We’ve all been there. Your initial kernel of an idea is stuffed with endless possibilities, and you write for weeks or months with the focused intensity of a lion chasing down its prey. Your words flow faster than monkey diarrhea, and you’re riding the high like a fevered junkie.
Feels fucking good, amirite?
You start thinking that maybe you’ve got what it takes, that this writing thing is easy peasy, because you were blessed with the right idea at the right moment, and you must’ve done something good in your past life, because the words are clicking together inside your brain.
Gaiman and Rowling and McCarthy ain’t got nutting on you, baby.
Then one day, while you’re eating pancakes at two in the morning, it all goes to shit. Maybe your plot gets snarled up tighter than fishing line or maybe your characters refuse to cooperate or maybe you realize you’ve unintentionally copied the storyline of Marvel’s latest movie.
Aaaand…cue writer’s block.
I’m not talking about the ol’ I don’t really feel like writing today because I’d rather sleep on the couch without my pants kind of writer’s block, I’m talking about ALL CAPS, DOUBLE UNDERLINED, IN BOLD, TRIPLE EXCLAMATION MARKS kind of writer’s block.
You’re stuck. You question yourself. You try to rewrite scenes or come up with a different ending or you introduce naked ninjas into your story. You waste time rereading King’s On Writing or stalking agents on Twitter or snarking at other writers on Reddit, but nothing helps. You feel like a failure, a hack, a lumpy sack of sprouted potatoes.
Which leads me to the meat and, ahem, potatoes of this post…
Uri Alon, this science dude, is in the middle of studying for his PhD when he becomes hopelessly stuck. No matter what he tries, all his research leads to dead ends. Sounds familiar? The first minute of his TED talk really resonates for anyone suffering from creative block in any field:
“It seemed like my basic assumptions just stopped working. I felt like a pilot flying through the mists, and I lost all sense of direction. I stopped shaving. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I felt unworthy of stepping across the gates of the university, because I wasn’t like Einstein or Newton or any other scientist I’d learned about, because in science, we just learn about the results not the process, so obviously I couldn’t be a scientist.”
Science, Uri explains, is focused on the logical steps between the question and answer. If A is the question and B is the answer, science dictates that research is a direct path leading from A to B. But what if your experiments aren’t working?
“The problem is, that if an experiment doesn’t work or if a student gets depressed, it’s perceived as something utterly wrong and causes tremendous stress.”
As writers (or as human beings, really), we know what we want to achieve, but figuring out how to get there is when things get complicated. The cognitive dissonance between your intent and your reality is what causes stress. Uri names this murky space the cloud.
“Now you can be lost in the cloud for a day, a week, a month, a year, a whole career, but sometimes if you’re lucky enough and you have enough support, you can see in the materials at hand, or perhaps meditating on the shape of the cloud, a new answer—C—and you decide to go for it.”
If you keep writing, you’ll break through your block. BUT THAT’S WHAT I’VE BEEN DOING, you say. True dat. I’m not questioning your discipline. What Uri is proposing is for us to rethink the cloud.
“The cloud stands guard at the boundary between the known and the unknown, because in order to discover something truly new, at least one of your basic assumptions has to change…we do something quite heroic, every day we try to bring ourselves to the boundary between the known and unknown and face the cloud.”
Writer’s block is a necessary part of the creative process. It means you’re close to a breakthrough. As Uri puts it, the cloud is essential.
Watch Uri’s whole TED talk here: