Two Kinds of Writer's Block

There might be more psychological diagnoses, but I've observed two distinct writer's blocks.

Mental writer's block hinders your technical capacity to form sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. It often happens without rhyme or reason (too much fruit for lunch? stubbed your toe this morning? bad talk with your boss?), and settles on everyone occasionally. The best way to overcome it is to write. Move your desk to an empty room up against a white wall, and tape your arms to the desktop so the only thing you can reach is the keyboard (or pen and paper, if that's your style). Write about anything that comes to mind. Your socks. Aunt Mildred's AWFUL brussels sprout soup. Your upstairs neighbor's horse-shoed monster that comes out at night. 

After you start, the ideas will flow as you transition to writing for your passion project (if that's Aunt Mildred's soup, give it up now).

Emotional writer's block hinders your soul from creating. It feels empty, like you have nothing to say, even though there's plenty to write about. It doesn't effect the technical aspect of writing; you're still perfectly capable of mastering syntax and grammar (if you could to begin with), but ideas have no value. There's a jumble of concepts waiting to be framed into beauty, but you can't see where the edges fit together and it's too hard to try.

After staring into space and struggling to harness listless mental energy, you close the computer, and think, tomorrow I'll have something to say.

But tomorrow doesn't often bring motivation that didn't come today, and sooner or later the soul bankruptcy from not doing what you love is greater than the emotional weariness and pain that stopped you.

So pick up your pen, choose anything to say, and start again. God didn't give us gifts so we wouldn't use them because it's too hard.

The Five Step Creative Process

Today I had a new, very exciting idea for another new project (in addition to The Cup—Sequel, coming Dec. 2017). It'll take a while to accomplish, and a fair amount of work, but it's a delightful prospect.

Ideas go through several stages of development. It takes 5 major steps (I think) to parent an idea to completion.

1. The desire to create. Most (if not all) good ideas start with the inner urge (or urgency) to make something. That sets the ball rolling.

2. The combination of elements. Eventually you'll come up with something (unless you have writers block, in which case you should just throw in the towel and go look at the stars) (just kidding). The rough idea will take more intentional thought, as you develop the elements of the story, the characters, and the rough plot (or colors, or notes, or shots, etc).

3. Collaboration. This is the most crucial and intimidating step. Find a group of trusted friends, a sampling of both creative and pragmatic people who can look at an idea from more than one angle. Share carefully, and keep your hope and passion safe. An idea that gets edited and re-shaped can survive, but badgered hope and passion wilt far too quickly, sometimes irreparably. Listen to ideas and edits, take them to heart, and remember that few world-changing projects were completed in isolation. 

4. Start the project. Keep going. Finish a rough draft. Edit.

5. Repeat. Do steps 3 and 4 as many times as it takes to make a foolproof, waterproof, childproof project that you're proud to hang your name on.

Learn to think, to form ideas, to take edits well, to finish what you start, and to discern the value of ideas, both your own and another's. Making things alone brings delight—doing it in community is priceless.

It may seem like a long process that's too hard to track from start to finish—but you'll never learn it until you start.

prime time

Everything has a prime time: As seen on TV ads, rush hour radio, busy times for grocery stores, education, the list goes on. Anything that involves humans and their specific wants, needs, desires, and habits will have a prime time.

Education is best carried out in the morning, while the brain is freshly fed and rested, and the sun is still breathing energy into the world.

People buy stuff they saw on TV commercials in the middle of the night because somehow, what you see when you have insomnia sticks in your brain.

Rush hour radio plays music only—because if they can snag you during rush hour, when you're bringing your daughter to ballet on Saturday morning, you'll still be tuned in to that station and you'll hear the ads and campaigns.

Grocery stores staff more employees for certain hours, because they know that people will stop in on their way home from work, or come after dinner.

We're creatures of habit—we figure out what works for us, and do it. And, since the world has millions of people, what works for me likely works for someone else too. In the marketing world, companies can (and should) leverage that knowledge to their benefit, to work with your subconscious and convince you to buy (or drive or listen to or watch) something.

