A friend and I were talking about writer’s block this week. Another friend and I were talking about procrastination, and at the same time, I realized I was spending a bit too much mental energy ruminating about three different situations in my life, which I perceived as negative that were occurring simultaneously.
Somewhere along the line, I saw a pattern in these three topics – writer’s block, procrastination, and excessive rumination, and decided to spend a bit of time investigating the possibility that all three things were somehow related.
The Artist’s Way
My first investigative step was to take pick-up a book, which is what I tend to do when facing a dilemma or trying to get myself out of a funk. The first book I opened was “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, and the chapter I began reading was “Recovering A Sense of Compassion.” Here is what I found.
Blocked artists are not lazy. They are blocked.” (Cameron refers to all creative people as artists. I, for purposes of this post, am going to stretch her description to include anyone trying to improve or change his or her life.)
I liked not thinking of myself as lazy, so I kept reading . . .
Being blocked and being lazy are two different things. The blocked artist typically expends a great deal of energy – just not visibly. The blocked artist spends energy on self-hatred, on regret, on grief, and on jealousy. The blocked artist spends energy on self-doubt.”
The blocked artist does not know how to begin with baby steps. Instead the blocked artist thinks in terms of great big scary impossible tasks: a novel, a feature film, a one-person show, an opera – [or, I might add, the life they really want.] When these large tasks are not accomplished or even begun, the blocked artist calls that laziness.”
Cameron goes on to say,
Do not call the inability to start laziness. Call it fear.”
Ah, perhaps, fear, by any name is still fear?
Bird by Bird
My wonderful friend Dao recently sent me a quote by Anne Lamott, author of the book “Bird by Bird”, which I have not read, but have been meaning to read since I heard about it about three years ago . . .
Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of s—– first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and have terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”
Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, ‘It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do- you can either type or kill yourself.’ We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.”
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really, s—– first drafts.”
I don’t know enough writers to ask them if they are happy or not, or if they are riddled with the same self-doubts many of us are when we are attempting something new, but I did see a similarity in both authors’ passages and to creating the lives we want: it’s scary, it takes baby steps, and almost all of us procrastinate, are afraid to take chances, and want a perfect “first draft.” We are plain old afraid we won’t get it right.
Not getting it right or getting it wrong is scary, and potentially embarrassing. That’s why most people do not want to be the first one to ask a question in a group. It’s also why we procrastinate, are blocked or don’t get started creating the lives we want.
And, I must admit, it’s why I didn’t post last Wednesday!
Being afraid is natural.
Dealing with our fears in ways that bring us closer to our goals – posts, deadlines, novels, or better lives – may not be as natural, but it is possible and does not have to be scary.
Try these two simple steps, which I call the “Wonder Steps” because they usually work wonders for me.
Wonder Step One
State the “problem” in such a way that it can be followed by the words “because I don’t want to.”
When you get really good at this you can use more articulate reasons, but I have found that in the beginning it is best to stick to something simple and a bit childlike. The statement, “I don’t want to!” has both those qualities, sort-of like stamping your feet – it doesn’t get you anywhere but feels good in the moment. Making this statement also creates a sense of ownership, which is important, because when faced with difficulties; we tend to blame an external source, which seldom, if ever is the real cause.
EX: “I am not working on the project because I don’t want to.”
Wonder Step Two
Now use the “because . . .” to create at least 5 new and related sentences. The sentences below are just examples, please come up with your own thoughts and words. Each new sentence should build on something mentioned in the previous sentence.
EX: I don’t want to do __________ because. . .
“I am still angry at myself for agreeing to do the project in the first place.”
“I am angry at myself because I always agree to do things I don’t want to do, or I agree to do them for the wrong reason.”
“I hate doing things for the wrong reasons because it makes me feel stupid.”
“I hate feeling stupid because, it’s wrong.”
“It’s wrong because I am supposed to be perfect.”
“Okay, this is silly; I know I do not have to be perfect. . . I feel a bit stupid right now, but am beginning to feel less upset about this whole thing.”
I have found that by taking the time to briefly look at a stressful situation, it seems less overwhelming and distracting. And, looking at it in a simple, almost immature way seems to help the process. (Not sure why it works, but for me it works.)
By the time I get to the sixth sentence, the situation doesn’t seem to be such a big deal anymore, and I am usually able to see some humor in it.
Sure, sometimes I have to create 7, 8, maybe even 10 statements, but if that is all I have to do to find my way out of procrastination, writer’s block, frustration and/or self-doubt, is that really so bad?
Which is exactly the awareness I usually come to around statement 6 or 7 – “This really isn’t such a big deal, is it? I start feeling incredibly human, much less judgmental of myself and others and much more willing to cut everyone some slack. I begin to feel compassion for myself and others rather than frustration, disappointment or fear. (Remember the title of Cameron’s chapter listed above? It’s “Recovering A Sense of Compassion”.)
By concentrating on stating the problem, instead of trying to solve it, I usually end-up feeling better, which leads me to being more open to finding solutions, which, believe it or not , usually quickly appear with very little effort. (I know that is too many which’s but I was on a roll, forgive me.)
Try it and see. Let me know what you think.