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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.
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July 29, 2015

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 gatsbyinLA.wordpress.com.

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