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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, Hold On


Sometimes you have to hold on!

Pam 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 would keep honoring her writing commitments, she assumed she had people to rely on and she assumed her writing had purpose. Do you?

Did you wake up this morning and demand “Gravity had better be working today! No more of this floating off in space stuff.” Did you call your senator to tell her/him that you expect the atmosphere to be a mix of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen?

Of course not. Because we don’t make demands about our bedrock assumptions, the things we absolutely know will be true or present.

In every expectation and demand, there is fear and anger that we won’t get what we expect or demand. “I expect you to be home on time,” is what a parent tells a kid when she/he has broken curfew. “I demand a refund,” are the words of someone who thinks there will be no refund without throwing a fit.

Gravity, the right blend of atmospheric gases to support life, the sun rising and setting, fresh water running out of the faucet when we turn it on are bedrock assumptions we base our lives on without question. That you will show up for your writing, that your writing is part of your contribution to your community, that your allies have your back are bedrock assumptions that satisfied and successful writers base their writing lives on.

First Anchor: Habits

Pam was able to let go of the demand that today’s writing be important in part because she held on to the awareness that because she is a writer, she needs to show up for her writing. She demonstrated that when she wrote “I know that writing crap is better than not writing at all.”

Pam has learned that it’s not what we write that matters, it’s that we write that matters.

Too many writers fear that if they stop making demands on their writing, they won’t write at all. Pam didn’t floating off into a limbo of not writing for months because she has bedrock assumptions about her behavior (i.e. habits) to anchor her.

For over a year, she and the rest of her Mastering the Writing Habit group have consistently made and honored weekly commitments around their writing. They have consistently showed up for Process, Self-Care and Product Time.

They haven’t been perfect, of course. Life happened. They all went through periods when they did less than 100% of what they had committed themselves to, but even then they didn’t give up on their habits or themselves.

Pam recalls, “When my husband had his heart attack and when I had pneumonia, I dropped the habits completely for a few weeks. But as soon as I was able to, I got back in the saddle; in fact I couldn’t wait to do that. That, I think, is more of a testimony to the power of writing habits than perfect performance would be.”

Perfection is not necessary; persistence is. Habits matter. If you don’t have writing habits to anchor you, what are you waiting for? Build them. Choose one small pattern and repeat it until knowing that you’ll do that habitual behavior is a given, like the blind assumption that gravity will still be working every day you wake up.

Second Anchor: Allies

The women in Pam’sMastering group served as each other’s witnesses, cheerleaders and advisors. Sometimes they congratulated each other, sometimes they commiserated, sometimes they offered suggestions, sometimes they “just” listened. Because they had each other to check-in with, they reinforced their ability to hold themselves accountable.

When life didn’t follow the plan, knowing they had allies empowered them to figure out when and how to adjust their commitments to fit the new reality and when and how to adjust reality to keep their writing a priority.

More than a year later, they are still consistently celebrating each other’s success, still consistently making and meeting their goals.

Third Anchor: Purpose

Pam has discovered that what she writes on any given day doesn’t matter, but that she writes, that she shares the information and insight she’s gained in her personal and professional life to help others absolutely matters.

Every time she writes, Pam holds on to the intention that eventually what she writes will help others. At the same time, Pam needs to let of – and keep letting go of – any expectation that today’s writing be anything in particular. It’s not an easy balance to maintain, which is why having habits and allies is so valuable.

Your Anchors

Do you have habits to anchor you? Do you know why your writing matters? (Believe me, it does!) Do you have a compelling sense of purpose? Do you have writing allies to support you in honoring your commitments?

If you answered yes, please share how your anchors – the things and people you’d never let go of – support your writing.

If you answered anything less than a resounding “yes” to these questions, I humbly suggest you strongly consider taking the Writing Habit class or working with a coach to give yourself what you need. Without the anchors of habits, allies and purpose, letting go puts you at risk of floating aimlessly.

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