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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.

Ask Not for Whom Resistance Tolls

uncertaintyWriters ask me, “How can I tell when I’m resisting my writing?”

“You make your best guess,” I tell them. Before they can realize how much of an answer that isn’t, I describe typical examples of resistance, many of which sound familiar enough to assure them that resistance is part of their writing life and prompt them to ask what they can do about it.

The truth is even I can’t tell when I’m resisting my writing and when I’m exactly where I need to be in the creative cycle doing what I need to do to move my writing forward.

By its very nature, creativity is uncertain. Uncertainty is essential to creativity; if you already know, you don’t look for and can’t recognize new answers, discoveries and combinations.

Not Even in Hindsight

hindsightYou can’t predict exactly when you’ll get a creative breakthrough, although, with experience, you can identify some of what you need to do to prepare yourself to receive a breakthrough. Nor can you predict with certainty what conditions to control or how to control them to engender a flash of insight.

You can’t know in advance which detours will take you to a new horizon and which will simply send you wandering in barren circles.

Is spending an hour researching harmonicas worthwhile? Yes, if playing a harmonica is a key element of a character’s development or at the center of a plot point or you’re writing for an article about Bob Dylan. Maybe not, if your editor cuts the section about Bob’s harmonica playing or if you later decide to forget about the harmonica and give your character a hack-sack instead.

But you’ll never know. Some not-quite-consciously remembered detail from the harmonica research might have triggered the idea of your character carrying a raggedy hacky-sack wherever she goes.

Only in hindsight will you know what path brought you to discovery. Only hindsight will reveal what key words led you to the research you needed or which expert had the information you needed. Only hindsight will identify which image or tidbit of information opened new possibilities.

Sometimes not even hindsight helps. In the moment, all you can do is make your best guess and follow your intuition.

Best Guesses

Question-lightbulbWhen I’ve spend twenty minutes cruising Facebook, it’s almost always a waste of time and a symptom of resistance. Sorting my sock drawer before I sit down for Product Time is likewise resistance unless what I’m writing about socks or decluttering, and even then it’s suspect.

Experience has shown (more times than I like to remember) that reviewing my email inbox is always an unworthy distraction.

Perfectionism is always resistance. Except of course when you’re proofing a final draft before it goes to print.

Making myself a cup of cocoa or a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade could be resistance. But if I always make myself a tasty beverage before I start my Product Time, this is part of my opening ritual and an essential part of getting ready.

Only you know when you’re resisting your writing, and most of the time you’re only guessing.

Following your intuition helps, but ultimately, you have to accept the fact that uncertainty is key to creativity. You’ll never really know. Not only do you have to learn to be okay with not knowing, you have to celebrate not knowing.

Anyway, that’s what I think today – I don’t really know.

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4 Comments on “Ask Not for Whom Resistance Tolls”

  1. ellen December 6, 2014 at 8:42 am #

    I like this!


  2. Joel D Canfield December 5, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

    “I’ll know it when I see it” is a most unsatisfying answer.

    “I might know it, if I happen to see it” is really frustrating. Not, of course, that I’m surprised.


    • rosannebane December 5, 2014 at 2:16 pm #

      Hi Joel,
      I hope it’s less frustrating to know you’re not alone in this. And to know that you’re not doing something wrong, that uncertainty is part of the creative journey.


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