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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something!


Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing…

Sometimes the best thing to do is something…

Sometimes the best thing to do is anything.

How do you tell what time it is for you? It depends on what you’ve been doing lately. If you’ve been working on “something” – a particular piece of writing for example, and still have energy and excitement for it, then the best thing to do is more of that something.

If you’ve been working, working, working on something, driving yourself to the point where you’re losing your energy and ability to focus, the best thing to do is nothing.

If you’ve been doing nothing, but it hasn’t been an enjoyable break, but the painful, frustrating, deer-in-the-headlights kind of writer’s paralysis, then it’s time to do anything. Just do something.

All mammals freeze when we’re threatened – a tribute to when mammals first appeared on the evolutionary tree and freezing was a good way to escape notice of the reigning kings of creation,dinosaurs. Freezing isn’t a bad strategy: it might keep you from being noticed by a predator, and if you do get noticed, freezing limits the information the predator has about which way you’re going to run at the last moment. But freezing doesn’t help a deer in the headlights (or any other critter) because cars are so big and so fast, it doesn’t matter which way the deer runs at the last minute… the last minute will be too late.

True writer’s block – the paralysis of not being able to write, being unable to physically move your fingers on the keyboard or even to move your thoughts insider your own head – is the freeze reaction unnaturally prolonged. You need to do something, anything, to break out of the freeze. Write something, anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s horrible, it’s something. All writing needs rewriting anyway, so don’t let fear that what you write today might be crap keep you paralyzed. Just move your fingers and rediscover the power of the freewrite.

But once you break out of the deep freeze of writer’s block, you need to make conscious choices about what to do next.

If you react only from instinct, your freeze response will be followed by the fight-or-flight response. Avoiding the writing, distracting yourself, never quite getting to the writing space or not being able to keep your butt in the chair is the “flight” part of the fight-or-flight reaction. Criticizing yourself or others, nagging yourself, sabotaging your efforts, relentless editing that interferes with getting anything on the page is the “fight” part of the fight-or-flight instinct. None of these variations on fight-or-flight is going to get you out of resistance and back to writing with joy and power.

When you’re the literary equivalent of a deer in the headlights, it’s time to move. Do anything. Don’t stand on the side of the highway waiting to get mowed down. Once you’re out of harm’s way, then it’s time to do something, a consciously chosen something that doesn’t include fighting or running away. Not sure what the something might be? May I suggest 15 magic minutes of Product Time or a Loft class or a fiction retreat?

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