I don’t know if the feeling I have right now counts as writer’s block, maybe it’s just down time.
This is the feeling anyone creative is familiar with. It’s expansive and opaque, and feels a lot, I assume, like you’ve stuffed your skull full of laundry. Affectionately known as writer’s block, drawing a blank, the creative wall; it’s the end of a road, for one reason or another. A brief trip to the planet Google suggests that people have broken down writer’s block into no less than ten categories. In short, calling a lack of creativity a writer’s block is about as thorough as diagnosing a pounding headache as sickness thumps.
According to the sources, these are the different forms of writer’s block, more or less. I cherry picked these lists to give you the ones I come across personally.
1. Having no idea what to write about.
2. Not knowing where to take an idea
3. You don’t have the words to say what you want, or you don’t know how to say something originally.
4. You get distracted by friends, kittens, or a burning desire to knaw your toes off.
5. There’s too many ideas in your head, but they’re not sustainable.
6. You feel unmotivated.
7. Nothing you write seems good enough, which, similarly, leads into a feeling that…
8. You’re afraid you’ve hit your creative peak a long time ago and now you’re slowly spiraling down into a pit of mediocrity.
Now, I’m writing about writer’s block because that’s what I’m experiencing right now. My dog is trying very hard to regain my attention by throwing a piece of rubber that used to be a soccer ball in the air. Poor dude works so hard to rip my attention away from this computer screen. That last sentence proves how uninterested in what I'm doing at the moment.
So what you’re seeing, by the end of what you may not be able to call an article, is my attempt to push through it. I'm not sure how well it'll work, but I need to know that I can force my way through it like a boxer with blood in his eyes. I’d like to attack the problem more psychologically; the internet is drenched in snake oil cures for creative loss. Let’s face it, the fear of never finding that spark again is terrifying, because a lot of us creative types are pretty sure without that talent, we’re basically useless.
One site suggests that a lack of creativity comes from a sense of apathy, another suggests it’s stress or anxiety. Research indicates more creative problem solving tends to happen when we’re tired, hence the trend of creative types also being night owls. After browsing the many theories available on the topic, I have come to one conclusion.
After giving myself some time to winch out what appears to be a bit of muffin (which should surprise no one) from below my key, I set a timer. Timers have always been helpful for me in getting over the creative hump, because I’m not allowed to stare blankly. Even if I do, it’s not for very long. If you're wondering why the fuck limiting yourself is helpful, it's because I use the timer as a sort of force-element of novelty. I think somewhere in Psychology 101 there's a section about chunking and committing things to memory. I don't know if approaching an uninteresting task is any different in terms of commitment.
I’m not sure what research supports my own theory of writer’s block, but I bet there’s some out there. Also, fair warning, everything from here on out is speculation and I haven’t done any research. It’s my thought vomit you’re taking as advice here.
I think that by nature, humans are near-addicted to novelty. It has some type of evolutionary logic, which you may see as something of a trend in my conclusions about human nature. By constantly seeking out things that are new, we’re often rewarded with better ways to do things. The first person to explore a cave was eaten by a bear. The second one learned how to kill a bear, had a warm place to sleep and eliminate sexual competition.
I guess I’m just anticipating some kind of argument to my own logic, but I hope you see my point. Without trying something new, nothing is gained. Even failure has some value, though maybe not to you. Creativity is based on trying new things, or being forced to try something new after the accepted methods don't work. I think a lot about failure at this point in my life, because I’m not experienced with success. I don’t like admitting that, but I do, and admitting that gives me the freedom not to dwell.
Back to writer's block.
I think this creative rut we often find ourselves in comes from the honing of raw interest. We start doodling because it’s new, therefore we enjoy it. After awhile, we focus, we have a task and we decide it’s in our best interest to be good at it. The discovery phase waxes until we consider ourselves talented, in which we face a waning of interest. Whether or not we also wane in talent is something up for debate, but not something I have enough opinion on to address right now.
So what do we do when what we love becomes the same old, same old? Can you cheat on your creativity? Absolutely. When I have difficulty writing I tend to turn towards art or music. Music holds a special place for me, actually, simply because I’m not very good at it, and by actively not pursuing it, strange as that sounds, it’s always fun. The same can’t be said for my other creative endeavors.
Maybe the cure for writer’s block is novelty, maybe not. According to one neuroscientist, our stressed out brains will actually shut down the non-essential areas of our brain where creativity, sex drive and digestion all live and focus more energy in our limbic system, which is dedicated to running for your life.
