Overcome a startling block: When your writing flows
Your fingers play the keyboard like a concert pianist, your pens run dry with astounding speed, your pages pile up like gold. “Wow,” you think, “this is how it should be! I’m gonna go all night!”
But then, faster than a form rejection, more powerful than an editor’s frown, able to freeze your brain in a single flash, a horrible thought zaps you: I can’t stand it anymore!
What! Why? A strange reason: Your writing’s going just too well.
A Strange Breed of Block
When we’re blocked in ways we’re all familiar with, the reasons are pretty clear—our procrastination, fear, infinitesimal progress, search for the ever-elusive perfect word, and the unshakable suspicion that, despite all our sweat, what we’ve written is still no good. But why, in heaven’s name, can’t we stand it when our words are surging?
The answers aren’t easy. For one thing, the more we write, finding our voice and feeling our oats, the more this paradox can strike, and its irrationality throws us. For another, the emotion itself is hard to pin down. In a “normal” block, we recognize depression, frustration, anger, anxiety, or angst. But what’s going on when the work is going well?
When I diligently searched the Internet writing sites and others, I found nothing about this unusual experience. Is it possible writers don’t experience it often enough to blog about it? Or that we don’t want to jinx it by writing about it when it does happen?
Seeking answers, I’ve observed myself. When I’m flying along, my thoughts and words meld in that delicious can-say-no-wrong rhythm. I love it, savor it, float, and bask.
After a while, though, I’m impelled to get up. Suddenly restless, I pace back and forth, look out the window, stretch, and run in place for thirty seconds. My stomach feels unsettled. I hit the half-gallon of ice cream.
The feelings settle into an unsavory brew of nervousness, sweating, and elation. My thoughts run wild: “It’s too good to be true.” “I can’t stand such pleasure.” “It can’t last.”
A few other writers were willing to talk about this phenomenon. They share puzzling cocktail of anxiety, excitement, panic, and exhilaration. One writer admitted, “When my writing flows, I shake all over.” Another said, “I avoid it because it’s too delicious.” Another confessed, “When I’m stuck, I get depressed, and that I can handle. But when my creativity explodes, I get nervous, itchy, elated, giggly, and panicky, all at once. And I head for the chips, or booze.” Another, like me, said he can’t stop these words: “It won’t last.” And, obediently self-fulfilling, it doesn’t.
In explanation, psychologist and writing therapist Rachel Ballon (2007) explains in The Writer’s Portable Therapist: “You may get so overwhelmed by the burst of creativity that you respond the same way that you do to frustration—by turning to a substance or activity that calms you down and relaxes you from your excitement” (p. 207).
Our Upper Limit
Another cogent explanation for our reactions is offered by personal growth specialist Gay Hendricks (2009) in The Big Leap. We all have boundaries of joy, like of pain. Each of us, Hendricks says, has “an inner thermostat that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy” (p. 20).
Hendricks admits with candor that he discovered his own “Upper-Limit Problem” (p. 1) early in his career. His work as a research psychologist at a well-known university was going well. “I felt great. A few seconds later, though, I found myself worrying about my daughter, who was away from home on a summer program” (pp. 4-5). After assuring himself she was all right, he wondered why he had gone from feeling so good to feeling so anxious. His realization applies to us all:
I manufactured the stream of painful images because I was feeling good!
. . . The thoughts I manufactured were guaranteed to make me return to a state I was more familiar with: not feeling so good. (p. 5)
And so with our writing. When we bump up against our upper limits of joy or exhilaration that it’s going so well, often unconsciously we activate ways to shut down. We scrub the oven or recopy a hardware store list. Or we look at our current piece and let our Inner Critic rage. “I can’t get through all these chapters. There’s so much more to go!” “This article is so bad I should stop now.” “I’ll never get it published.”
Why We Can’t Stand It
When pain gets too much, we know what to do to remedy it—visit a friend or professional, schedule an operation, swallow a pill, practice meditation. But when the joy gets too much, we also activate mechanisms to “remedy” it, reduce it, or shut it down. Following Ballon and Hendricks, we worry, perform unnecessary to-dos, overeat, oversleep, overgossip, and overtext.
