In times of stagnation, I used to remind myself that feeling stuck was an inevitable part of the creative process.
But I now believe that feeling stuck is the creative process.
We all crave the coveted “flow state”: Clacking away at the typewriter like the novelists in the movies, the story pouring out of us with minimal effort.
The truth is that almost never happens. Flow state occurs when you exercise a skill you’ve mastered in a context that challenges you just the right amount. Not too easy, not too difficult:
- Imagine you’re late for work. You’re driving down the highway on your daily commute, weaving through cars. It’s challenging, but engaging – a twist on something you’ve done a hundred times before. You’re probably in flow state.
- Now imagine you’re in a rental car in an unfamiliar city trying to find your hotel. You’re attempting to change lanes in heavy traffic so you don’t miss what you’re pretty sure is your exit. You’re still an expert driver, but you’re hitting the brakes constantly (and probably having a bad time). This context is too challenging for flow state to occur.
More often than not, creative writing is like driving the rental car.
Creativity requires taking disparate ideas and connecting them in novel configurations. Most of the time this will feel more like stop-and-go traffic than a highway cruise. You’ll feel lost. You’ll find yourself at a standstill. You’ll miss your exit.
But this is the only way to get somewhere new.
The latest neuroscience tells us that making errors (not flow state) triggers improvement. If five pages of perfect prose flow out of you effortlessly, it sure feels good… but you’re the same writer as you were before those pages. You haven’t learned anything.
When you write five shitty pages only to realize you have to throw them away, you’re getting somewhere. You’re improving.
So how do you get un-stuck? Keep writing and you’ll find out. Keep making errors. Try a different lane. Try a different exit. Pull over to the shoulder to rest if you need to. Regroup. Ask a passerby for directions. Then continue on your way, unsure, unsatisfied, maybe even unhappy. Keep going.
Because being stuck means you’re on the road to creative discovery.
It isn’t part of the process. It is the process.