Writer’s block, distractions, and a way back
“When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion of shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.”
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
We live in a distracting world these days. Covid, BLM, politics…these things are all front of mind, understandably. But creativity requires focus and distractions can make focus elusive. When we went into lockdown, my writing became much more focused as days and events seemed to slow and blend into the background. But when the protests started and after a night when my city erupted into looting and vandalism, that focus vanished. There were simply too many things fighting for the attention required for writing well.
So I stopped. I’ve done this for long enough to know that these times of unfocused and distracted mind happen, and I’ve learned to let things gestate on their own. I was in the middle of rewriting a novel to fix a significant issue, and the answer was simply not presenting itself. While it was hard to go from writing everyday to simply not wanting to, it was going to take time for things to settle down.
One of the things that I stopped doing, besides writing, was sitting. My daily meditation practice. Ironically, this was exactly what I should have been doing, taking the time daily to let thoughts run by without investing in them. Mindfulness in other words. After several weeks of this lull and spending too much time reading the news and discussing it daily with friends, I finally got back on track and made myself sit. And within 24 hours, the solution to my rewrite presented itself.
While this may seem obvious, the Suzuki Roshi quote at the beginning of this piece hit me directly. You cannot fill your mind up with complications and still find the focus required for extended creative output. There is a place you must go and complications keep you away from it.
Writing a novel, producing a record, acting, or any other art form require intense focus. You begin to live within the details, solving problems that later, when you are done, you barely remember dealing with. But at the time you immerse yourself in them. These days the immersion was in outward things and that does not mix well with creative focus and inward mindfulness.
The good news is that our subconscious mind, the mind outside the self, is working and waiting patiently for the moments when it can emerge and bring its work to the surface. In my experience, this always happens eventually. But Roshi’s statement and the resumption of my sitting practice gave that creative mind the opening it sought. It is always a miraculous thing.