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Back in the creative muddle

I’m deadlining. Um … s’posed to be. I’ve actually been in that blank, dull state that’s 100x worse than the next-worst part of writing.

I just got over it a few minutes ago and though I might push my deadline by a few days (hate that, but it’s a monthly magazine and I suspect they may not even look at submissions for a week or two), I’m now breathing a different, clearer air.

I hear there are scribblers, quite a few of them multi-millionaires, who don’t suffer writer’s block. I hate them all. Hate them indiscriminately, regardless of race, creed, color, gender, or place of national origin. Hate them with malice aforethought and extreme prejudice.

Writer’s block at its worst isn’t just, “Hm. I have no idea what to write this month.” It’s, “OMG, what if I’ve lost all my talent? What if I’m never able to write another readable word? How will I live? I’ll die! I’ll die obscure and starving and probably not be found for weeks and by then the dogs will have …”

That’s what I just got over.

And the weird thing (I know I’ve said this before, but I always shake my head at it) is that, until some sudden moment, it’s like that. For days. Sometimes for weeks. Not one sign of progress, nary an idea, not even a tiny move toward the goal of actually writing something with which I can put kibble in the dog bowls. Then … poof!

There’s always this “never, ever” quality to the blank time. Even though I’ve been there before and gotten past it, it feels — every time — as if this is THE END. (“Yeah, but what if this is the one time that …?”)

During Nevertime, I can write other things — things I don’t have to write. I can dust knicknacks, hang wallpaper (this weekend’s project), and be a general wiz at life. I just can’t do that one thing. And as Nevertime goes on, there’s not one sign I’ll ever be able to do what I have to do. I think of resigning the gig. Of quitting the business. Of eating out of Dumpsters.

Then between a step with my right foot and a step with my left, the idea is there, along with words to open the article (one of the two hardest parts of the actual putting words on pixels).

Before this there may be an hour or so that feels a little different. A desperation that leads to action (grab a notepad, gird my resolve, have a glass of wine, make a list), then a recklessness. (“I’m doomed, anyway, might as well see if I can come up with something, even if it’s dumb.”) I expect all that amounts to a new openness, though it just feels like a way to calm panic.

And once I can give myself that state of mind, that’s when it happens.

Another weirdness (yet another common weirdness, too): The idea that eventually arrives is often not even close to anything I might have considered. Not even something I thought about thinking about writing about.

It’s just … there.

No wonder Greeks had Athena — the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, strength, the arts, crafts, and skill, among other things — born full-grown from the brain of Zeus.

Now excuse me, I gotta go finish writing my article. It’s a breeze, I tell you. Once the flow gets going, it’s like … “Pain, what pain? Difficult? But anybody could do this …”


  1. Pat
    Pat April 28, 2015 5:08 am

    I have that same problem with housework. 🙂

    The “experts” used to say walk away from it, get busy with something else, etc., etc. But you know all that.

    For myself, when I HAVE to do something, esp. with a time limit, that becomes a burden in itself, and can halt any creativity I might have. So, when something needs to be written by a certain time, why not start it in “free time”, before you’re pressed for time and when writing is no problem? You can always edit, and if the thought(s) are already on paper, it might be easier to alter or finish than to write from scratch at the last minute. Just a thought.

  2. Claire
    Claire April 28, 2015 5:22 am

    Merely knowing that I must write something starts the Doom Clock. There’s no such thing as free time when writing is no problem.

    Wish there were, though. Appreciate the thought.

  3. Pat
    Pat April 28, 2015 5:33 am

    If you don’t want to write what you *have* to write, then it’s time to write what you *want* to write. (RebelFire II?) The only other option is not write at all, but do something else instead.

  4. Bill St. Clair
    Bill St. Clair April 28, 2015 5:51 am

    I get a similar problem writing software. No idea what to do. A feeling that maybe the magic that allows me to do it has disappeared. It happens often enough that I like to have a background task I can do while I’m waiting for my subconscious to provide the way forward. Then one morning I’ll awake with a simplifying idea that makes it all easy. And the code flows out of my fingers.

  5. Claire
    Claire April 28, 2015 6:12 am

    Bill — Yep, that’s exactly it. How our very own brains could be working away on something without informing us is strange. But true.

    Pat — That’s true about options. Unfortunately, the things I have to write are the things that pay the bills.

  6. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty April 28, 2015 6:38 am

    Oh Claire, I understand just what you mean. One of the things I did often in my nursing career was organize and present seminars to other nurses. I had lots of “official” material available, lots of articles, charts, diagrams, etc… way too much, always. The trick was to decide what was clearly relevant, distill it to the essentials, organize that to be presented in the ALWAYS far too short a time allotted for the classes, and then stay organized and focused enough to actually present the few shreds possible in that time frame. And I could seldom use the same program and materials the next time.

