The mystery of creative blocks

My client has set aside savings from his side business so that he can finally clear his schedule and finish that screenplay he started last year; he has two beautiful, free months just to write. After creating a long-term plan, we sit down to draw up a daily schedule. I ask him how much time per day he plans to spend writing. 

“Half an hour,” he says.

I look at him, taken aback. Half an hour? When his entire schedule is otherwise clear? Maybe I’m understanding him incorrectly; maybe he means to do half-hour intervals like a sprinter, with 10-minute breaks? After all, studies show that bursts of intense concentration followed by periods of rest offer the best means of sustaining productive work. 

But no, my client clarifies: He really does mean to write for only a half an hour a day. Because my job as a life coach is to support, not to judge or advise, I draw those half-hour boxes on every day of his schedule, where they look hopeful in all that empty space. And tiny.

Another client has a far more strenuous and detailed plan for the way she’s going to approach finishing her novel; we write a long to-do list full of all the things she needs to accomplish. The next week, she returns and has done only a fraction of what she’d planned. 

These clients are composites, but as I finish my first year of coaching, they represent a subset of the clients I see: creative, talented, highly intelligent people who are generally highly functional. They have jobs; they have friends; they are otherwise quite happy. 

Except in one way: They want to write or record an album or complete a series of paintings. They have a plan to do it. And they simply cannot do it. 

It’s as if an invisible force has power over them, a force so powerful at times that if I were a superstitious person, I actually would believe there was some kind of invisible demon at play here, one with an inexplicable hatred of the arts, committed to blocking creative accomplishment with the unilateral fixation of the Grinch blocking Christmas.

But as a citizen of the 21st century, I don’t believe in demons, so instead, I conceive of the issue as a kind of cognitive knot, with warring parts of the mind locked down in their trenches — the imaginative mind longing to get out, the fearful mind standing with guns drawn, ready to shoot down any idea foolish enough to come racing out. The common phrase used to describe this condition is “writer’s block,” but the word “block” sounds too neutral to me, like traffic cones set in a street. 

What I believe I’m seeing in my clients is more along the lines of a phobia, an irrational fear or aversion to something, in this case, the creative process (not of work itself, because my clients often juggle multiple jobs and work long hours to pay the bills). But most other phobias involve situations that a person encounters and tries to avoid, like centipedes or airplanes or, in some cases, social situations. 

The phobia my clients experience, on the other hand, of sitting down to do creative work, is entirely self-induced. My client’s novel-writing process, for example, is not going to dart out at her from under a rock. Her task of writing a novel is entirely optional; in fact, part of her problem may be the nagging suspicion that in the scheme of things, as a matter of the survival of the species, her novel might be entirely unnecessary. It’s as if I, with my pathological fear of spiders, also had an overwhelming personal need to hang out with spiders all day long — spiders that were created by me.

It’s as if my clients’ real phobia is of encountering their deepest selves. And who wouldn’t be terrified? Shouldn’t we all be, really?

The more I do this work, the more I am moved by the courage it takes to create art of any kind. It is the courage to believe that your deepest self, in all its mess and dreams and darkness and memories, might actually, if you could give it shape, have astonishing beauty. The courage is born from a longing to connect and make others feel connected, to make people laugh or sing or see a vision they can never forget.

My clients move slowly but steadily. Sometimes, surprising even themselves, they make enormous, startling leaps forward. Half an hour a day may sound tiny, but it also can be a powerful stand, a statement of belief every day that your life might matter. 

Ellie Herman is a writer, teacher and life coach.  She blogs at

Leave the house

There’s nothing more smug and insidious than a girl who has finally fallen in love and thinks she now has all the answers. She can save you from your sad, pathetic, damaged love life and cure you of your nasty man-repellant habits. No matter what condescending tip she’s giving you, it always drips with the self-satisfied knowledge that the spinster bullet she so artfully dodged is headed straight for you.

I hate that girl.

I can’t turn into her, and maybe that’s why I haven’t written for the past nine months, since I met and fell in love with the first man I’ve ever been sure about. When it finally happened, it felt much more like dumb luck than brilliant man maneuvering. More dice than poker. I can’t be gloating all the way to the altar because the fact is, I’m just a girl who left the house one Saturday night to have dinner with her girlfriends, saw a cute guy across the room and hit the jackpot.

The only magical insight I can share with you has to do with the leaving the house part. Even Eli Manning can’t throw a touchdown if he doesn’t break out of the huddle. That’s really all I can tell you for sure.

There’s always been a special place in my grudge greenhouse for those who peddle the idea that finding love is a skill that can be graphed, taught and sold. Books about love seem like a whole lot of mess to me, written largely by groovy grifters.

Take for example author John Gray — you know, the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” guy? The guy who has sold more than 30 million books doling out relationship advice? Well, he married fellow self-help writer Barbara De Angelis, who penned “Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know.”

Between the two of them, you have to imagine this was the most blissful, evolved marriage ever. Too bad they’re divorced. Yet somehow, both still hawk their wares. A special hats off to Gray for combining two brilliant swindles in his latest work, “The Mars & Venus Diet & Exercise Solution.” I couldn’t make up tripe like that.

So, when I ask myself how I finally stopped screwing up my love life, the only answer that comes to mind is the same one famously used by one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters to explain how he went bankrupt: “Two ways, first gradually then suddenly.”

The gradual part was the usual therapy in Tarzana with a nice lady who lets me joke about the therapist next door, Dr. Harsher. Seriously, that’s his name. The suddenly part was meeting a guy who is so boundlessly good-natured and patient that he makes me want to bake him cakes and write syrupy e-mails. For the most part, I stopped being a subpar girlfriend and self-involved jerk, first gradually then suddenly.

In any case, I could have had all of the personal epiphanies in the world and still turned up snake eyes. Some of the most together people I know are alone, and some of the real doozies are paired up. It really does come down mainly to luck. Luck and leaving the house.

Aside from being self-conscious that I would come across unctuous and all-knowing about falling in love, there’s another reason that for the first time in 10 years I haven’t written a darn thing.

I’m … happy? And happy people can be a bit dull, or at least that’s the notion that’s been dogging me. I introduced this concept out in Tarzana.

My Therapist: “Not all happy people are boring.”

Me: “Name one happy person who isn’t boring.”

My Therapist: “The Dalai Lama.”

Me: “Really? Have you read ‘The Art of Happiness?'”

My Therapist: “You got me there.”

Perhaps she should have suggested I set up a session with Dr. Harsher.

Since falling in love and losing what I perceive to be my “edge,” I sometimes worry about being one quaint, self-deprecating tale away from being Erma Bombeck, and I loved Erma, but you know what I mean.

Oddly enough, the answer came from a co-worker. He told me that I was so deeply troubled that even if one part of my life was gelling, the nuttiness runs deep. He said I was like Mike Tyson, I wouldn’t run out of crazy. And that was comforting, and the fact that it was a salve proved it true. I’ve got a backup generator of crazy in case the mishegoss goes out.

So, hopefully, despite the fact that I’m not suffocatingly lonely or in a relationship laced with toxic levels of resentment, I still have a fertile patch of pain from which insights can grow, like that brilliant one I had earlier about leaving the house. What a relief.

Teresa Strasser is co-host of “The Adam Carolla Show,” on KLSX-FM. Three days after writing this column, she got engaged. She is very happy — hopefully, not too happy. Her book, “101 Ways to Win a Coin Toss,” will be out this fall.