Shutting off our joy, though, has damaging effects. Julia Cameron (1992) in The Artist’s Way cautions us: “When we put a stopper on our capacity for joy by anorectically declining the small gifts of life”—like our writing flow—“we turn aside the larger gifts as well” (p. 110).
To show us how pervasive and goal-destroying denial of joy can be, Cameron cites eight horrific examples of writers, actors, painters, songwriters, and photographers who couldn’t stand the pleasure and torpedoed fantastic professional opportunities. In one example, she tells of a screenwriter who, after submitting a long-labored script, was offered representation by an agent, a major goal of most writers. The agent asked for only a few changes, but the writer never made them—and lost the agent.
A (blushing) personal example: For a long time, I’d sent queries and articles to a writer’s magazine I craved to get into, with no success. When a piece was finally accepted, I didn’t return the agreement for a year!
To stretch our tolerance, Cameron recommends giving ourselves joys we’ve denied and branded as too luxurious, even starting small. For her creative people, these were “expensive” raspberries, music albums, a set of watercolors. Some of mine are browsing in a large housewares store, a new writers’ craft ebook, a day in the forest (no electronics), a long nap.
Combat the Surprise
We need to recognize our bewildering reactions first, and then learn to tolerate and accept them. Most wished of all, we need to extend our upper limit of joy about our effortless production so it becomes natural, a part of us, and fosters our writing goals. It takes mental discipline and often physical effort to extend our borders for the good.
From other writers’ antidotes and my own, I’ve developed a few techniques to combat that crushing upper limit when I feel myself shutting down because my writing is taking off.
First, I promise myself to keep writing. Second, I do one or more of the ten things listed below. Try a few.
Shake Up Your Body
1) Get up. Get out of your chair and away from your desk. Run in place. Do ten situps or twenty squats. Jump up and down ten times. If you have an indoor exercise machine, use it. Take a walk—around the room, the house, the block.
2) Put on your favorite upbeat music and dance for twelve minutes.
3) Do one household task: Clean the bathroom sink, take out the garbage, windex the mirrors. Water the plants, pet your pet. Pet the plants, water your pet.
4) Cook. Make something that can be completed quickly (like sautéed vegetables or scrambled eggs) or something that needs little attention after initial assembly (like soup or spaghetti sauce).
5) Run out to the local office supply store and buy one writing supply. Choose something you don’t need and may costs too much, and that you’ve always yearned for and haven’t allowed yourself. (You know exactly what it is.)
Shake Up Your Mind and Feelings
6) Feel all those fear-anxiety-panic-terror feelings. Acknowledge them. You
won’t get destroyed or punished, the other shoe won’t drop, your inspiration and creativity won’t run dry.
7) Grab a piece of paper and a pen and, right now, pour out your feelings and
thoughts. No censoring. Just scribble.
8) Identify whose “voice” is scolding that you don’t deserve this exhilaration and
Experiencing what gives you the greatest pleasure. Like gloves made of glue, that voice grabs at you to conform, to be what it wants you to or thinks you should be. Whose choice is it? Whose life? You have the strength to shake off that old voice.
9) Remember the wise words of the great philosopher Dr. Seuss: “Be who you
are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” And repeat this chaser from life coach and guru Tama Kieves: “I allow myself to be uncorked, unabashed, and showered with delicious good in every facet of my life.”
10) Every facet includes your writing. So take a deep breath. Open your arms
wide. Shout out loud: “I can stand this. It’s not too good to be true. I’ve dreamed and worked all my life for this.” And every time the anxiety and panic demons hover and threaten, repeat this single self-booster, I deserve joy in my writing!
With these methods, you’ll soar above your previous boundaries and allow your writing not only to go well but fabulously, as it should. Like a writing rocket, you’ll shoot right through your upper limits into the expanse of your joy. And, faster than a fifteen-minute break, you’ll be back at work and rarin’ to go all night.
Ballon, R. (2007). The writer’s portable therapist: 25 sessions to a creativity cure. Adams Media.
Cameron, J. (1992). The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. Tarcher/Penguin.
Hendricks, G. (2009). The big leap: conquer your hidden fear and take life to the next level. HarperCollins.
© 2021 Noelle Sterne
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s new book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Now available as a print and eBook.
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com