    And that was all before the internet was available, mind you!

    Maddening… It would seem an impossible task, sometimes right up to the last moment. I couldn’t think where to even start, I didn’t have time to gather the material or write anything, I couldn’t put two words together that made any sense. The distractions of my regular job seemed overwhelming at times, and I’d swear I would never agree to do it again. But I always did…

    Good luck. I know you’ll do well, as always. 🙂

  7. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal April 28, 2015 8:51 am

    I’m nowhere near the serious writer you are, but I sometimes feel the same. Sometimes I think “I have to email the newspaper and tell them I have nothing else inside me before they call and embarrass me for being such a failure!” It usually passes…

    If I can’t think of what to write- and feel I’ll never be able to write again- I go do something else. Anything that is hands-on, dirty, and mindless. It used to work really well to scrape deer skins.

    As soon as I honestly stop trying (since I have admitted I have failed and I’ll never write again), the ideas start coming.

    Nowadays I text ideas to my email as soon as I have them, wherever I may be and whatever I am doing (OK, not while driving). That prevents “The Greatest Idea in History” from escaping my grasp, as has happened before. (Funny how things will trigger ideas that are completely unrelated to them in any way I can see.)

    Then I copy those emails into “draft” pages on my blog to sit there until ripe. Seeing all those little sound bite ideas makes me see that I have plenty of things I could expand on and keep writing for a long time. If I “can’t write”, I can browse through them until I find something that begs to be written about. Something that triggers more ideas.

  8. Laird
    Laird April 28, 2015 9:59 am

    I don’t write words for a living, so I can’t really relate. But I do regularly create complex iterative Excel spreadsheets, and I suspect that the thought process is similar. Often I have no idea how I’m going to design the spreadsheet, so I just . . . start. Usually I begin by creating a tab for all the input variables I can think of (as I said, these are iterative spreadsheets, so I need to be able to easily change the input assumptions), which will lead me to begin the creative process of modeling how those variables interrelate, and I’m on my way. Simply getting started usually opens the floodgates.

    I’ve read that some successful fiction writers set aside a certain time every day to write, and they do it religiously. Just like “normal” people going to the job. As I recall Heinlein employed such a process. What they produce on any given day might not be immediately usable (although I suspect it often contains the germs of ideas which can be applied later), but at least they’re writing. There’s a certain magic to simply putting words on paper (or pixels on a screen).

  9. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau April 28, 2015 10:19 am

    I’ve never had to produce any writing outside of tech manuals, which I suspect is no help. I have a couple of anecdotes which probably also will be no help, but might be of slight interest.

    At one point I had a job of bringing up newly-manufactured (large) computers using diagnostic programs and an oscilloscope. Every now and then things got so complex I ended up chasing my tail with the troubleshooting. This company, for some reason had a ping-pong table on the test floor. I would go over there and play a couple of rounds with somebody, then go back to my table and immediately solve the problem I was stumped on. I don’t know if it was because I was completely focused on a completely different kind of task, or because I was just getting the blood flowing, or both. But it happened enough that I started counting on it to work, which it always did.

    The other is just a general observation about software. Unlike currently approved overplanned processes that software writers now use, I would just start writing (things like drivers and diagnostic software) even when I knew it was shit and full of holes. When I got it working, sorta, I would just heave the whole thing and start from scratch, now with a better understanding of what was needed. That second revision was usually very good.

    Again, I don’t know if these have any relevance at all to writing.

  10. Kyle
    Kyle April 28, 2015 10:24 am

    Claire, I sympathize completely. I’ve been reading government documents over the past few weeks that span across a time period of over a decade, and I find myself dealing with massive information overload. There’s more than enough material to write a book, but I’m trying to just write an article that is more of an overview than anything else. All the SPLC “special reports”, all the DHS scenario training videos, and all the leaked police bulletins can feel a bit overwhelming. In fact, an associate of mine has been kind enough to build an archive of all the original source material on his website, located @

    Feel free to make use of the material there, because his intention was to offer those as resources to the rest of the alternative media, not just me. Maybe some of those documents could serve as further inspiration for your in the future, perhaps? 😉

  11. Thomas L. Knapp
    Thomas L. Knapp April 28, 2015 10:36 am

    I feel your pain. I can think of a few things I hate as much as writer’s block, but only a few. Taxes and bad toothaches are the only ones that come to mind.

  12. Brunette
    Brunette April 28, 2015 1:25 pm

    How about trying some other (ideally, fun!) form of writing — for example, keeping a journal or dream diary, writing limericks, etc., as a way to bypass the sense of blockage? Or, if you’re used to working at a keyboard, scribbling notes on paper instead?