We all tend to agree that intelligence and mental illness are brain buddies, so maybe it’s just a simple matter of brain chemistry. Maybe we shut down our own abilities simply because we become refocused on surviving in our anxious, depressed and otherwise fucked up minds. If that’s the case, could it actually be that happy people would be the more creative, instead of the long held assumption that happy people are dumb and ruin everything?
I don’t know. Anyone creative takes a sense of satisfaction, maybe even happiness, from what they do. Honestly, that makes me think yet again of the idea of novelty. Doing the same thing over and over is tedious and by definition not a lot of fun, but we’re also given the slightly flawed assumption that doing things over and over makes us better at it.
So what are we supposed to do, should you trade off enjoyment for talent? Are these things mutually exclusive, really? If it’s not true, and you should only pursue your creativity if it makes you happy, I guess the answer to writer’s block is pretty simple.
Calm the fuck down and enjoy yourself.
Seems like it addresses most of those dissected categories of it, anyway. I don’t know if it’s as easy to apply that logic when you sit in front of your blank canvas, admittedly. It’s that whole Buddha logic we all find so frustrating in its simplicity. So maybe, by framing it a little differently, we could think of conquering writer’s block this way; if it’s not enjoyable, and you don’t have to be doing it right now, then stop doing it. I don’t know if I believe in barreling through writer’s block by sitting down and madly smashing the keyboard until what should be beauty comes out. Maybe that works for some people, but even if it did, I wonder if that would only serve to leave me more frustrated later.
Gosh kids, I never end these with the neat packaging I want to. If I accomplished anything though, it’s that I persevered through my block. I don't know if this is the most inspired thing I've ever written (it's not), but I made it. Hopefully you can find a reason to make something out of your laundry-brain, too.
There are so many things I want to do with my life. Ambition has always been a strong suit of mine, even if follow through is something I'm still learning. I don't think I'm alone in this, either. Most of my friends want to start their own businesses, grow their own food, build their own lives from the ground up. In part, I think this is out of necessity, and for some, the drive to create stems from a sort of mad desperation not to be forgotten in an age where the impact of everything you produce is diminished by sheer exposure to how many other people also produce it.
What is the fear of being forgotten, and what does it have to do with ambition?
We live in a very strange time. For one, the dissolution of the traditional family in America is on the rise, if not at an all time high. We crazy ladies can do all sorts of things like vote and have careers, and for us it seems like there's added pressure to have a thriving professional life and a couple of kids--but I'm going to talk about goals and stress another time.
What we're looking at right now is ambition, and our desire to change the world. I think that's been something hammered in to my generation; we need to make an impact on a personal level on as large a scale as possible. With the introduction of the internet, being the best guitar player your friends have seen isn't going to make you Nirvana, because every town has their best guitar player and the competition has become widespread.
But despite being typified as lazy and apathetic, my generation is rabid about their dreams, I know I am.
So here's where we depart from the chaos, my fellow dreamer. Start small.
I want to be a comedian. I'm not really shy about saying that any more, which was a big step for me, because I was pretty bummed I didn't want to do something more humanitarian or lucrative. I also want to start a podcast, and a venue, and record an album, and go on tour, and start some local shows, and launch a TV show, and run some sketches, and pump out articles every month, and have cartoons ever month and-you can see where I'm going with this, can't you?
'And' is one letter shy of being a four letter word, which for some reason is how I classify profanity. There is no conceivable way I could do all, if any of these things by the end of the year. I wonder if part of the reason we load our expectations so damn high is because we're afraid that if we do one of those things, and it doesn't seem the way we play it in our head, we have somehow failed.
No matter how much you tell yourself life isn't like the movies, some part of you still believes that you're the exception to the rule, that you'll be able to pull off all this crazy shit and still probably start a family later and be known as the greatest person because you achieved a bunch of things. But, that's crazy. You need to start small.
It's so easy to let ambition carry you, to think that you're reaching the apex and doing it faster than anyone, but typically that's just setting yourself up to fall from a great height. Rather than try to barrel through life, pulling together all of the pieces and claiming you can do everything, start small.
The first part of starting small, and this is a modicum (I used the word modicum in an article about smallness, ha!) of practical advice, is to pick a central objective. For me, this year, was writing. All I'm trying to do from now until December is write two articles for this site a month. That's it.
