit in it. What about that topic aren’t you facing? Is there something that you haven’t resolved and yet you’re trying to teachit? Is it very present in your life somewhere, and how is it showing up? Are you failing to practice what you preach?
Writer’s block doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer, that you’re dried up, or that you have nothing left to say. It’s usually only an indicator pointing at some area of your life that has been left untended and needs attention. Make the space for yourself to acknowledge and work through your block, and you’ll be writing again in no time.