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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.

Are You a Secret Atomist?

I find it both amusing and disturbing when people say “It is what it is,” with a shrug that implies “That’s just the way I am, don’t expect me to change.” I suspect none of them realize they’re echoing the pre-Socratic Greek Atomists who believed “That which is, is, and cannot not be, and that which is not, is not, and cannot be.”

The Atomists believed atoms were indivisible and indestructible. In their view, matter might shift form as different atoms clumped together in different patterns, but at its most fundamental level, the level of the atom, change is impossible. It’s an ancient belief system, but a surprising number of people still believe in their hearts that things don’t really change. I call this the Anti-Creative perspective because it denies the possibility of possibility.


At the other end of the spectrum is the Wannabe-Creative perspective of “That which is doesn’t have to be, and that which is not could be.” Believers in this philosophy are so in love with possibilities that they float on a pink cloud and never quite touch the ground. They are so focused on what might be, Wannabe-Creatives deny what actually is. And because you can’t you change something you deny exists, this perspective abandons any hope of true change.

Wannabe-Creatives live in fantasy and dream of the someday when somehow something miraculous will happen and all their dreams will come true. The irony is obvious: they’re so in love with possibilities, they’ll never reach them. Unfortunately, this kind of fantasy is a common form of writing resistance.


In the middle, balancing the polarity between reality and possibility, is what I call the Actual-Creative perspective. People who are truly creative know that “That which is, is, but it might not be, and that which is not, is not, but could be.” Only when you accept the full reality of what is actually true in the present moment, can you grasp what is and transform it to something else.

Enough philosophy. Let’s get down to pragmatics. I saw this cartoon today and it shocked me out of Wannabe into Actual. I had slid into thinking that someday I’ll cut back on the ice cream and get back to the habit of going to the Y at least 3 times a week. The truth is I’m 6.5 pounds above my previous low weight and I planned to be at least 6.5 pounds below that marker, not above. The truth is I will not live as long or as happily at this weight as I can if I get leaner. The truth is that if I don’t rearrange my schedule to accommodate 1 hour a day for exercise, I’ll have to rearrange it to make 24 hours a day available for being dead. And this rearrangement will happen a lot sooner than I want. Guess where I was this afternoon? If you guessed on the treadmill at the Y, you win.

What about your pragmatics?

  • Where have you adopted the Anti-Creative perspective? How does that interfere with making progress in your writing or other areas of your life?
  • Where have you adopted the Wannabe-Creative perspective? How does fantasy interfere with changing reality to accommodate writing the way you want?
  • Where do you need to embrace the Actual-Creative outlook? What action will you take today that’s aligned with the that perspective?

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