In the marketing world, it's like constantly trying to solve an equation and hoping the variables stay the same for long enough to figure it out. It's like solving a puzzle.

In the writing (creative) world, it's the same method, but you're only trying to figure it out for one person: yourself.

Every writer (creative) has his or her own prime time—some wake up long before dawn, to catch all the early morning word-brilliance. Others write after everyone else has gone to bed, in the peaceful stillness of a resting house. Still others find mid-morning to be the key, or treasure a post-lunch surge of creative energy.

Invariably, every writer (or creative) who you ask will have an opinion about what works best for them. The challenge of this knowledge is taking action. If you know you write your best poetry at 6 a.m., wake up and write it. If your brain kicks into story mode right after lunch, reserve that block of time strictly for crafting tales. If moonlight helps your mind compose sentences, save some mental energy for nighttime.

It's worth it to try different times until you learn what your prime time is, because 30 minutes of prime time writing (or creating) is worth 120 minutes of pulling teeth creativity after your brain is done for the day.

The Man in the Arena

It is not the critic who counts
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood
who strives valiantly
who errs
who comes short again and again

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming
but who does actually strive to do the deeds
who knows great enthusiasms
the great devotions
who spends himself in a worthy cause

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement
and who at the worst
if he fails
at least fails while daring greatly
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls

who neither know victory nor defeat.

—Teddy Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic

keeping on

I memorized this poem as a child—not for a project, but because a poster of it hung on the wall of my schoolroom, and poetry is more interesting than math (every student is entitled to her own opinion).

The author (and we're not quite sure who it is) understands trying, wanting, fighting, striving. And most poignant to the human experience, the desire to give up in the face of overwhelming odds.

He grants that this is valid.

Then he turns the desire to give up into the reason to keep fighting.

don't you quit

when things go wrong as they sometimes will
when the road you're trudging seems all uphill
when the funds are low and the debts are high
and you want to smile, but you have to sigh
when care is pressing you down a bit

rest if you must, but don't you quit

life is queer with its twists and turns
as every one of us sometimes learns
and many a fellow turns about
when he might have won had he stuck it out
don't give up when the pace seems slow
you might succeed with another blow

often the goal is nearer than

it seems to a faint and faltering man
often the struggler has given up
when he might have earned the victor's cup
and he learned to late when the night came down
how close he was to the golden crown

success is failure turned inside out

the silver tint in the clouds of doubt
and you can never tell how close you are
it might be near when it seems afar
so stick to the fight when you're hardest hit
it's when things seem worst that you must not quit.

—either edgar a. guest or john green leaf whittier or maybe someone else


Quality Over Size

Sometimes I write an entire post, and while I'm editing it I delete it instead.

It's not worth keeping something that's sloppy just to have accomplished. And it's not worth putting your name behind something that you only half-heartedly stand for.

Take the time to make your big projects great—or else make them smaller.

90 Days

90 days ago, I took a job as an editor at an Integrated Marketing and Communications department for a large non-profit organization. There are different theories about how long it takes to settle in at a new job, but most people say it takes about 90 days.

If you learn something new every day, then I should have at least 95 things to tell you. However, I am not Martin Luther, and this isn't the door of a church in Wittenberg. Therefore, I compiled a brief list of the first three dozen things I thought, and they fit into three categories: skill (editing), relational (coworkers), and work ethic.


i'm not the expert
don't be afraid to ask
when you want to know something, go straight to the source
editing is not a one-and-done kind of job
the more you see something, the less you read it
[Insert lots of editorial mechanical jargon here about dos and don'ts]
learning is like putting tools in your toolbox. The more you know, the more you can do
positive energy inspires creativity. Negative energy quenches it
work with confidence, but always double (triple, quadruple) check
editing is rewarding
everyone can teach you something


social reality is best navigated in first person
never assume anything about anyone
never make someone feel ashamed of doing what they were told
you impact people in more ways than you know
someone is always watching to see how you handle things
trust is a two way street
some people aren't as funny as they think they are—others are more funny than they know
don't play favorites
don't talk all the time
choose your coworkers freely (you probably don't have a choice anyways)—choose your friends carefully

