The frustrating thing about being a human is that we’re supposed to be so smart, but the sentience that separates us from animals also makes us dumb to our own desires. In a crisis situation, instead of letting our bodies respond the way they are trained to respond, we overthink. In the long game of our lives, instead of being able to hear our inner voice tell us what is important, we let our brains tell us instead what is comfortable.
This is why we do things to lose ourselves like drinking or having relationship after relationship or even just binge-watching Netflix — anything — instead of being still and listening to the uncomfortable thoughts that might surface. We avoid listening because we are afraid of what we might hear. We think we know better. We think we can do it in a way that won’t cause us to be vulnerable or unstable or in a position where we might worry about how we will make rent.
This is especially vexing for creatives, who I think are born with some kind of mission. A story to tell or a work to create or a special place of inspiration or power where they’ll be able to help other creatives. But our special talents are always at war with our egos. We don’t want to play the long game, we don’t want to toil or suffer for what is inside us. We want what our hero artists had, but we don’t want to do the lifetime of work to get there. And so we run into obstacles and we call it writer’s block.
If we want to do our best art, we need to pay attention to what we are communicating to ourselves. Our satisfaction is a language that relays this information to us — and so is our frustration. When something isn’t working, there is a reason for it. There is an opportunity to address the problem and find a way around it. There is something inside us saying “this is not the way.”
The expression is “when God closes a door, he opens a window.” But I like to rewrite it as “when creativity closes a door, it opens a window.” If you are a creative person and one specific creative project isn’t working it’s really, really important that you listen to yourself and figure out what the reason is instead of forcing something to work. A creative work you have to force will never be as good as a creative work that flows out of you. Hammering through it isn’t the way forward.
This isn’t to say that creative work isn’t work. It definitely is. It’s a lot of hours of sitting in front of a blinking cursor and writing and publishing your work and hoping that it resonates with people. It’s hustling because creative work in often not 9-5 with benefits work. It’s feeling exhausted because you’re feeling so much and putting it out there for the world to see and criticize and then feeling lonely because that’s not a feeling the people in your life probably understand.
I read something that Peyton Manning said once about how he gets paid to practice, but in his mind, he plays the games for free. I related to this as a person who also gets to do what they love for a living. The money is for all the things that are hard. It’s for writing emails and working on your website and editing and formatting what you’ve done. But it’s not for writing. Writing is the fun part.
When you feel what you call writer’s block you need to ask yourself what you’d rather be doing. What is “the fun part” for you? Maybe you only think it’s writing (or whatever creative outlet you’re currently pursuing) because that’s what other people are doing but your calling is to be a curator of artists or to mentor young writers, or to do Instagram poetry or something uniquely you that hasn’t even been invented yet. Because the world is waiting for you to do it.
When what you are trying to do feels frustrating, do something else. If you are trying to write the great American existential novel and it isn’t coming out, try poetry. If poetry doesn’t work, write about your sex life. Don’t put a judgement on what you are doing, don’t value it on what is prestigious and what people will think about it. Create what you feel like creating. It will always turn out better when you do it this way.