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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.

When Your Writing Is Stuck, Let Go


“I have to send a piece to my writing group by next Thursday and I’m totally stuck,” Pam McAlister wrote in an email to the other participants of last year’s Mastering the Writing Habit telecoaching group. (The members send each other weekly email check-ins to share their writing goals, accomplishments and commitments and let me tag along.)

“I just keep writing crap, but thanks to you all, I know that’s better than not writing. So here’s to shitty second drafts!”

Something in Pam’s email pinged my intuition. So I wrote back to ask “Is there something you think this piece HAS to be or HAS to do? What happens when you let go of that thought?”

Expecting Something Special? Expect to be Resistant!

My intuition pinged partially because I know Pam and partially because I recognized something familiar in my own struggles with expectations. I’d been invited to deliver the end-note presentation at a staff development program because someone on the event planning team had seen me present at another event and appreciated, among other things, that I told entertaining, humorous stories.

My contact and I talked about what they needed for this event: information about the effects of multitasking from a brain science perspective presented in accessible language that a professional, but not scientific, audience could understand and pragmatic, relevant solutions. Oh and some humorous stories would be very welcome.

It’s wonderful when someone recommends you, but it also brings pressure to deliver on expectations. My mental checklist went something like this:

            “Interesting information about multitasking and the brain? Check, I can do that in my sleep.”

            “Accessible and relevant? Check, no problem.”

            “Engage a professional audience? Check, those are my kind of groups.”

            “Tell funny stories? Check. I think. But wait a minute. This is a more serious topic. I don’t have any funny personal stories about multitasking. Uh-oh.” Cue the ominous music.

Every time I thought about writing my presentation notes, I found something else that needed to be done first. In other words, I was resisting moving forward with this project. I got stuck whenever I thought “I HAVE to be funny.”

Trying to Be Funny? Don’t or You Won’t!

As I told Pam, when I let go of thinking that I have to be funny, I come up with good ideas. So I keep reminding myself to just do my research, develop the program and trust the funny stuff will come eventually. As long as I keep reminding myself to let go of the demand to be funny, I’ll find the humor. But if I focus on the expectation, I won’t be able to do anything.

Expectations and demands that our writing MUST be something are a great way to get ourselves stuck.

Pam realized that because she was making changes in the other half of her professional life to give herself more writing time, she felt like she HAD to write “meaningful stuff” and she HAD to “write right NOW.” Armed with that realization, Pam experimented with letting go.

A week later, she wrote “It really helped to stop focusing on writing something that MATTERS. Instead, I played around writing humorous stuff for next year’s Christmas letter, [note: we often put less pressure on ourselves for things far in the future] then ended up working on a piece I’d started before.” Giving herself permission to goof around with her writing eased Pam back into writing something she really cared about.

It’s a paradox: you can only do what you really want to do when you stop trying so hard to do it. Creativity thrives on these kinds of paradoxes.

Pam also realized that labeling what she’s writing in terms of genre is not helpful for her. “Whenever I think ‘write an essay,’ I’m totally stumped. So for now, I’m just writing ‘stories’ or ‘pieces’ without worrying about what they’ll turn into.”

My intuition tells me a lot of those pieces will turn out to be essays that matter – because they don’t have to.

What do you think your writing HAS to be? What would happen if you let go of that demand?

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  1. When Your Writing Is Stuck, Hold On « The Bane of Your Resistance - May 6, 2011

    […] McAlister (who we met in the previous post When Your Writing Is Stuck, Let Go) was able to let go of expectations because she had assumptions to hold on to. She assumed she […]

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