    Not that I should be offering writing advice 😉 … since I only wrote for fun (and to help stay sane) years ago, never made a cent at it. But I do grok the frustration — I’ve missed writing and may take up a journal myself, now that I have time for it again.

    Also, I agree with Kent; doing something “hands-on, dirty, and mindless” used to grease the skids for me, especially something where it was really inconvenient to stop and head for the keyboard. :/

  13. Claire
    Claire April 28, 2015 2:53 pm

    Thanks, guys. Sounds like a familiar experience in a lot of fields. Sigh. And definitely some of the things you suggest (especially grubby physical work) help a lot. And I do them and will do them.

    I feel like I’m in good company here, writers and non-writers alike.

    I’ve never been able to force myself to do the “I will write from 7:00 a.m. ’til noon” bit, though I know that’s what many successful writers do (and it makes sense). That works once you’ve gotten started, but really I suspect that even those writers have a hard time doing that when they’re starting a new project whose idea hasn’t yet fully formed.

    The hard thing is that, no matter what the eventual “cure,” it’s such a &^%$#@! PITA to have to go though this again and again and again and again and again (as Kent expresses so well). Once or twice in a lifetime, fine. Once or twice or more a month … OMG!

    I wish rather than finding a way out of writer’s block I could find the way never to get into it in the first place!

  14. jed
    jed April 28, 2015 3:40 pm

    I hate them all. 🙂 LOL

    I have had, in my head for a while, the very general concept of what I think would be a good short story. I once wrote a really good intro for it – in my head, while trying to get to sleep. I’ve written a few others, not so good, in the same circumstance. The mere act of getting out of bed shuts the whole process off. Also, the annoyance of a bout of insomnia doesn’t help with remembering any of it either.

    I’ve only scratched the surface of being a writer — blogging, technical docs, and few things for the house magazine of a club I used to belong to. If I had to earn a living doing it, I’d be living under a bridge. And yeah, I did sometimes get writer’s block working on software. Typically, coming back to it the next morning would be what worked.

    Surprised nobody has suggested getting stoned. 😉

  15. naturegirl
    naturegirl April 30, 2015 3:39 am

    Deadlines and time frames use to kick me into gear when I was younger. Now a days it brings on the dread and blank brain. No amount of self lecturing seems to break it, but just taking action helps a bit. I worry that maybe I’m turning into a procrastinator too, LOL. Or developing deadline phobia….

  16. Claire
    Claire April 30, 2015 7:47 am

    naturegirl — “No amount of self lecturing seems to break it, but just taking action helps a bit.”

    Amen. Self-lecturing is about as useless as all those lectures adult authority figures delivered to us when we were kids.

    jed — Getting stoned, now there’s an idea. (If only the resulting “brilliant” writing was, you know, coherent …)

  17. jed
    jed April 30, 2015 4:46 pm

    Well, if the Beatles can get a hit with “goo goo g’joob”, maybe it’s worth a shot. You could try channeling James Joyce.

  18. KiA
    KiA May 4, 2015 9:56 am

    late to the party — here’s how i’ve hashed it out.
    creativity depends on 1) input, 2) association, 3) output

    1) the input is any personal experience: books, education, interactions, conscious and subconscious information, etc. it basically means something can not be created out of nothing. when someone produces something creative, many wonder how on earth did they think of that? my theory is that the person has had the background, or inputs, leading them to that point. recent inputs not only serve as raw data but may also act as a triggering mechanism to associate previous inputs.

    2) association is the skill to relate the inputs to one another. it’s what we call ingenuity. it’s the ability to relate previous inputs to create a new idea.

    3) the output i think of as basically a faucet. something that controls the out flow rate of ideas created by association.

    all of the above probably happens much more subconsciously than consciously. that may be why it’s important to create the environment for creativity to happen rather than force it to happen (athena fits well here: a woman’s love may not be forced. one can only shape the environment and hope for the best).

    i think there are some key factors in setting the environment:

    a) maintaining the input flow. this recommendation is in two parts: one) keeping the input related to things of interest increases the possibility of triggering ideas of interest, with the consideration of two) not being entirely focused in one thing; that narrows the input field which i think is more limiting.

    b) reducing stress: doing things of interest, relaxing, reducing/ignoring chores, etc. i think forcing creativity will increase stress thus being counter ingenuitive (i’m creative!). i think stress limits the input, decreases the association engine’s productivity as well as block the output flow.

    i think marijuana opens the output faucet but does not necessarily stimulate the association engine – thus getting a lot of lesser quality. LSD may create an over active association engine.

    i think eureka moments are a combination of less focus and stress for the most part.

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