That’s the experience described by ‘Arthur’ (not his real name), the author of a string of popular books, in response to my invitation to tell me about your creative blocks.
Two creative block-ettes (not full on blocks)
1) having a hard time prioritizing projects so end up not working on a really big one. I haven’t written a book in like 4 years!
which leads to
2) having a hard time going deep into new material; find myself retreading old ideas, or at least it feels that way, but the time to venture out and play with new stuff seems to have disappeared.
When I asked Arthur whether it was a case of resting on his laurels versus tackling the next big challenge, he said ‘no’.
Mark I don’t have any sense of resting on my laurels at all! I don’t really feel I’ve accomplished much truth be told, more that I’ve gotten lucky.
When I think about Arthur’s situation, the image that comes to mind is of a mountaineer, having toiled all the way up from the foothills, finally reaching the summit of the largest mountain in an enormous mountain range, and seeing, floating high above him in the distance … another mountain range, far bigger than the one he has just conquered.
For a few moments, the vista is enough. Its stunning beauty is more than ample reward for the trials he has overcome. He has climbed longer and higher, and seen further, then most people ever dream of. What’s not to like?
But after sitting there for a while, contemplating the jagged pinnacles of ice floating serenely above him, an uncomfortable thought occurs to him.
You’re not finished yet.
He tries to ignore it, telling himself he’s already done more than he set out to do, and he’s perfectly happy with that. Anyway, most mountains are pretty similar when you get up close. Once you’ve climbed one, having you climbed them all?
But the longer he sits there, the louder the thought grows.
You’re not finished yet. You’ve hardly started.
Dump the Baggage
If you’re going to climb a mountain, you want to travel as light as possible. You can’t skimp on essential kit, but some baggage you can do without.
For example, it sounds as though you’re giving yourself the worst of both worlds. Firstly, I get the sense that you’re putting a bit of pressure on yourself, based on your past achievements: you’ve done it before, surely you should be able to do it again?
And secondly, you’re not giving yourself credit for the actual achievements. I guess it’s possible that you really did just ‘get lucky’, but somehow I doubt it. Books don’t write themselves, and they certainly don’t sell themselves – you’ve managed to do both, several times.
So supposing you dumped this mental baggage?
Firstly, take the pressure off. Just because you’ve written books before, it doesn’t mean you have to write another one. Not unless you really want to.
Give yourself some credit! You wrote some books that people loved. Many try, but you actually did it. So be glad that you wrote them – and glad you don’t have to write them again. 🙂
Leave the Cardboard You Behind
I remember reading an interview with Seamus Heaney when he said that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature made him feel self-conscious and got in the way of his writing for a while – as if he were being followed around by the public persona of ‘Seamus Heaney’.
It made me think of the life-sized cardboard cutouts of famous authors on display in bookshops – when they meet the author, fans only see the cardboard cutout, and after a while it must affect the writer’s own self-image.
So if you feel you’re being haunted by the ‘cardboard you’, fold it up and stuff it in a bin. Then run away quick before it can see which way you’ve gone…
And Now for Something Completely Different?
Another comment of Heaney’s that has stayed with me is this one about Yeats, whom he regarded as a poetic mentor:
He bothers you with the suggestion that if you have managed to do one kind of poem in your own way, you should cast off that way and face into another area of your experience until you have found a new voice to say that area properly.
(Preoccupations, Seamus Heaney)
Maybe that feeling of “retreading old ideas” is nudging you to make a radical break with your previous work. Maybe you – and your fans – have got so used to seeing you as one kind of author, that you’re neglecting another aspect of your talent?
What’s the last thing people expect me to write?
What’s the last thing I expect myself to write?
If I could write like any author, living or dead, who would I pick?
Try a few writing experiments, based on the answers that occur to you. Don’t take them seriously, do them just for fun.
If you’re really stuck, change media altogether – start painting, sculpting, singing or playing the drums. No, you won’t do it well, but you will do it with the beginner’s mind you had when you first started writing.
If one of these experiments piques your interest, and you want to follow it up, go for it. Maybe it will lead to you reinventing yourself as a writer.
Or maybe not. But even if it turns out to be a dead-end, or if you like it but no one else does, it will at least take your writing into a different place. And perhaps that will give you a fresh perspective on your ‘usual stuff’, and fresh enthusiasm for it.
Back in the 80s, avant-garde heavy metal band Celtic Frost shocked their fan base by following up their macabre masterpiece Into the Pandemonium with a new ‘glam metal’ image and a more lightweight and commercial sound on their next album, Cold Lake.
Eventually, the band conceded that the new direction was ill-advised and went back to ploughing their familiar morbid furrow. But if nothing else, the interlude must have confirmed their enthusiasm for writing tracks with titles like ‘A Dying God Coming into Human Flesh’ instead of titles like ‘Seduce Me Tonight’.
Make Space for the New Arrival
When you say you’re “having a hard time prioritizing projects so end up not working on a really big one”, it sounds like a classic case of Resistance – getting lost in the small stuff as a distraction from tackling the big stuff.
Maybe the problem is that you’re not sure what the next big project is going to look like. Or possibly you do have an inkling, but it feels uncomfortable to go there. But neither of these is a reason not to prioritise the project.
When they have a new baby on the way, a couple naturally starts to make preparations, even if they don’t know its sex or personality. They clear out a room for a nursery, buy a cot and start stockpiling clothes and equipment.
If you really want this new book to come into your life, you need to start doing the same. Set aside time for the experimenting and exploring that will lead to its conception. Give yourself permission to achieve absolutely nothing for days or even weeks on end – except devoting time to thinking, scribbling, and waiting for the new arrival to show its face.
As Philip Guston said:
I go to the studio every day because one day I may go and the Angel will be there. What if I don’t go and the Angel comes?
Over to You
Have you ever managed to overcome resistance to to tackling a fresh challenge? If so, how?
Have you ever taken a radically new direction in your work?
Any suggestion for Arthur’s next move?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. To get the rest of the Creative Blocks series delivered to your inbox, make sure you sign up for free updates from Lateral Action.