Writer’s Block

(Originally published Dec. 13, 2006).

Writer’s block is terrifying, painful, paralyzing, humiliating, and demoralizing. Over the past month, I must have moaned to my husband a gazillion times or more, “What if I’ve lost it? What if I never write another word again? WHAT IF I NEVER FINISH THIS BOOK?”

I speak to the topic of writer’s block with a high degree of authority because I am still smarting from the after-effects of a particularly nasty attack (see last week’s blog effort). Obviously, I needed a contingency plan to counteract future occurrences. Being a proactive project manager in my former life, I took the only possible approach for the anal, the analytical, and the afflicted. Moving forward, I would identify the issue (consultants never, EVER refer to “issues” as “problems”); I would examine the causes; and, I would formulate strategic solutions. At the end of the day, I would have a viable implementation strategy to keep me on track and on target (believe it or not, a couple of years ago, I used to toss off jargon like this with a straight face).

The issue was self-evident. I couldn’t crank out that final scene, not even if several body parts and a couple of lives depended on it.

The causes were less obvious. Last week, my blog dealt with my reluctance to let go of my baby, my firstborn manuscript. However, after a full week of sober and due consideration, I have grown to believe that this was merely the tip of the iceberg. To use a mixed metaphor, I peeled back a few more layers of the onion and am now convinced that my recent writer’s block was (a) a temporary and necessary delay caused by little grey cells percolating, (b) compounded by the two ugly sisters of perfectionism and self-criticism, and (c) fuelled by the stress and panic of an inability to put two coherent sentences together while the clock ticked on—a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak.

I should have recognized the signs. God knows, at the beginning of every consulting project, I used to feel the same sense of panicky urgency and helpless frustration. I needed to know EVERYTHING, and I needed the answers IMMEDIATELY. Never mind that the hairy problems had taken an army of public servants several years of diligent effort to create. And when the light didn’t blink on within a couple of days, I would pick up a heavy two-by-four, figuratively speaking, and whack myself over the head a few times as a well-deserved punishment. “This time, they will find out that you’re a fraud”, the nasty little voice in my head would whisper. “This time, you won’t find the answer.”

Now, here’s the thing. For me, like many others, the creative problem solving process takes time. Time to for concepts mature, time to formulate new ideas, time to produce a finished product that is more than the sum of its parts. I need to suffer through this necessary incubation period of inactivity interspersed with frantic bouts of trial and error, even as I writhe and twist on the hook of frustration.

So what do I do with this new insight? What amazing strategic solutions have I formulated?

For those of you who have persevered to this point, you will no doubt be pleased to know that I have decided to take a brand new approach to this creative problem solving thing:

  1. Cut myself some slack: stop beating myself up when ideas do not magically appear on demand, tell myself it is okay to take the time I need.
  2. Silence the little negative voice in my head with positive affirmations, for example, “I am taking the time to formulate brilliant ideas”, “I know the perfect solution”, etc.
  3. Talk the problem through with someone. Anyone. My husband. My critique group. A friend. Sometimes, I just need to hear myself talk to discover the answer.
  4. Keep writing until I reach the solution. My creative problem solving process is iterative and employs tedious, often painful trial and error. I wish it didn’t, but it’s my process.
  5. Eat chocolate.