Work ethic:

work hard
do it right the first time
don't complain
there are two kinds of people in the world: people who go to work to work, and people who just go to work
employees work better if you tell them how well they're doing
the person in charge makes a big difference in the environment
the better you like something, the better you try to do it
work is not a contest
attitude makes all the difference
change isn't immediate
work with confidence, but always double (triple, quadruple) check
take pride in your work
using Pinterest and doodling all morning should not count as "Too busy to finish that for you this week"
being faithful in the little things gets you far in the big things

It's a different pace of life, and time and energy compete more than they used to—but it is worth it, for the learning.

An Eternal Hope

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

When life throws you a party with chocolate milk and donuts, eat, drink, and keep the balloons.

And when life hits you in the stomach with the force of an i-beam swinging from a crane, take a good long rest on your back staring at the sky, and try to breathe again.

The thing about life is that it doesn't just stop every time you hear something you didn't want to hear, enjoy a moment, or feel a pain that shouldn't be allowed. Lemons, parties, and i-beams or not, the sun still comes up every morning. Like it or not, most of us have obligations that make us get up with it, no matter how we feel.

The past few months have included deep pain and sadness for too many people I love.

In the ease of my young life, I thought that grief was a well-constructed word. It's aesthetically pleasing, it sounds nice, and it gets the point across nicely. Now that I'm becoming more closely associated with it, I don't care for it as much. In mourning things that should have been and weren't, and things that shouldn't have been but are, I've begun to realize the poignant meaning of those five letters strung together.

According to Merriam-Webster, grief is a deep distress caused by, or as if by bereavement. Bereavement is (paraphrased by me) losing someone or something that you love. You feel grief because you've been bereaved. 

When Jesus, Son of God and King of the Jews, was brutally murdered at 33, his mother wept at the cross; and when the Titanic sunk and dozens of people lost brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and sons and daughters, hundreds of people were devastated by the news.

It's hard to understand grief, even surrounded by it (maybe especially surrounded by it). It strikes suddenly, goes too deep, and affects parts of you that you never knew existed. My wise friend said,

Grief is a messy business, and it never turns off or gives you a break.

As an eternal optimist, I look for the bright side of everything. As a broken human living in a world where sin's grip is too tight, I've begun to see that sometimes this side of eternity, there is no bright side. Loss is loss, no matter how many angles you take. It always hurts. There are always more things to mourn.

Grief and bereavement are byproducts of sin, and sin is the tool of someone whose main goal is to steal, kill, and destroy. The deeper we get into life, the more we see the effects of sin—joy stolen, hope killed, life destroyed.

And it is awful.

But this is not the end.

Jesus was brutally murdered at 33, and mourned by all who knew and loved Him. He was the perfect Son of a perfect Father, a Father who created an entire universe so He could love what He had created. This Son was the image of a God we couldn't see, the Messenger of hope we'd never had, and the humble Servant who took the world-weight of sin upon His shoulders. He took our sins upon himself and died for us. And that could have been the end—but He Himself had done no wrong, and death has no jurisdiction where there is no committed sin. So Jesus rose from the grave.

His disciples and friends had the privilege of grieving something briefly and getting it back. We have to grieve for much longer, holding onto a hope that isn't loud, flashy, or colorful. But because of the Father's sacrifice and the Son's willingness, we have hope, and we wait. We may grieve for a lifetime because of sin's sting, but ours is not a story of defeat.

It is a story of everlasting hope, because there is more to life than we can see.

Our grief will not carry over into eternity.

We're Not That Different

It's an age old concept that common ground unites people, and we love people who are like us.

A rocket scientist can strike up a conversation with a poet at a cocktail party and start talking in launch equations. He is capable of it. However, the poet's eyes will likely glaze over and he'll come up with any reason to escape after approximately 180 seconds (unless, of course, he is one of those saints who will listen and dialogue about something that neither interests nor benefits him).

