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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.

Nothing Beats Writer’s Block Like Doing Nothing


writer's block canstockphoto2065099 (2)Writer’s block consists of exerting an excruciating amount of energy to accomplish nothing. I suggest you skip the painful part, and do nothing right from the start.

Writers need plenty of time to do nothing and do it well.

Brenda Ueland intuited the value of time to do nothing back in 1938 when she wrote in If You Want to Write:

“So you see the imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas. . . . But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.”

If you’re thinking, “Well, that was fine back in 1938, but in 2015, we’re too busy to do nothing,” think again. Current brain research validates Brenda Ueland’s intuition. The imagination does need moodling, aka plenty of time to do nothing in particular and let our minds wander.

Research shows brain areas that are key to creative insight are engaged, not when we’re actively paying attention to a task or problem, but when our minds wander. When you focus your attention, your brain activity is concentrated in the few areas of the brain needed to accomplish the task or solve the problem in the usual way.

If you want to see the problem in a different way and discover a creative solution, you can’t rely on those few areas you typically use. Instead you need to engage parts of your brain that don’t usually collaborate in a loose, broad connection that naturally occurs when your mind is wandering, daydreaming and doing nothing in particular.

Inspiration and Eureka moments rarely come when we’re busy or paying attention. They come when we’re in the shower or walking the dog or lying in bed half-awake. When we allow our minds to wander, when we’re doing “nothing” and our attention flits from one thing to another seemingly without direction  — this is when we recognize new connections and possibilities.

The next time you feel writer’s resistance creeping up, stop trying so hard. When a block crashes the writing party, don’t try to force yourself to make something happen. Walk away. Take a break. Intentionally do nothing in particular for a good long while.

Just to clarify: checking email or social media is NOT doing nothing. Working on another project is NOT doing nothing. Watching clouds or the sunset for a quarter to half hour IS doing nothing.  Anything you do for Process play IS doing nothing. To do nothing right, you need to invest in “long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

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