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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.

Two Ways through Writer’s Block

writers block breakthrough

Focused attention can blast through reistance

When you’re stuck or notice that you’re resisting your writing time, you have two alternatives: pay attention or daydream. Which should you choose? Depends on what you’ve been doing lately.

We have two different attentional states: focused attention, officially called the Central Executive mode, and daydreaming or the Mind-Wandering Mode. (more about two attentional states and about daydreaming and creativity.)

daydream book writers block canstockphoto13333997 (2)

Daydreaming can open doors you didn’t know existed

We respect people who pay attention and get things done. We tend to think less of people who daydream. Yet letting your mind wander free-range without agenda or distractions is the source of creative breakthroughs, those Eureka moments of insight and discovery. It’s also extremely satisfying and relaxing.

Neurologists were surprised to discover that the brain is just as active while we’re daydreaming as it is when we’re actively paying attention and focused on doing something. It’s just a different kind of activity.

When we’re paying attention, there is intense activity in a few areas of the brain. When we’re daydreaming, the activity is spread across the brain. Mind-wandering is a networked state of attention.

Since creativity requires bringing two or more previously separate ideas, images or things together in a new and cohesive way, we’re more likely to get creative insight when different areas of the brain are communicating, that is, when we’re daydreaming.

Fortune Favors the Prepared Mind

Of course, you can’t combine ideas and information you don’t have. We gather information, images and ideas when we’re paying attention. Research, learning, observation and life experience give our dreaming mind material to work with.

There’s a reason Einstein’s daydreaming led to a theory of relativity – the man knew his stuff. Darwin could envision evolution because he spent years in the field collecting samples.

frankensteinMary Shelley could imagine Frankenstein and his monster because she spent a dreary summer in “The Year Without a Summer” (caused by volcanic ash spewed from Mount Tambora) reading ghost stories by candlelight with literary friends in the Swiss Alps.

If all you’ve been doing lately is dreaming about writing, it’s time to prepare your mind by taking action, paying attention and maybe taking a field trip.

The Cost of Attention

When you focus your attention, you get the satisfaction of accomplishing (or at least making progress on) the tasks you focus on. You complete a draft, discover what you need in your research, or revise and edit a piece. This is also the state of consciousness you typically bring to a day job and things you need to get done in your personal life: do your taxes, respond to email, complete a spreadsheet, cook a meal, learn a new skill.

We usually accomplish tasks by taking action directed by the Central Executive mode. We typically solve problems by actively trying to figure them out. The focused attention state of consciousness excels at keeping us on task.

But when we pay attention, we pay. It takes a lot of cognitive energy to maintain focus. This is why you probably can’t work for hours at a day job and come home and immediately start writing.

Letting your mind wander is an excellent way to restore your cognitive energy. Taking a walk or staring out the window for ten minutes could be the most effective way to re-engage with your writing.

sitting-on-couch-with-remoteYou might feel too tired to think about writing or anything else and consequently want to zone out. Be careful. Checking social media, watching TV, playing a game on your phone or tablet is NOT daydreaming.

Mind-wandering is letting your thoughts go wherever they will; zoning out is letting someone or something else is direct your thoughts.

There are two ways through writer’s block; not three. Sometimes daydreaming takes you through writer’s block. Sometimes paying attention takes you through. Zoning out will never take you through resistance; it only mires you deeper.

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7 Comments on “Two Ways through Writer’s Block”

  1. Joel D Canfield March 17, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    Zoning is not daydreaming. Pow.

    Every time I hear the call of Facebook, I’m going to move my rocker to the deck and watch the geese by the lake. Lately, far too much zoning, far too little daydreaming.


    • rosannebane March 17, 2015 at 11:35 am #

      I’m with you Joel! I watch the geese in the morning while I eat breakfast. I deleted a game app on my Kindle because it was eating up too much of my do-nothing time.


  2. JamilaJJ March 13, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

    This is a great post; thank you for the tips (Checking social media will be the end of me!) and thank you also for linking to my blog! MUCH appreciated!


    • rosannebane March 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

      Thank you, JamilaJJ for your comment and for writing your blog. Also much appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. jenislove March 13, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

    I love your posts and struggle to write based on pasts critics from elementary teachers and I’m 50, not sure why I get stuck but when I start I do ok.

    I have to write an analytic essay for school and I’m not analytic so don’t even know where to begin.

    Help me please!! Thanks Jen


    • rosannebane March 16, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

      Hi Jen, Remind yourself there is time and distance between your first drafts and turning the essay in. Your first drafts do not have be anything your elementary teachers would approve. (In fact, none of what you write now needs their approval. You are such a different person now than you were then — you wouldn’t fit in your old school desk literally or figuratively. And you don’t need to.)
      Take a look at my post on brain dumps at https://baneofyourresistance.com/2014/04/25/why-do-brain-dumps-break-writers-block/ and just let your ideas flow to find out what you think. Clustering and mind-mapping are two excellent tools for figuring out what you want to write about and what details you want to include.
      Give yourself permission to not know everything and be messy, awkward, incomplete etc. in your first drafts. Strive to make each draft a little clearer, cleaner and complete. Most writing doesn’t spring complete from your head to your hands; it’s a gradual process of development.
      Please let me know if this helps or if you have specific questions.
      I have confidence in you!


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