It is now 3:00pm on New Year’s Eve, the day before this month’s article on creative blocks is due. I console myself with the fact that in the city to which the article must be transmitted, it is 3 hours behind the Eastern Standard time that governs my daily activities despite my best efforts to evade time’s solemn march. Therefore, if I transmit the article before 8:00pm today, I will have sent it before the deadline. I further console myself with the thought that, even if the article isn’t transmitted today, it might not matter, because after all it is New Year’s Eve and the folks at GoodTherapy.org may have gone home early in preparation for tonight’s festivities – and surely no one will be in the office tomorrow! In fact, it seems highly likely that no one will be in the office until Monday morning, and therefore, if this article is sent in any time prior to 11:00am Eastern Standard time on Monday, I’ll probably be fine…LOL, as my teenage clients say.
Today’s prior activities in service of procrastination include the following:
- Sleeping in until 11:00am – after all, I work for myself and I’ve given me the day off.
- Reading and answering e-mails, none of them time-sensitive.
- Planning to do the laundry and last night’s dishes. My husband, being the helpful sort of person he is and knowing what I’m up to, assures me that these tasks are not necessary; he will take care of them.
- Lingering under the hot shower much longer than necessary. Exposure to extra warmth in the midst of this bone-chilling, sixty degree Central Florida day will help get the creative juices flowing.
- Examining my ever-deepening facial wrinkles in the bathroom mirror, and contemplating what to do about the fact that the march of time seems to be reflected not only in my approaching deadline but in my countenance as well, increasingly, by the day.
- Considering what to do about the above. I decide to smile more, opining that at least the wrinkles will be observed going in a different direction.
- Having a second cup of coffee, despite the fact that I am fully awake.
- Discussing the weather with Kiddo the cat, who has just come in from one of his several-times daily explorations of the perimeter of our yard. He doesn’t have much to say, but I spend several moments imagining what he would say if he deigned to speak in a tongue of my understanding.
Thus, procrastination has, over a span of approximately four hours, done what I consider a very creative job in delaying the start of an article on dealing with creative blocks. As I finally sit down at the computer to write, I wonder why – and how – this has happened. And, while I see the humor in my situation, I recall times when my absolute inability to make myself write, or sing, or play the piano – despite needing and wanting to for a grade, or to fulfill a commitment, or for enjoyment – felt excruciating. Creative blocks have caused me to drop courses – delaying my completion of graduate programs, to turn papers in late – lowering my grades on countless occasions, and to completely “blow it” during musical performances because of that inner perfectionist telling me that no matter how hard I tried I would not do well, because I lacked the talent to succeed, because I was…not good enough. I know it feels excruciating for many others, including some of my clients. My humorous slant throughout this article is in no way meant to belittle the devastating effect that creative blocks can have on the lives of their sufferers. I use humor in my writing and in my counseling approach because it helps me and clients to put problems in perspective – and putting my writer’s block in perspective has helped me to overcome it.
It would be impossible to discuss all of the possible causes of or remedies for creative blocks in a single article. There are probably as many reasons the creative well sometimes runs dry as there are creative people. Some that come to mind are depression, shame, an exceedingly strong Inner Critic (to borrow a term from Hal and Sidra Stone, whose book, Embracing Your Inner Critic, offers a powerful tool in the Voice Dialogue method, which I find works well for creative blocks), attention deficit disorder, and the seemingly aimless meanderings of the “monkey mind”, that is often spoken of in the literature on mindfulness. I’m sure that there are many more causes, and that there are more possible solutions than I’ve ever even imagined.
One particularly interesting take on the creative process and resolving creative blocks appeared to me recently in the form of John Cleese (for those of you old enough to remember, he was one of the members of the British Monty Python comedy group and the star of the often painfully hilarious series Fawlty Towers). Cleese was discussing his thoughts on creativity with university students at the World Creativity Forum (in a clip which can be accessed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGt3-fxOvug). Among his ideas I found particularly interesting were the following:
1. Creativity occurs unconsciously and cannot be forced.
2. Creative work is often improved by letting it rest once it’s done and then coming back to it to add finishing touches.
3. In order to create, one must give the mind a sort of “tortoise enclosure” with time and space boundaries. Cleese says that the single greatest barrier to creativity is to be interrupted.
I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own creative process, and from what Cleese says it would seem that the stress of the ordinary, run-of-the-mill interruptions that punctuate everyday life, of trying to force creative work when it’s not ready to come to fruition, in addition to judging, evaluating and comparing a creative endeavor with some actual or mythical “other” and trying to do as well as or better than, is what often blocks my creativity.
And so, my procrastination may simply have been a reflection, in part, of my mind’s unreadiness to be placed within Cleese’s “tortoise enclosure” – my office, with the door closed and no background noise to distract me – until it sensed the time was right for action. It may have been my mind’s way of letting itself rest (after all, I have been thinking about this article, at least in my subconscious, throughout the month of December) before allowing me to put the finishing touches on its ideas and letting them go. It may have simply been the mind’s way of telling me “I’m not ready to do this yet – don’t force me right now!”, for throughout the day I seemed to sense that there was nothing to be worried about, that the article would be fine, and that it would be transmitted on time.
In the end, it would seem that a piece of the solution for creative blockage may to forget about a project for a while and simply let the monkey mind do its procrastinating – without scolding, judgment or recrimination – and then, gently leading it into the “tortoise enclosure”, give it permission to engage in creative work/play, as one might place a small child in a playpen with a coloring book for some “time-out“ after spending hours running about the house investigating whatever objects or activities might have appeared interesting. The child is not expected to color within the lines and will be praised regardless of whether the colors chosen are the appropriate ones for the subject matter. Indeed, once I sit down at the computer, I give myself permission to write whatever comes out, regardless of whether it’s grammatically perfect, or even whether it makes logical sense. I then leave it for a while, and, putting the analogy of the child aside, come back and revise. However, I’ve learned to revise only until it’s good enough – it doesn’t have to be perfect. For me it seems to boil down to a shift from “yes, but” thinking (yes, it has to be sent off, but it’s not good enough and never would be no matter how much time I spent on it!) to a “yes, and” approach (yes, it’s done and it’s not perfect, and it’s going to be sent off anyway!)
Writing this article has gotten me to thinking about how the use of dialectical behavior therapy might be utilized to solve creative blockages because of its emphasis on reconciling seeming opposites (e.g., “yes, but“ versus “yes, and“). I think I’ll write about that for my next submission…but my monkey mind might decide differently: I’m going to let it play with various ideas throughout the coming month. Right now I’m going to quit procrastinating through proofreading and perfectionism – and send this off in time to meet my deadline!
May the New Year bring new freedom for all of us to create copiously, freely and joyfully – and may we allow ourselves to judge it all “good enough”.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.