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On Being Stuck

The print deadline for an article in a periodical in which I publish regularly is the Sunday before publication. I usually have an idea or two in mind by the Wednesday before, and I spend time thinking about it. Last Wednesday came and went and I could think of nothing to write about. I was blank. The more I thought, the blanker I got.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches us that there are times in life when you just don’t know what to do next. The road before you is blocked. All you can see in front of you is the next step. What should you do? Rabbi Nachman tells us, take the next step.

So I did. I sat down to my computer and stared at the screen. The screen stared back at me. I really was stuck.

Writing is an act of creation. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails quite like the thought of a looming print deadline. Why is this so? Because first and foremost, creativity requires an inner sense of openness and spaciousness. In order to create we need to feel that the way forward is wide open and rich with possibility. Second, creativity needs a sense of happy curiosity about the unknown. What will my mind come up with? I don’t know, but I am eager to find out.

Where Does Creativity Come From?

The human mind has two levels of functioning: primary process thinking and secondary process thinking. Secondary process thinking is the thinking that we are most familiar with. It is that part of our minds that observes, evaluates and negotiates reality. Secondary process thinking utilizes observation and logic. It can perceive reality sufficiently in order to accomplish a task. Also, secondary process enables us to negotiate our relationships. It is the part of us that learns how to be socially appropriate, so that we can move easily in our connections to people. Someone in our circle may have caused us to get angry, but if we act on the impulse to yell at them, we will make a big mess. So we make the conscious decision to hold our anger in check, and either say nothing at the moment, or say something that will convey our distress without being offensive.

Primary process thinking is the part of the mind that works associatively. When we are alone with our thoughts and let our mind roam it goes to some very interesting places indeed. Free association takes us to the inner world of daydreams and fantasies. When we sleep, reality and logic are suspended and we dream. When we are awake and letting our minds go,  one thought brings another, but not in a logical order – rather it is the order of free association, which is the realm of the imagination. Imagination and free association are the at the heart of the creative process.

I’ve read a number of articles about creativity, and quite a number of them make a point of saying, “Everyone is creative.” Someone reading this may well ask, “Well, if that is true, where is my creativity? I would love to create something, but I just don’t know how.”

I agree that everyone has the capacity to be creative. The question to ask ourselves is, “What inside me is holding me back?”

Where do I start?

It doesn’t matter where you start. What does matter is that you do. Just like Rabbi Nachman said, this is the next step. You start writing or painting or putting together the notes at the piano. Here is where we need to give ourselves not just time, but an inner feeling of spaciousness. I have this hour. Or half hour. I have just set something down. Where did that take me?  Now just follow the flow, and set down what comes next.

I’m sure it’s not going to come out right.

Never worry about perfection. Get the ideas down. Stay open. Something will take shape. Later you will refine it. You may end up creating something totally different that what you originally had in mind.

Who wants to hear from me?

If you have something to say or to express and it is coming from the heart then the answer is, lots of people. You are uniquely you, and what you have to express has never been said before in the way that you want to say it.

Enlist the help of friends and mentors

There is always more to learn, and we all need support and encouragement. For writers, the perspective of other people is always very helpful.

A final thought:

Everyone gets stuck sometimes, and our first impulse is to try to “do something”. However to get unstuck, we may actually need to do just the opposite. Sometimes the next step is to let it be, sit back and wait.

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