If the same two guys live across the street from each other and the midwest has the most violent hailstorm since the 70s, the next day they'll stand on the sidewalk for half an hour talking about hail damage.

The things that unite us are greater (in number and size) than the things that divide us. 

This is a marketing tactic. The company wants you to think that no matter what, you're cooler if you own, drive, wear, ride, or eat this. And you're not the only one, it's for everyone else like you... Which is, well, everyone.

This is right and wrong.

It's wrong, because...

I am not like anyone. Neither are you. In my sage 22 years I have never met the same person twice. I've met people who remind me of people, people who look like people, people who wear their hair the same way, use similar hand motions, or look strikingly similar—but none of them are the exact same. 

Every person has unique habits, foibles, and talents. It's part of our DNA. No other person who has walked or will walk the face of the earth will be the exact same as you or me. We were created unique, you to be exactly you, me to be exactly me. We can make ourselves look identical but even if we stand next to each other, you and I duplicates, we still have different souls.

At the core of our identities, we are not the same. We are each sui generis.

It's right, because...

Every human is born unique. Maybe if each person was born onto a different planet, there would be no similarities between us. But we're not. We're all born into the same earth, and it has a few commonalities.

It is beautiful. The sun breaks the blackness every single day, and shows us colors and scenes we couldn't imagine if we tried. Birds sing, leaves turn flaming orange and blushing pink, and people fall in love. There are too many 'best' things about the world to count.

But it is also awful. We're born stamped with the postmark of sin—born broken, into a system that's broken, surrounded by broken people. We're programmed to do the wrong thing instead of the right thing, to tell the lie instead of the truth, to hurt instead of heal. Nothing about us is born redeemed.

We walk through life imperfect, bargaining with a system that's not gentle. We get bruised, shoved, and broken. It's inevitable. But God is the root of all good things, and He loves to give us gifts: the first kisses, the sunrises, the unquenchable joy.

Sometimes it will feel like the bad far outweighs the good. Friends die, family grows sick, babies never breathe oxygen this side of eternity.

And we keep finding more that we have in common, because the sun has been rising for hundreds of thousands of mornings and every one of those days someone gets hurt, maybe in the same way that you or I did. And realizing it gentles us, helps us mourn, makes us humble.

We are different, but we feel the same pain.

And so when what happened to me happens to you, I can cry with you. I can hold you, and be silent with you, laugh with you, and rejoice with you. And when the same thing happens to your kin down the road, you do the same.

It's how we find things we have in common.

It's how we love people who seem different.

Why Every Dreamer Needs an Editor

Everyone alive has had the dream that they know is worth a million dollars. They wake up, grab the nearest receipt or envelope, and scribble it out on the back with any writing utensil they can find.

This happened to me yesterday morning. I was convinced that my dream would make me hundreds of thousands of dollars. I scrawled everything into a notebook as fast as I could, and told Curtis (he's very wonderful) that I'd discovered the thing that would make us rich. 

Now, more than 24 hours later, I think I may have been wrong.

Two main takeaways from this.

My freshly conscious self is not grammatical.

There's slight evidence of some attempt at correct syntactic communication in the english language, but it is feeble indeed.

Every dreamer needs an editor.

Even if the editor was me, and 36 hours later, I'm realizing that my idea may not make millions, it's the same principle. The writer comes up with the dream, the beautiful, gilt-edged, mesmerizing concept that they feel the world has been waiting for since the beginning of time. The writer feeds this zephyr till it's a gale force hurricane, then presents it to their editor, who takes a red pen and reduces the storm to a single puff of wind.

If this is a very good editor, indeed an excellent editor, that puff of wind will be the bones with merit, and he will say, try again. Use the idea this way, as you rebuild it. You're on the right track.

And then, maybe then, the writer will strike it rich and get famous.

I'm looking for an editor to help me with my errant African animal story, someone who can pull a shred of greatness from this jumble. Let me know if you have any leads.