writer’s block #1: sit your butt in the chair

A periodic lack of inspiration that can descend on the most experienced of writers and that results in an almost pathological inability to put pen to paper.

     ~  Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable.

Writer’s block.  The most frequent question I’m asked by writers of all levels, is how to deal with “it”.  Like “it” is a tangible thing.  A dense wall of concrete blocks that we must blast through to free our imprisoned words.  Or an insidious, malodorous force dousing us in deep shadow, like one of Tolstoy’s Dark Riders.

Ask 50 people to describe creative block and you’ll get 50 different responses.Writers Block: An Excuse

In fact, many psychologists claim there’s no such thing as creative block.

They say creative block is an excuse for not doing the work. That we’re not blocked, but lazy. Uninspired. Unmotivated.

Others say creative block is one of the simplest, yet most complex of maladies.

We’ll explore the complex in later posts.  Today I want to look at the simplest, yet often most difficult solution to writer’s block, and that is something many writers struggle with: The battle of getting one’s arse (as they say where I come from) into your chair!

Sit your butt in the chair—tie yourself there if need be—and do not get up until you’ve written something.  Anything!

For example, I couldn’t think what to write for this week’s blog post. Now, you could say I was blocked, but that would be pushing it.  Because truth be told, it’s Friday.  It’s been a long week.  I’m feeling somewhat worn out and uninspired.  I really want to goof off and go play on the beach with my dog and his buds.  And when you feel that way, it’s hard to motivate yourself.

Once I realized that lack of motivation was at the root of my reluctance to write, I followed my own advice. I sat my butt in the chair and said out loud:  “Bibi, you’re going nowhere until something’s on that blankety-bleep computer screen,”  i.e. this post!

Here’s how it got there.

writers-block-motivational-poster1I place my hands on the keyboard. Stare at my laptop screen. Stare at the big screen to the right, linked in to my laptop.  Stare through the window and over the water. 

I close my eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. Say Namaste in my head. Open my eyes and … nothing.

I give my dog a rawhide chew. Kiss him on the nose. Tell him to roll over; tickle his tummy. I twizzle my chair 360 degrees. Put my bare feet up on the desk. Decide I like the color of my toe polish—Sassy Missy. Lean back. Scan my bookshelves. Wonder if I should cut my hair. Nothing.Writers Block Mug

I shuffle forward and sip my cooling latte. Wish I’d bought a slice of lemon cake. What’s that grinding noise outside? Should I investigate?  I can’t … I’m not allowed to leave my chair.

I twizzle my chair to face the other side of the room. Smile at a photo of my baby niece, Alicia. Sigh … she’s gorgeous!

Sigh … I’m pathetic.

Really?  You have no ideas? Call yourself a writer? 

Maybe I can call it a day … I’ve been writing all week, my fingers ache, my shoulders are hunched, I’m not in the mood. Sun’s shining, might be raining tomorrow …

Oh … someone knocks on the door. But I’m not supposed to get up. Probably handing out pizza coupons or selling a fantasy; I ignore them. Twizzle to face my laptop. They knock louder. Determined. Maybe it’s important.

I leave my chair, walk down the hallway, peep through the spy hole. Mormons. Or maybe Jehovah’s?  Whoever they are, I don’t need what they’re selling; I open the door a crack, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I walk through the kitchen, pause at the fridge. Maybe I should eat something. Make a cup of coffee? Maybe I should make a sign and hang it on the door “Do Not Disturb! Writer at Work.”

Oh no you don’t.  Back to your chair.

I sit. Close my eyes. Place my hands on the keyboard. Run my fingers over familiar keys, imitating a dickenspiano-playing virtuoso.

I start typing. Words.  Meaningless. Misspelled. Random. Just words.  A phrase.  Another. 

Stuck. Stuckness. Writer’s block. BLAH! Unblocking writer’s block … simple. Complex. Motivation … movement … leads to action. Move. Moved. Stirred. Action.

Of  course!  And here we go … heading for the zone …

Now I’m in flow.

There’s sound logic behind the simple movement of making yourself “sit your butt in the chair”.  Firstly, if you sit there long enough, you’ll get bored enough to start writingyou won’t care that you’re not writing the next great masterpiece, at least you’re writing.  Secondly, when you look at the Latin root for the word motivation, this is how it translates.

