Creative Blocks and Scanner Moments

I commented on Twitter late last week that I have probably a month’s worth of half-finished posts written (or, at least, titles jotted down) for Sententia. The problem is, of course, that they’re not nearly ready for prime time, which means that blog content languishes.

Some of those drafts are mere fragments of ideas, others are posts that I’m sure I could sit down and knock out, and still others started off strong but never moved beyond that point. I’ve hit my block in the road, but when faced with a blank page, couldn’t get beyond the first few thoughts.  In other words… writer’s block.

When I look back at all those post drafts, a fair amount of it is actually pretty terrible (lucky you that I never posted any of it!), in that the writing just never came together. But some of it’s quite good — a good idea, pretty clearly written, just not finished. But that doesn’t explain why I’ve hit this block, or what to do about it!

Creative Blocks

When I look those “terrible” drafts, I can remember the experience of writing them — and for a large proportion of them, I remember it felt like pulling teeth. I had ideas that I wanted to express, but couldn’t find the words to do so.

It’s like a painter who can see a beautiful picture in their minds eye but is frozen by a blank canvas, or a musician who hears fragments of a tune in their head but can’t pull it together into a meaningful melody.

The experience is a pretty common one for most of us: we get to a certain point, and then *boom*. We hit a wall, our perfectionism clicks in, and all of a sudden, we’re facing a creative block.

For some people, this creative block completely prevents them from getting started. That great idea vanishes when you’re faced with a blank page. For others, you’ll get all fired up about an idea, maybe even get part-way in, but then all of a sudden, you find yourself stuck.

The natural response when you creative blocks is to get frustrated. “Why can’t I get this ou! It’s on the tip of my tongue, it’s a great idea, but everything I write just sounds wrong!”

Beating Back the Creative Blocks

The most common advice for overcoming a creative block is to just persist. Keep on going, and eventually, you’ll find work through that blockage and find your voice again. For writers, it’s “write a terrible first draft; you can rewrite or edit it later.” For artists, it’s “just start sketching and see what comes out.” For musicians, it’s “focus on the music, let the notes come as they will.”

That’s good advice, and very often, it works. But not always. That advice works if you’re having momentum problems. It’s hard to get started and get into flow. But if you just jump in, you’ll get into flow soon enough.

But beyond the common momentum problem, there are other factors that can come into play as well:

High Expectations - Are you expecting too much of yourself? When I write, I do this all the time. I want my first draft to be a perfect expression of what I’m trying to say. 

Overcoming High Expectations: Realizing that not every project has to be totally perfect is easier said than done. All of us have a perfectionist streak in us, so the key is to make it work to our advantage rather than holding us back. Ask yourself, “How perfect does this have to be? Is this a project that requires 100% perfection, or maybe only 50%? 20%?” 

Distractions – The single-biggest flow killer is external distractions. If it’s lunch break and you’re trying to create, you won’t get into flow if your cubicle neighbor’s phone is ringing off the hook.

Overcoming Distractions: I find myself more distracted when I’m trying to get my creative work done ‘whenever I can’. Whenever I can turns into wherever I can, and that means I’m usually not in an optimal place to get things done. The key is to set aside a time and a space for whatever is important — a time and a space that you can control. Then, lock the door, turn off the e-mail, and enjoy your undistractedness.

Boreout – This one may seem counter-intuitive at first: if you have too little to do, it can be hard to get on a roll and actually do something. The key thing is not that you’re lazy, but that you’ve tried to cope with boredom in ways that sap your momentum. (See Wikipedia:Boreout and Forget Burnout, Boreout is the new office disease for more).

Overcoming Boreout: The best thing, of course, would be to avoid the boredom coping strategies that lead to boreout in the first place. Things like setting little challenges to get things done as quickly as possible can keep your momentum going and help you avoid dragging out smaller tasks. If you’re already suffering from boreout, the key is to get moving again (like the momentum example given at the very top) — but start small. Pick something you’ve wanted to work on or have thought about trying. Set a stopwatch and work on it for 5 minutes. Take a break, then do five more minutes. After a few repetitions, bump it up to 10 minutes. And so on, and so forth.  You’ll have your momentum back in no time.

Moving On – And finally, we come to the classic scanner syndrome. You have no lack of ideas — in fact, they come more rapidly than you can handle — but you never seem to want to bring them to a conclusion. People call you a dilettante, a dabbler, or a jack-of-all-trades.  (Read this excerpt from Refuse to Choose to see if you’re a scanner!)

Overcoming Moving On: The trick to this one is that … well … there is no trick. The need to move on isn’t something you overcome, it’s something you learn to identify and embrace. If you are a scanenr and have reached your “finish point,” the worst thing you can do is just keep going. It’s far better to leave something incomplete than to force yourself to live a miserable existance (and then beat yourself up in the process). The key is to know when you’re experiencing a creative block, and when you’re experiencing a scanner moment.

Embracing the Scanner Moments

That last point — moving on and the ‘scanner moment’ is worth talking a bit more about. When I look at those draft posts I have sitting in my blog publishing area, I see another kind of post that I didn’t mention before. Those are the ones that I was initially really passionate about.

I’ve got loads of ideas for posts that are half-finished because all of a sudden, they just didn’t seem that interesting any more. Whether I’ve started an outline or even written up a first draft, going back to that idea and finishing it off would feel like revisiting yesterday’s dinner. I’ve reached my finishing point, and no amount of self-discipline will bring back that initial passion for an idea.

I’ve recently started re-reading Refuse to Choose to help me tackle this problem, and came across something of an epiphany. In a section describing scanner daybooks (the ultimate scanner tool which — I am almost ashamed to admit — I haven’t gotten around to using. Yet!), Barbara talks about the importance of running with your ideas and letting them flow:

Always try to make your descriptions as complete as possible so that if you disappeared and a stranger found this description, she’d be able to complete the project. Why? Because otherwise, once the passion wears off, you’ll forget why you were so excited. Let your thoughts spill out on the page as they come to you, instead of making a list or an outline you won’t understand or appreciate later.

You’ll notice that the solution here is a combination of the creative blocks techniques listed above — you want to move on when you’re ready, but before that point, make sure you capture whatever it is that has caught your eye. Your best bet is still:

  • When the urge strikes, cut yourself some slack on the perfectionism and realize that you’re just following your natural instincts to be a scanner!
  • Give yourself a time and a space to pursue your many passions, without constant interruption. Then, when you’re done, go back to the crazy life with all its distractions. Even 5 minutes here and there can make a huge difference in your level of personal fulfillment.
  • Follow your passions — yes, that’s plural! A scanner is particularly at risk for boreout because we tend to reach our ‘finish’ point much sooner than others. If you try to focus on just one thing at a time, you will suffer from boreout. If, instead, you honor your passions and ideas (even just by writing them down) you not only will feel more fulfilled, but you also won’t get bored.
  • And finally, take advantage of those moments when your passion is in full force. Love it, explore it, write it down in depth. And when the moment passes, leave it behind. It’s the best thing for you.

In other words, as a scanner, you can approach your creative blocks in much the same way as everyone else. You may just do it a bit more rapidly.