I have writer’s block. I haven’t written in months. I tell myself inspiration just hasn’t struck. Or is it that motivation hasn’t struck? And like the chicken and egg dilemma, which comes first? Should I just pick up my pen, put my head down, and throw words on paper anyway - something, anything? Or must I first feel like writing to actually do it?
I’ve had a topic or two in mind for quite some time, and have made honest attempts at writing, but I’ve been unable to string cohesive sentences together that are to my satisfaction. It’s not that I haven’t had ideas. They’ve just needed far more time than usual to percolate before they could make it onto a page.
Frustration set in as a result of my unsuccessful efforts to harness my creativity – creativity that had eluded me for months, lingering at bay, just out of reach. Against my will, it had pressed the pause button. My pen had run dry. My pencil had broken.
So I didn’t write. I found other things to do. Like alphabetizing my spices. And scrubbing the grout between the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush. And cleaning the attic, discarding piles of old magazines whose pages had yellowed over time, broken picture frames containing photos of people I no longer knew, and ancient Christmas decorations like the malnourished Santa sitting in his busted sleigh, Dasher and Dancer nowhere to be found. And ridding myself of twenty-two cans of dried up paint, thirty-three glass vases of every size and shape, and forty-four cracked flowerpots overrun with webs, all of which sat lonely and neglected in the corner of my basement.
Was I just distracting myself, filling my time with anything and everything but writing? Am I a master procrastinator? Filling a portion of my days with these mundane, trivial tasks clearly means I must be! Was I fooling myself, believing that sweet little lie, “I’ll get to it later?” Later never came.
No. I am not procrastinating, I reasoned. There is no intentional avoidance going on here. We only procrastinate when we feel we should be doing something, or need to be doing something, and then conveniently find an infinite number of masterful ways to put it off. But I didn’t need to write. I wanted to write. I just couldn’t write.
I then, pitifully, came to the stark realization that I simply enjoy scrubbing tiles with a toothbrush.
Ok, fine. But I still needed to solve the writer’s block riddle. Force myself to write or wait until inspiration strikes? We’re often told, “If you wait until you feel inspired to do something, you never will never do anything.” I believe this to be true in many cases. But does this, “Just do it. Start somewhere, anywhere,” theory always hold true for creative endeavors?
Professional writers would argue, paradoxically, that the best way to overcome writer’s block is to simply write. Do it even if you don’t feel like doing it. Create a ritual. Make it a habit. Carve out a specific time of day, every day to write. Give yourself a set period of time or a minimum number of words that must be written. Just get something on paper, even if it’s junk. It doesn’t have to be perfect, fancy, or final. First drafts are called first drafts for a reason.
Although I tried, that strategy didn’t work for me. Guess who’s an amateur? I’d flip open my laptop and just stare at the blank page with the cursor flashing, staring me down, daring me to write something cohesive and substantive. After what seemed like hours had passed (it was more like 10 minutes), I’d snap it shut, having written only one sentence, marginal at best, and walk away feeling discouraged. And then, by default, I’d grab the Pledge and polish the furniture.
The reason that strategy didn’t work for me is because I was just not excited. My spirit was lackluster, and forcing myself did not help. There was only the slightest flicker of a flame within, but I didn’t know how to fan it.
While I often try to consciously create an environment that is conducive to sparking inspiration, such as going for a walk, listening to music, being in nature, people watching, baking, or working in my garden, these activities don’t guarantee that it will ignite. Inspiration doesn’t always show up when we want it to. We simply must be ready and open to receive it whenever it strikes - anytime, anywhere, anyhow.
One day, having gotten inadequate sleep for three consecutive nights, my body forced me to give it a rest. It was mid-afternoon on a glorious, cloudless summer day, and I was exhausted. My eyelids were slowly drooping. I surrendered. I tried to “nap.” Something I NEVER do! It seems criminal - especially in summertime. I’m not a real napper, anyway. I am unlike those blessed folk who can close their eyes for fifteen minutes at any time of the day and wake feeling as refreshed as if they had just gotten a solid nine hours. I admit, I’m green with envy.
Lying on my bed, with a Red Sox T-shirt flung over my eyes to block the bright rays that were streaming through the window on that beautiful sunny afternoon, (guilt that will last forever, I just know it, and two hours of my life I will never get back), my mind just started wandering from place to place, zigging and zagging, as it often does when I try to grab some shut eye. Hence, three nights of inadequate sleep.
In my futile attempt to nap, as I stared at the shadows on the ceiling, I again began pondering the writing riddle. What is the real reason that I have been “speechless” for so long and how do I solve my problem? Images of chickens and eggs appeared in my mind. Which comes first? And what’s the difference?
Dr. Wayne Dyer said, "Motivation is when you get hold of an idea and carry it through to its conclusion, and inspiration is when an idea gets hold of you and carries you where you are intended to go."
Motivation is external, I thought. It is a reason to do something - a motive, an incentive, a desire, a willingness. It compels us to do, to achieve, to act. It is controllable. It is a matter of the mind.
Inspiration, on the other hand, is internal – a driving invisible force that awakens our spirit, lights our soul, and moves us to feel or create something. It can be fleeting and unpredictable. Like lightning, it can strike anytime. Unlike motivation, it cannot be controlled. It is a matter of the heart.
As I lay in bed on that hot and humid August afternoon (aren't they all?), lost in my circular thoughts, out of the blue that infamously unpredictable inspiration struck. An idea got hold of me and my spirit was moved - I would write about why I couldn’t write. Ironically, the struggle to overcome my writer’s block was the very thing that helped me to overcome it. I became inspired to write, which in turn motivated me to do so. And this essay is the result.
I rose from my bed, flipped open my laptop, and with a renewed sense of energy, I wrote - no longer threatened by that menacing, flashing cursor. Words tumbled onto the page. Not perfect, not fancy, not final. Just words. Finally, the block was lifted – at least for now – and I was oh so grateful to realize that my inkwell had not completely run dry, after all.
The chicken or the egg? Motivation or Inspiration? These riddles will forever be debatable, and I am not sure if there is a definitive, one size fits all answer to either of these questions. I am sure, however, that for me personally, in order to write creatively, inspiration must lead before motivation will follow. Only then, am I genuinely moved to pick up a pen, and be led to where I am intended to go.
I sure am glad I decided to try my hand at napping in the middle of that sunny, summer afternoon. Maybe it's not so criminal after all.