Latin “motiva”  means motion, movement, moved, stirred;  “actio / actionis” means act, action, activity. So if you want to get motivated, start moving until you are physiologically and psychologically stirred into action: Movement + action => motivation.

How do you motivate yourself when you’d rather be anywhere than sitting in your chair writing?  How do you make yourself jumpstart creative flow?

still doing that brain surgery thing?

I rarely need to purchase books these days—one of the delicious perks of being a radio host. But I still embrace the meditative state of browsing bookstore shelves, trailing my fingers along the neatly aligned spines of multicolored book jackets, hoping to discover a new treasure, a new author, a new idea, a book written just for me.

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. I pick it up, glance at front and back covers. I let the book fall open to the page of its choice. I start reading. I look for a chair and read some more. I read as I wait in line to pay for the book. And when I get home, I lean against the kitchen counter and read as the electric kettle heats up.

I pour boiling water into my ‘special moments’ teapot, stirring lemon and ginger tealeaves, and leave them to steep while I curl up on the sofa to get lost in the mind of this exquisite writer.

Hours later, I Tweet Dani Shapiro and tell her Still Writing just made it to my ‘favorites’ bookshelf.  I invite her on the show and we exchange PR connections.  Booking confirmed, show notes prepared, here’s a little of our conversation.


Dani Shapiro, Author of Still Writing

Vicki: It’s an interesting title, Dani. I thought, “Why Still Writing?” Then of course, when I got to the end of the book I realized why you called it Still Writing. Let’s start there.

You have a friend, a sculptor whose name is Mark. People always go up to him and say, “Are you still doing that sculpting thing?”  You hear the same thing. “Are you still writing?”

Dani: Exactly. I remember the time that Mark came up to me, it was at a party in Connecticut where we both live. This is a guy who he’s 6’5”. He’s this strapping guy who works in enormous hunks of marble and granite. His work is in museums and the best art collections all over the world and on the campuses of great universities.

Somebody came up to him at this party and said, “Are you still doing that sculpture thing?” He came up to me sort of befuddled, crest fallen, that feeling of, “Really? Are you really asking if this is what I do with my life?”

There have been so many times I’ve been asked that. No matter how many books I’ve written, no matter what I’ve “achieved” as a writer or an artist in my life, I’m always asked, “Are you still writing?”

So many times I’ve wanted to respond “Yes! Are you still doing that brain surgery thing? Is that still working out for you?”

When I realized I wanted to do this book, the title was so clear to me.  I remember the moment it came to me.

There’s also the double entendre, which is the stillness required to do this work that we do … it’s very real. You can’t do it in a frenetic and noisy environment. There needs to be a quiet and solitude.

Vicki: Do you think it’s because it’s creative that people think it’s not sustainable, it’s not real work? As you say in the book, when is enough, enough? What do I have to do to prove myself?

Dani: It’s funny, because I’ve actually taken an informal poll of some of my very successful friends in various creative fields. My husband is a filmmaker and he just made a film with an actress who has been around a long time and has won Tony Awards and been nominated for Emmys and all sorts of stuff, practically a household name and I said to her, “Does anybody ever say to you, ‘Are you still acting?’” She just laughed and said, “All the time.”

I think the person asking it means no ill will, no harm. I think it comes from the feeling of … what can it possibly be to sit down on a daily basis try to make something out of nothing? It sort of flies in the face of the way that most people spend their daily lives. Yet for anyone who creates, for artists and writers, it’s the only thing we can do.

Vicki: I could relate to this book on so many levels. I love that you call it a companion to writers. It’s not easy. People joke all the time, “It’s okay for you guys in your PJs all day.” I certainly don’t work in my PJs even though I work from my own studio, but it’s not always easy to get yourself sat down in that chair. There is no real pressure on you unless you have a looming deadline. You talk about this a lot in the book.

Dani: Right, there is so much to distract … the longest walk of my day is from the cappuccino maker in my kitchen to my desk.

Vicki: I know Monday mornings are particularly difficult for you so I appreciate you being with us today.

Dani: Mondays are brutal. I’ve always kept very regular hours as a writer. It’s whatever works for you. Some writers can write in the middle of the night or don’t keep regular hours at all. Some work 7 days a week. I have always, from the very beginning of my writer’s life, worked Monday through Friday, when the rest of the world is working. I think it’s been my hedge against feeling too solitary or out of step or lonely.

That feeling of having to crack the code of this thing in your head … how to articulate it on the page. How to take this chaos, this longing and this vision, these bits and pieces, and create something that has coherence and integrity on the page. It’s so challenging to get your butt into the chair. Someone once said, “It’s not the writing [that’s hard]. It’s the sitting down to write.”

Much of what I really wanted to explore in the book is the way that I think so many of us get in our own way.

Often, some of my worst writing days are the ones that start out completely free of any other distractions or disturbances. Full day open to me, empty house, quiet, phone’s not ringing, no appointment, everything is just as it should be. Sometimes the pressure of that is just too much.

If left with nothing else getting in the way between me and my work, I can get between me and my work. I think that’s true of so many of us. It’s a struggle.

Vicki: I agree and it’s nice to know we’re not alone. I love that you have a sense of humor about this. In the introduction you wrote that a high school student had asked if he could come and observe you because he was interested in becoming a writer. You wrote, “Observe me? I had to decline. I couldn’t imagine what the poor student would think watching me sit, then stand. Sit again. Decide I needed more coffee. Go downstairs and make the coffee. Go back upstairs and sit again. Get up. Comb my hair. Sit again.” I thought, “Yeah, I can definitely relate to that sometimes.”

*2013 Interview excerpt with writer Dani Shapiro. Edited for clarity, length, and readability. Conversations LIVE with Vicki St. Clair.  

the power of and

This year is all about integration.  For too long, I felt it necessary to compartmentalize the professional roles in my everyday working life.

It began around 19 years ago when I adopted a pseudonym, knowing full well that certain banker-beings would not appreciate one of their leaders writing sex columns for a Cosmo-like magazine.  Monday through Friday I continued as ‘Ms. Banker’.  Saturday through Sunday I became ‘Ms. Freelance Writer’.

Three years later, I quit banking, moved to Seattle to write fulltime, and landed several assignments including newspaper feature writer, school district newsletter writer, media company scriptwriter, PR blurber, book editor, publications editor-in-chief, and communications consultant for a major software company.

Again—or so I believed—the corporate world wouldn’t take kindly to my dalliances in the commercial world, and the editorial world wouldn’t approve of me spinning phrases for the PR world. So I kept my roles separate. I compartmentalized.

In hindsight, I think I was I wrong to do that for so long. bb_andOn many levels it helped me stay organized and productive, but it also prevented me from claiming all of who I am, and could be. I didn’t want to play one role in the morning, and a separate role in the afternoon.

Did it have to be either / or?  Couldn’t it be ‘and’?

I decided it could. Work, home, family, friends, play, love. It’s all life.

When we’re ready to hear the message, they say it will come…and on a soggy grey Monday, it landed on my desk in the form of David Howitt’s book “Heed Your Call: Integrating Myth, Science, Spirituality, and Business.”

Here’s an excerpt from my radio conversation with David on the power of ‘and’— and The Hero’s Journey.* 

Vicki:  I read in the book that you like your green smoothies in the morning AND you like your tequila at night. It doesn’t have to be an either / or situation.

David: Right. That point was used to demonstrate the concept of the power of and. What I’m trying to say in Heed Your Call, is we can have one foot in the world of purpose and meaning, empathy, intuition, perhaps a spiritual practice and another foot in the camp of commerce. My life, my experience, and what I’ve written about in Heed Your Call tries to create a bridge between the two. When you embrace ‘and’, when you live from a place of “I set my alarm clock, I balance my checkbook, I go into the office, I get it done every day, AND I tap into my intuition, my empathy and ability to understand those around me, and my creative, more artistic side” that’s really where the magic happens.

Vicki: You follow the spirit of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Tell us what his work has meant to you and how you’ve carried that forward into your work.

David: I read one of Joseph Campbell’s seminal works in college, The Hero With 1,000 Faces. At the time I thought, “Wow. What a cool book.” There was something interesting about this concept. It wasn’t until the last five years that it started to really come back into my consciousness. I went back and reread the book.

