Writing is Hard

| 7 min read

When I first started this blog, I think I may have underestimated how difficult it would be to write. Not to write consistently, which I think mainly comes down to free time and dedication. Or to write well, which is something that naturally develops over time. What I grossly underestimated was how hard it would be to know what to write about it all. This is something I want to focus on because I think writing is quite an important and healthy activity to nurture, and that means nipping writer's block in the bud as soon as it's discovered. I'm sure others have grappled with similar issues, and I'm sure I will again some day; perhaps writing about this will help me examine and resolve the issue.

So what exactly is going on? Prior to my first post, I had a lot of questions I was trying to answer about what this space would be. As you can see I spent a lot of time worrying about things like the presentation and the audience and the style. One thing I never worried about too much was the content. This is a blog written by myself, for myself after all, so I never thought it would be difficult to come up with things that I would find interesting. After all, I spend all day inside my own head and I never really find myself getting bored; why would writing be any different?

At first, I assumed writing would be just like thinking. I already think many interesting thoughts, and usually already in complete sentences too. All I would have to do would be to transcribe what I think to run a successful (or at least memorable) blog. To my own surprise, I was correct about most of that. My thoughts, when they do line up just right, often are interesting enough to be simply transcribed and lightly edited. Much of my best work has just been writing down something I'd thought of days or weeks in advance. The issue I'm facing now is that I'm simply not thinking as much as I'd like to.

An Age of Distractions

Looking back at my most productive times as a writer, I realize that they all had one aspect in common: I had much less free time. This may seem counter-intuitive, since with more free time surely I should be able to accomplish more writing right? What is discovered is that my productivity doesn't really depend on how much time I spend on it; after all, I only really write when I feel like I have an idea worth saving. The interesting thing about those busier times is that the liminal moments between activities is when I did some of my best thinking. Long car rides, crowded parties I'd keep to myself at, waiting in lines. I didn't know it then, but these spaces where my attention is only partly occupied leaves my creative mind free to wander where it will. It feels like these moments are the only ones when my mind is free to meander down untrodden paths I would have ignored otherwise, and I'm able to trawl through my endless backlog of thoughts I'm planning on thinking.

As I've become both busier and freer in different ways, it's been harder to coerce my subconscious into working this way. On busy days I devote all of my mental energy to working on whatever problem I'm trying to solve. And, on lazy weekends, I spend so long reading, biking, and otherwise entertaining myself that I never get a chance to think. Even my small moments throughout the day are used to respond to messages or read a quick page of whatever novel I'm currently enjoying. I've inadvertently hyper optimized my free time to ensure I'm enjoying every second of the day, which means that time for myself has fallen by the wayside.

I want to be clear here; I don't think social media and phones are inherently negative pastimes. I've really enjoyed certain books and TV shows, which I think have deeply enriched my life. Even Twitter has had some positive impacts; without it I'd have missed learning about tons of interesting articles and thinkers. However, it's becoming clear to me that this is an increasingly unsustainable state of affairs. Especially if I intend to continue working on this blog.

The Pool of Insight

So is this just a classic case of overstimulation by social media? Maybe. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a quick shortcut solution that will give me what I need to take back control. Meditation is close, but it often focuses more on the now and observing yourself which doesn't exactly fit for me. I know there are many types of meditation though and you know of one that might work please suggest it!

I think I can liken my mind to sitting on a crowded, lively beach on a warm summer's day. Typically it's extremely entertaining to just sit there and take in the world, and when it's not I have the tools available to make sure it is. If I tire of endless entertainment, my mind can focus and descend down to the cave of concentration. Here is where I devote all my brainpower to one specific problem or a single interesting train of thought. If I already have a general outline of what I want to say, the cave of concentration is where I go to turn thoughts into words. It's a very important mental mode, but not quite what I'm looking for here.

Away from the beach but right before the cave, we have the pool of insight. It's glimmering waters hold untold treasures, and I've never been able to fully ascertain its depths. The pool is the hardest state to reach and is easily interruptible, but when I'm here I'm unstoppable. This is where I come up with what I want to say and make connections. In fact, the waters of the pool are so potent that it's hard to focus on just a single topic. I may start with an interesting writing idea, but before it's fleshed out I'll pivot to a half dozen plans I have until I abruptly decide to invent a new tune to try out on piano. All this happens in what feels like a moment, until I'm jolted back up to the beach by a notification from an rowdy beachgoer.