The internet can make our accomplishments seem so huge! We can look at our friends and marvel at how they home cook all their meals and seem like they've got all the answers woven together, their lives packaged neatly in the wrapping paper of doing-better-than-you-itude. But we don't photograph our burnt dinners or post to facebook about our nine hour staring contest with the wall while we contemplated what people would say at our funeral.
I've tried to do more than that. When I do, I typically stress myself out and fail.
Starting small seems like it would be the enemy of ambition. After all, go big or go home, right? Or maybe it's even simpler than that. Maybe by starting a small thing, we're acknowledging that we're going to start something and starting things usually leads to other new experiences, which is more dangerous than daydreaming about where we'd like to be because it means that things might not actually be as good as we think they are. It would be like deciding to run a marathon and finding out about 5 minutes in that your skeleton is made of vomit and jello. We're all afraid to live up to our potential, because potential is a vague nod to what it's assumed you're capable of, and we dread not living up to this imaginary standard.
Someone told me once that perfection is the enemy of good. This has been rattling around in my head a lot recently, because I've realized how scary it is to realize you might not be as talented as you think you are. I think I'm pretty intelligent, but to be humbled (or humiliated, as the case may sometimes be) is a common and unavoidable experience I find myself having. What's strange is that I rarely think less of myself by meeting someone who's smarter, I just acknowledge that I am imperfect..
There is probably some evolutionary imperative to be better, faster, stronger, and to believe that we are the most viable members of our species. To assume that we're not worthy contributors to our species, even if it were the truth, would have a crippling effect on humanity as a whole. There'd be no reason to attract or impress a mate, and let's be honest, a hell of a lot of what we do is just fanfare for doin' the nasty.
Maybe there's even more to it than that; when you accomplish something small, it's hard to believe it will have any real impact; I have that insecurity with writing all the time. I worry that what I'm doing doesn't matter, that it will be forgotten, that I'll have wasted my life and contributed ultimately nothing to the human race. On a planet that suffers from overpopulation and apathy, I worry that I am meaningless.
Strange that a need for meaning could prevent us from wanting to do anything meaningful at all. But here's the terrifying, freeing irony; nothing that you do in life matters. You are not significant, neither are your successes or failures. For every flub you have, every race you win, there are millions others that are doing the same. You will impact a few people close to you, but it's doubtful you will be recorded in eternity.
If you find this perspective disconcerting, I am sorry for you. It seems like such a huge task to do something that matters, especially on such a scope as impacting the human race. Maybe this is pedantic, introductory nihilism, but any school of thought that takes interest in the "eternal now", to borrow a phrase, is tugging at a loose thread in our tangled idea of meaning. There's such a huge pressure not to die alone and forgotten, as if somehow our rotting bodies will be filled with regret as they decay. What we really draw meaning from are the things that make the moment we inhabit meaningul.
Imagine your life as walking on a clay road, one that can only stretch so far into the past, the future, and now. To spend to much time clinging to what's behind you will make it impossible to reach your future. To spread it to far ahead will make you lose your footing and plummet to a chasm of uncertainty below you.
But what if we were to take that clay, and instead of spreading it around us, we use it to sculpt the space we were standing in? Wouldn't we have gained a stronger footing, have more ability to appreciate and create the moment that's around us? There is a past and a future, but there's little we can do to harness them productively. It's only the current moment that we can build upon, and it's only the current moment that you'll find any kind of meaning. To assume that there's more to it than that...I don't know. If there is, you won't be around to see it anyway.
Ambition is just the will to recognize that you can move forward. It isn't the assumption that you've mastered life; if you had, what would be the point in trying? You'll fail and it won't matter. If you want to find meaning in life, you have to take part, and embrace what you're doing instead of how well you're doing it. If there is any improvement to be made, it will only be discoverable through the moments in the future where you're present, which doesn't do you a lot of good to harp on right now, does it?
Yes, this is more of the same 'it's not the destination, it's the journey' kind of tripe, I suppose. I may take it so far as to suggest that there is no journey, because that suggests that you're going to end up somewhere. As anyone who's tried to achieve a passionate goal can tell you, there is no end to what inspires you. There are only more layers to peel back and explore. So find what it is you want to do with your life, darling, and start small.
About A Blog
I'm a Denver Comedian, occasional cartoonist and person of interest to someone, probably. These articles are really too long.