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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.

Is it Writer’s Block or Appropriate Frustration?


Is it supposed to look like this?

What if what you’ve always thought of as writer’s block or writing resistance is actually part of the process? Maybe the frustration you’ve felt wasn’t a sign that there was something wrong with you, maybe it was a sign to keep going.

In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer highlights a part of the creative process some people would like to forget, a part of the process that my students, coaching clients and colleagues often misinterpret as writer’s block.

Lehrer writes, “When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Because such failures contradict the romantic version of events – there is nothing triumphant about a false start – we forget all about them. … We tell the happy endings first.”

Lehrer continues, “The danger of telling this narrative is that the feeling of frustration – the act of being stumped – is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer – before we probably even know the question – we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost.” (p. 6)

Or this?

It’s the frustration that drives us to abandon our usual ways of thinking so we can see the question or situation in a new way and finally see the solution.

Almost Happy to Be Frustrated

If frustration is the essential step to creative insight, I must be on the verge of a huge creative breakthrough!

It’s about time – both literally and metaphorically. Metaphorically, this feels long overdue, but I guess that’s part of the frustration Lehrer reminds me is such a good sign.

Literally, I need a paradigm shift in my relationship to and perceptions of time. I need to stop feeling that there is never enough time. And believe me, I’ve wrestled with this problem. And I’ve failed.

Of course, lots of people get frustrated with problems that they never find creative solutions to. So there may not be a solution to my problem with time, but I choose to believe there is.

It may be this willingness to believe even in the face of frustration that separates people who are “creative” from those who aren’t. (I firmly believe that everyone is creative, but some people are not trained in how to access their creativity.) So I’m willing, if not completely happy, to be frustrated.

In my next post I’ll answer the question I hope you’re asking: “So if I’m not blocked, just ‘appropriately frustrated,’ what do I do now?”

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