One of the most frustrating parts about the pool is that it's extremely difficult to stay there for a long time. I'll often either be suddenly pulled back to the beach or unwillingly follow a trail of breadcrumbs down to the cave of concentration, having focused so much on a single idea that I forget about everything else. It also feels like there is a limited amount of insight I can bring back from the pool; no matter how many interesting connections I make, I only can only carry one or two with me down to the cave, at least until my next excursion to the pool.

So why was reaching the pool so much easier a few months ago? I think the nature of the liminal spaces I was in was kind of perfect for reaching the mental state I desired. I was in situations that were boring enough to make me go exploring the crevasses of my own mind, but I had to pay enough attention (whether due to social pressure or logistic reasons) that I couldn't spend too much time weaving tapestries in the cave. As such, since the pool lies between the beach and the cave, I kept passing through and I'd be able to accrue a lot of time sitting by its enigmatic waters. Such visits happened so spontaneously I forgot the value of this time, and now have accidentally optimized all my thinking to happen either on the riotous beach or in the tranquil cave.

Creativity is a Drug

So I've solved the issue right? Just schedule some time at the pool, maybe pencil it in on my calender, and all will be right again with the blog. Easy! Unfortunately, I expect it won't be that simple. Through long hours of practice I've become quite adept at entering the cave of concentration but the same cannot be said about the pool of insight. I definitely need to teach myself more consistent ways to unleash my inner creative, and I've already experimented with a few methods.

One suggestion I received is that this is all caused by too many smartphones and computer screens in my life. If I just took the time to put my phone down more often, maybe that would trigger some flashes of insight? I was skeptical but I don't think it's a fundamentally bad idea, however at its heart the issue isn't just overuse of electronics. My phone represents easy access to unlimited entertainment, sending my mind straight to the boisterous beach before I take a moment to consider if it's where I want to be. Distancing myself from access to the entertainment could help, but I need to train myself to not immediately gravitate towards cheap entertainment so I don't feel like I'm wasting my time. Making the conscious decision to summon forth a trickle of creativity might just make the difference.

However, I did find another much more powerful way to access the pool. In fact, I discovered it while writing this post! In general, I think the brain works a lot like a muscle that can be trained; if you practice gratitude you'll be more gracious, problem solvers can get scarily good at solving their specific types of problems, and nothing begets creativity better than more creativity. I know that this will sound a bit trite: oh the secret to unlocking your creativity? just be more creative. Personally, I think this realization deserves a little more credit than that.

When working on this post I played the usual tug of war between the beach and the cave, stealing away moments of insight as they came. As I pondered away, endlessly struggling with each word, my mind kept making connections I didn't intend to make about all sorts of other things. It works in the other direction too; I tried taking breaks to do other unrelated creative activities and I found that they helped me generate ideas to help me continue writing when I got stuck. Funnily enough, it's almost like my brain struggles so much with focusing on one difficult task it starts working on other creative tasks in the background, even if those are just as difficult when I focus on them.

It was annoying at the time but looking back I suspect that the best way to trigger this level of insightfulness is to deliberately force myself to do something creative. I really like being in this state; going down endless rabbit holes of thought makes almost everything seem new and interesting. I already loved excuses to be creative, and knowing that it helps induce extra insight for free is just another reason to channel those creative forces. What I hope now is to continue expanding my repertoire of skills to hopefully supercharge the part of my brain that is responsible for coming with ideas and insights. In a sense, I will carve a tunnel that leads directly to the pool of insight until I can meander my way there on command.

Overall, I'm quite happy that I've been able to reach these conclusions. Being intentional about what you want to be and who you want to be is vital to growth, and I feel like I achieved an important step. I suppose all this talk is somewhat straying into the domain of meditation, but I don't think I'm ready to open that can of worms yet. For now, I'll happily while away the hours at my pool of insight.