It’s been a quiet year on the blogging front for me in 2017. Most of my writing efforts have gone into breaking through a pretty stubborn bout of writers’ block. How I overcame it also has strong parallels with life’s roadblocks.
Losing Motivation and Other People
Writing is a strange process. It requires hours of solitary confinement, a period of collaboration and compromise and then a period of handing over the finished project to fate, or a fate worse than death – other people who ‘play the numbers game’ and treat your creative efforts as numbers on a spreadsheet. The whole project becomes a team effort without shared accountability. Ultimately, even if as an author you do everything for the book, by the book, if anyone in the team doesn’t do their bit the book can sink without. An important lesson I learned was that no matter who screws up, the buck always stops with me. This led to a pretty compelling sense of ‘what’s the point?’ My spirit to write was strong, but the motivation was weak, and the flesh ‘couldn’t be bothered’. It was probably what positive psychologists term learned helplessness. When you come to the point that you lose all sense of agency, then you stop trying. (You’ll probably get a strong sense that I’m choosing my words carefully here). So what did I do?
I got to the point where not writing something was not an option. So, I figured that writing about something I know a lot about would help overcome the block. I chose to revisit the subject of gender. On paper, it seemed like a good idea. And indeed it started well. However, I hadn’t quite taken stock of how much the subject of gender had moved on. It’s in a state of flux with everyone ‘jockeying’ for ascendancy. It’s said that sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better. It’s precisely what happened. I spend too much time in online chat forums where the self-appointed guardians of gender terminology expend a lot of energy chastising the ‘less-informed’. I’ve read of people getting death threats for not hitting the space bar! The writer’s block grew markedly worse. I became fixated on how each word and sentence might be interpreted and taken out of context until I sat, day after day, staring at a blank screen. Eventually, I got to the point where I realized that no matter what I write, someone, somewhere will disagree with it. I just had to refocus on my goal. This was to write a book called The Psychology of Gender aimed at an audience who wanted something between self-help and academia.
Routine and Perception
Over the years I had developed a predictable writing routine, but it had begun to fail me. It took longer and longer to get started, and the results of each session were meagre, that is, if I managed to write anything at all. So in response, I changed everything. I abandoned my office and occupied space in a local café. Instead of my habitual 3pm to 9pm slot, I switched it for 7.30 am to 1.30pm. I’d always thought of myself as an afternoon person and transformed into an enthusiastic morning person. Perhaps ‘enthusiastic’ is a bit of a stretch. In finding the right café, I ‘auditioned’ quite a few. The one I settled on was 1.3 miles from my home, and I think the early morning walk also helped to get ideas flowing.
People have asked me about the distractions writing in public spaces compared with my home office. Well, it balances out. At home, I have access to an endless supply of tea and coffee and usually take full advantage of it. At a café, there is, in theory, an endless supply of tea and coffee but I think twice having one every fifteen minutes, as I would do at home. There is also only so much I can carry with me, so I tend to think about which books I am going to need, rather than having everything at my fingertips. At a café, there are no sofas to lie on, no CD collections to flick through, no musical instruments to noodle about on. To pass the time in a café, I work. Although there is background music I usually listen to my own playlists through earphones. I found that when the music stopped, I continued working with the headphones on. This has now become a way to mute distractions. I work with the headphones in and the music off. It seems to help me to concentrate. It also signals to other people that I am busy, well, at least that’s the theory. Sat in my usual spot one day, I was typing on my laptop; I was wearing my reading glasses, I had headphones on, with books and journal articles on the table. Out of the corner of my eye, a stranger mouthed something to me, I looked up, took off my headphones, and he said ‘Are you busy?’ No these are my new earrings, I thought but didn’t say anything. I just politely affirmed that I was and took a moment to have a little chat. Just because I’m busy doesn’t mean I can’t be human. It turns out the stranger was a retired publisher.
Finding Your Process In Writing and In Life
Finding a writing process and finding a way to manage life is not so very different. Both evolve. Things that once worked might cease to work. Although there are constants, flexibility is the key. Alvin Toffler in Future Shock argued that a defining capacity of human beings is our ability to learn, un-learn and re-learn. We often need to renegotiate our processes and adapt, both to changing circumstances and to our ourselves as lifelong learners. At the same time, we need to keep focusing on our own goals and values at any given time. We night have core values that never change. These are our terminal values, the endpoints. Alongside these are our instrumental values that might change. These are the values that get us to the endpoints. Also, it helps to adopt the three attitudes that comprise psychological hardiness. These are a commitment (to other people and the world), emphasize control rather than powerlessness, and focusing on challenge (rather than security). All three of these attitudes are evident in the way I ‘mixed things up’.