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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.

Does Your Writer’s Block Rely on a Digital Trance?

Is there a difference between being lost in the creative flow and being lost in a digital trance?

In my last post, I distinguished between being zoned out online and using an online class to enter the writer’s trance. But is there a real difference between a creative flow state (while writing or engaged in any other creative activity) and being lost in a digital trance (which could include being absorbed by TV, emails, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, shopping, etc.)?

True or False: A Trance Is a Trance Is a Trance

Both getting lost in the creative flow and letting digital media hypnotize you are engrossing trance states. Both totally absorb your attention and cause you lose track of what’s going on around you. You experience a sense of timelessness in either. Both are what Mihali Csikzentmihalyi calls “autotelic,” something you do for its own sake. A match between the challenge and your ability to meet the challenge (another of Csikzentmihalyi’s characteristics of the flow state) is possible in either. And one feels a lot like the other.

But the number one characteristic of the flow state is a sense of purpose. When you’re lost online, you have a clear sense of the little steps you need to take to stay engaged (when and where to click to open a new YouTube video or how to add a new app to play with). But it’s rarely clear how what you do in the digital trance relates to your life purpose.

When you’re writing, on the other hand, you may not always know what tactical step to take next (add a new character? shift POV? send the query to a different editor or agen? revise the whole thing again?) and you may have times when you wonder why you want to write (when you get a rejection in the mail or criticism from readers), but when you’re in the writer’s trance you know with absolute certainty that writing is your true joy and purpose.

Getting lost in the flow is a way to fulfill your big goals for your writing and make sense of life. The images and ideas you explore rise from your own imagination. Getting lost in a digital trance is using someone else’s images to follow someone else’s agenda.

In the writer’s trance, you lose your little ego-self to merge with something larger than yourself. Many artists talk about how their writing/art/creativity comes “not from me, but through me from something larger.” In the digital trance, you lose your larger spiritual Self to try to appease your ego-self.

True or False: I’m Willing to Settle for Second-Best

Of course, it’s risky and scary to lose yourself in creative flow, so a part of our ego says “Of course, I’ll write, but not right now…” We yearn for what we find in flow, but we’re afraid to surrender, so we try to settle for second-best.

For most of us, the digital trance is so close to what we’re really looking for, we keep going there, hoping that this time it’ll be all we need without enduring the risk and fear that come with surrendering to the flow.

An awful lot of resistance is about trying to find a second-best we can settle for. The rest is about trying to not recognize that we’re settling for second-best.

There’s a saying in AA and other recovery circles that you can settle for second-best, but you’ll never get enough. What an addict really wants is spiritual connection, love and a sense of meaning, but because s/he believes that’s not possible, the alcoholic settles for alcohol, the food addict settles for food, a compulsive gambler looks for the next big payoff, etc.

The difference between an addict and a non-addict is that the non-addict doesn’t expect a glass of wine (or an ice cream sundae) to be a source of spiritual connection, love and meaning. So the non-addict can enjoy a glass of wine (or ice cream) and be satisfied. The alcoholic/compulsive overeater will never find what s/he is really looking for and is never satiated. So s/he keeps drinking or eating.

Recovery is learning to stop looking to the problem (alcohol/excess food/etc.) for a solution for a deeper yearning. 

What happens in the brain with addiction and resistance are very different processes. But the search for something that’s almost what you need is remarkably similar.  

So the question is: are you willing to settle for second-best? Are you trying to numb your yearning for spiritual connection and a sense of life purpose with the digital trance? Are you willing to keep distracting yourself from the dissatisfaction of not ever getting what you need from second-best by telling yourself you really have to do a whole list of trivia before you write?

Or are you willing to risk feeling scared and vulnerable and go for the creative flow?

I hope you go for scary. I hope you choose to enter the writer’s trance.

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3 Comments on “Does Your Writer’s Block Rely on a Digital Trance?”

  1. cin carlson April 16, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    WOW! There is enough stuff in this blogpost to keep my mind going for some time–but these two things really struck me: first, the difference between an escape trance and the Writer’s Trance; and, second, the notion of settling for second best.

    The bad news is that I recognize myself in the descriptions. Even after getting serious about my writing after several years of letting everything under the sun stay in my way, I am mortified at how easy it is to fall back to my old ways: distraction, excuses, lame attempts at “research”–you get the idea. I know that old habits die hard; fighting them demands constant attention and commitment.

    But here’s the good news:these recognitions speak to me now because since recommitting to my writing, I have experienced that “Writer’s Trance” Rosanne Bane describes. I know when my work is at its best,and I know when I am settling for second best. Achieving that good trance still is a realitively rare occurance, but I know it is possible and it is worth pursuing. For the rest of the time, there is still the satisfaction of having given my work the respect it is due.

    This wasn’t obvious when I would “work on my work” only one or two times a week. It’s pretty hard, after all, to detect a pattern among so few examples! As with most forms of creative art, a viewer can’t get a true sense of your creation until there is enough of it to recognize: one or two rows of quilt squares, a few washes of watercolor, a line of tooling at the bottom of a piece of leather, three pages of writing–all these things are necessary starts, but they aren’t enough. It is only after time and more work that any creative piece begins to take on its shape and become recognizable.

    The same can be said for recognizing the best way you can work toward your creative goal. You can’t really recognize what keeps you from your best work unless you have cultivated a pattern of working on achieveing the goal. You can’t discern true blocks from mere distractions unless you have logged some serious time on your work. If you don’t plow through a lot of “second best”, you will never recognize–and feel–your best work while it is happening. and that’s one of the true rewards for showing up, seriously, day after day, whether you feel like it or not.

    I could not have made these remarks six months ago; I was still giving in to my old habits and letting them declare victory. I could rattle off a litany of excuses for the fact that my work did not progress beyond those first three pages and even I did not believe them. I just hadn’t called myself on it yet.

    Then I acknowledged that there are only 24 hours in a day and only so many days in my life, and I had better quit fooling around with second best and wasting my energy trying to convince myself or anyone else that it was satisfying to produce it. It isn’t.

    It is only through the daily work, through saying no to the distractions and yes to my promise to myself and my work, that I have any chance of getting to that Writer’s Trance. Nothing else will get me in the neighborhood.

    And then there’s good old Woody Allen, who years ago shared his secret by telling his interviewer, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” He’s on to something there.


    • rosannebane April 17, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

      Thanks Cin! You’ve got some powerful insights here. Glad to see you give yourself credit where credit is due for building consistency with showing up as well as recognizing when you were settling for second best. Keep saying no to distrctions and yes to yourself and your writing!



  1. Creative Quick Hits (to Knock Out Writer’s Block) « The Bane of Your Resistance - April 26, 2011

    […] The one potential drawback with quick hits is the temptation to try to make them substitute for the big project that is your true creative passion and desire (and therefore scarier). Quick hits are satisfying, but they’ll never give you the joy of working on your primary writing. As a supplement to your writing, they function exceedingly well; as attempted replacement, they’re just as frustrating as any other “second best” substitute. […]


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