As many of your listeners probably know, Joseph Campbell was the foremost authority on mythology. His thesis was that myths are something more than great stories. They’re more than just a collection of really neat fun-to-read stories. They [portray] the tough issues, the challenges we all face, the questions we all ponder contextualized in story and in archetypes.

His point was we can use mythology as a guide, as a roadmap to help us navigate life. In telling us this, Campbell pointed to one myth in particular that has been central to all time, all geography, all spiritual practices, all religions. If you stop and think about that, that’s pretty powerful. You can be Inuit, Eskimo, an aboriginal Australian, and you would have this myth in your culture.

That myth, The Hero’s Journey, always follows a very formulaic trajectory. That trajectory in myth is the basis for movies like Star Wars, Avatar, The Wizard of Oz … most of the great movies, books, and stories.

There is an interesting YouTube video where George Lucas sits with Joseph Campbell and says, “Hey, the reason Star Wars did what it did in the world wasn’t because of the acting or animation. It was because I told the Hero’s Journey. It tapped into the collective in a major way.”

In writing Heed Your Call and the work I’ve done in my firm, the Meriwether Group … we took the Hero’s Journey, that trajectory, and overlaid it against the life of the entrepreneur or businessman.

Vicki: How this has impacted your business, your life.

David: I don’t want to sound overly dramatic but it has affected my business and my life in really profound ways. Firstly, understanding and embracing this notion of the power of ‘and’… that I don’t have to make a choice between being successful or having an authentic, purposeful life. They can actually live together. They can co-exist and actually support one another.

The Hero’s Journey, helps me look at my life and where I am, and say, “Am I stuck in the known world? Am I now in the abyss? Am I on my path of transformation, or am I reaching my defining moment?”

I want your listeners to really hear: I am a business person. I enjoy commerce. I’ve had great fortune starting, running, growing companies, working for large brands, AND I want to have a life with a lot of meaning and purpose. This is not just woo-woo theory. This is stuff that we drive into our business practices every day with real world results.

Vicki: You had your first awareness of being on a Hero’s Journey after spending 20 years of your life preparing to become an attorney. You get this job. You’re an attorney down in Portland, Oregon. Thinking what?

David: What I want to say is, I am no different to anyone else. We are all born into our own individual, what I call, known worlds. For me, I was born into my known world, which was a culturally Jewish home in an upper middle class conservative Midwestern town. In my life it was known that you would become a lawyer or a doctor or an executive. That’s the path I bought into. I went forward from my known world accepting that as my path, as my purpose—or as the Buddha would say, my dharma. I excelled. I did well in school. I went on to college; took all the classes I was supposed to take. I did the internships. I built the resume. I got into law school. I did well. I ended up with what I thought would be my defining moment. I got a job at a prestigious law firm, the big oak desk, the assistant, the business cards.  Suddenly I realized I was miserable. It was shocking. I looked up and thought, “Wait a minute. My life has been in service to someone else’s ideals of what and who I should be.” This feels really wrong. I have anxiety. My stomach hurts. I’m not sleeping well. It feels wrong in my throat, in my heart. Is this what life is? Am I just going to mail it in and do this, and suffer through? Is this what life is?

Vicki: As many people feel.

David: As many, many people feel. A lot of us find ourselves at that place in our lives. Maybe we’re saying, “I’ve got the job. I’ve got the spouse, the family, the home, the cars…the things everyone told me were going to make me happy. Why is it I still feel disconnected, sad, lonely? Why do I have to reach for my iPhone every 5 minutes to distract myself from the feeling that wells up inside myself?”

A lot of us spend an incredible amount of energy trying to quiet that voice inside of us that says there’s something more…there is something different where you can be aligned with your heroic purpose, with your dharma. We’re scared by that.

For me, I had reached a point in my path where it was just untenable not to listen to that voice anymore. I finally said, “I’m going to surrender and let go. Yes, I may really disappoint my family. I may let down the college professors and law school professors who wrote me letters of recommendation. I may disappoint my hometown community.” All those things ego was screaming at me. It no longer was tenable. I let go. When I let go, my life finally actually started to really become. Surprisingly, all those people I thought I was letting down simply said, “Good for you. That’s awesome. Great for you for getting in alignment with your happiness.”

*2014 Interview excerpt with David Howitt edited for clarity, length, and readability. Conversations LIVE with Vicki St. Clair.