Overcoming Writer’s Block While in Quarantine

3 Strategies to Get Back on Track

I am blessed to be busy during this crazy, frightening time with my new business, JBH Personal Branding, while continuing to work on my legacy business, The Right Brain Studio. For both, in addition to working with clients, there’s the never-ending need to develop new business and to create content.

But last week I struggled with writer’s block. This is hard enough when things are relatively normal, but it can be far more difficult to overcome when we’re stuck in the house under quarantine and feel trapped to begin with.

I had several great ideas for blogs, posts and videos, but when I sat down to write on last Monday morning, I had nothing. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness, like I would never have another good idea in my life. Everything I thought of over the weekend? None of it got written down and none of it was remembered.

Now there are benefits to being stuck in your home, but home is not a good environment for me when I’m feeling stuck creatively. Snack breaks (aka nervous eating). Trips to the refrigerator. Checking in on Angela. Walking the dogs. Wasting time on the internet. You know.

Fortunately, I’ve come to understand writer’s block, so I didn’t suffer for long. I wrote this, right?

The challenge for me – and I’m sure that many of you experience the same thing – is getting “in the zone.” That’s the mental place where I am totally absorbed in what I’m doing. So absorbed, that there are very few things can get me to look up from the computer.

But how do you get there?

Obviously, for someone like me, who has written hundreds and hundreds of pages of blogs over the past decade, most of a book, lectures for my students and recommendations for my clients, the feeling that I’ve run out of ideas and have nothing to say is crazy. But feelings are powerful, and one negative thought can lead to another, and before you know it, you’re overwhelmed and your mind is spiraling out of control.

I have three strategies to deal with this. Unfortunately, none are easy to execute, but that’s the nature of writer’s block.

  1. Recognize you are stuck. You would think this would be obvious, but it’s not for me. I sit down at 8:00 AM with a clear mind and the best of intentions, a blank page just waiting for me to work my magic, and then remember I need to order dog treats online. And while I’m at it, maybe should check the news one more time to see what Trump’s done now. I become agitated, impatient, frustrated and angry. I’m not so much in the mood to write anymore, so I decide to balance my checking accounts to clear my mind. Yes, I’ll start right after this! But no! I’ve got my correct balances, so why update the Excel file with my budget projections. Wait, what time is it now? Lunch time? I better stop. Gotta eat! Again.

I’ve become better at recognizing these stalling tactics earlier and earlier. It’s kind of like eating that first M&M or potato chip. The intention is to just treat yourself with a few, but before you know it, the entire bag is gone and you’re feeling guilty, miserable and out-of-control. If you know you won’t be able to stop, whether its filling your face with junk food or finding anything in the world to do except your work, you just can’t give in.

So – lesson number one. When you sit down to write, write. Do not give in to distraction because your purpose in that moment is to work and be productive, not to goof off. Which brings me to lesson number two. You have to to keep at it, no matter how painful it might seem.

  1. Remind yourself that the feeling of “having no ideas,” powerful and overwhelming as it can be, is just a feeling. Better yet, it’s a story that I tell myself when I’m stuck.

The real problem here is not laziness or an “empty mind,” but fear. Fear of exposing what you might perceived as your own ignorance, naiveite or lack of meaningful insight. The question you’re asking yourself, consciously or unconsciously, is “what if this work stinks and demonstrates my incompetence to the world?” And that’s’ a sure sign of “imposter syndrome” something I lived with for the longest time and something that has undermined all of nearly all of us at one point or another.

A meditation teacher of mine talks about the stories we tell ourselves, the irrational narratives of failure that can be tough to shake. Here’s a favorite of mine that used to happen to me on the golf course.

I hit one into the water. Then another. My next shot flies 40 feet over the green. Uh oh, my score is skyrocketing. My round is ruined! I’m so bad at golf. I hit so many good shots on the practice tee. I can be so much better than this! Woe is me! And it’s not just golf that I’m bad at. Why did my marriage fail? Why didn’t I study more in college? Why didn’t I sublet that prime New York City apartment of mine when I moved out of town? The building went co-op and I could have made a million! Why isn’t business better? Everything I touch turns bad. I’m a failure!

I’ve worked myself into a frenzy and the golf game really goes downhill. I should be having fun, but every rotten thought I’ve ever had is now swirling around in my brain and I can’t make it stop.

My meditation practice has taught me how to stop. When this kind of thinking starts, I remember, this is just a story I tell myself. There is little objective truth to it. Think about it, recognize it for what it is, let it go, and get back in the moment. 

  1. Keep at it.

This is the toughest part of it all. Being in the moment is key, focused on the work. If I’m frustrated by a bad shot or two on the golf course, I need accept this for what it is and move on. I took two bad swings and I’ll put a triple bogie on my scorecard. So what? Even the pros can’t get through a round without hitting a few bad ones. No big deal. Breathe and get back in the moment. One shot at a time.

When I’m working or writing, that means the focus needs to be on just one page, one paragraph or even one sentence at a time. The next one will follow if you keep at it.

Creating can be scary, lonely work. It’s just you and that blank page. As I said, there’s no silver bullet here. You have to put in the work. But if you use these strategies to get in touch with your irrational fears, refocus on your task and keep at it, you will succeed.

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