my formula to override writer’s block

I originally posted this long rambling post in early 2009, right after moving to Providence, RI — as the first post on my original albeit short-lived Devoke the Apocalypse blog. FWIW…


It’s chemicals.

But it’s still magic. And it’s also intention.

Through observation and experimentation, I developed a complex formula to cure writer’s block. For myself.

That’s the thing about formulas. They often don’t apply. Unless you’re talking about a fully controlled lab setting, formulas can be very problematic. I’m not talking about any specific formulas here, but the very idea of a formula. I hesitate to say what I have found to work for me, for fear that someone might try to replicate it without respect for context.

When you set out to do something, you’re starting with a goal. You want to accomplish a certain thing. Now, goals aren’t fixed things either. Our goals may change, and it behooves us to allow for that possibility. But, in the short-term, when you set out to do something, you have a goal.

If it’s something you have done before, then you may have a very clear idea about how to do it. But that doesn’t mean your idea will work every time. For example, the other morning I had a goal of purchasing an adjustable wrench. I had a clear idea about how I would do it. I would bike to the local hardware store. Specifically, I’d pull left out of my driveway, take another left onto Ives, and then a right onto Wickenden. However, after turning left onto Ives, I saw that it was blocked off for street work.

I had an idea about what would work, and it didn’t work.

No matter. I turned onto East Transit and took another route. I was focused on my goal of getting to the hardware store – not on the particular route. I could easily adjust, and didn’t even think twice about it. Common sense. Almost anyone would manage fine in a similar situation.

That’s why it may be useful as a metaphor for achieving more complex goals. You don’t become so fixated on your idea about how to do something (get to the hardware store) that you can’t adjust to new information or changed circumstances (street work on Ives St.).

Changing the scenario a little bit: good-bye bike; hello car and iPhone GPS application. Now, I’m not generally a technology enthusiast. In fact, I sometimes have very strong Luddite tendencies. But iPhones are awesome. And GPS has totally changed how I get directions. If I’m going somewhere I haven’t been before, I can enter the address and this device will give me directions. That’s a lot of trust I put into a little device. But there are limits to this trust. For example, I will not turn the wrong way down a one-way street no matter what the damn phone tells me. Or a few weeks back, when I was driving a U-HAUL from Brooklyn to Providence, critical observation told me that my eleven-foot clearance truck would have big problems with a ten-foot clearance overpass. I had to break from the phone’s murderous plan, and get off at the exit.

That’s why I hesitate to give advice sometimes. That’s why formulaic thinking really irritates me. It is fine to have an idea or plan or formula or recipe or strategy or tactic for how to do something, get somewhere, achieve some end – as long as you’re not so attached to it that you check your critical faculties at the door.

That was a very long disclaimer for my use of the word formula.

So anyway, about five years ago now, I developed a recipe for how to set myself up for hours of creative and/or productive writing. I’ll share the ingredients, if you promise not to assume that any of it will work for you.

My 10-steps to set myself up for hours of writing:

  1. Set aside a whole evening (like 6pm until as late as 6am, depending on how far I want to push myself).
  2. Here’s the hardest part: Don’t drink much coffee. I mean regularly. This evening of writing depends heavily on caffeine, and that only works for me if the caffeine strongly affects me, which it doesn’t if I’m drinking it every day.
  3. Get in at least a half hour of heart-pounding exercise during the day. Better still, be physically active for most of the day.
  4. Eat a light dinner at around 5 or 6pm. A full stomach pretty much kills any chance of me producing anything more than a lethargic stare at the screen.
  5. A little while after eating, drink a strong coffee beverage. I’ll usually do two or three shots of espresso, straight or in a latte.
  6. Go for a walk. And think about the topic you will be delving into, struggling with, pouring your soul into for the next several hours of your life.
  7. Place can be important. I either need to be in a crowded coffee shop where I don’t know anyone, or alone in a room without a whole lot of light. You don’t want to be too warm either.
  8. Yerba maté. I discovered this tea and ritual in Argentina. A lot of folks think it tastes like dirt. I heat up enough water to fill up a large thermos, and prepare the whole apparatus (tea, gourd, bombilla). I start drinking it when I start writing. I stop about an hour before I’m ready to call it a night, and then I take a little bit of valerian root so that I won’t lie awake when I’m done. Chemicals.
  9. Listen to the right music on repeat. All night. This is the only time that I ever listen to songs on repeat. Generally I can’t stand listening to the same thing over and over again. But geez, I have listened to the Amelie soundtrack more times than you can imagine. On a good night I’d probably listen to that CD about a dozen times. I’ll get to the point where I despise every note of it, but still, somehow, it keeps me in the zone. Sometimes I’ll substitute with a CD of music from the Spanish Civil War. I rarely try anything else. I especially avoid anything that I would be inclined to sing along with.
  10. When the lucidity comes, lean into it. This is the magic part. And it’s totally chemicals too. And it’s the reward of putting a heck of a lot of intention into manufacturing this complicated set-up. You enter a zone. And all your ideas seem good here. And your good ideas seem great. And your great ideas seem genius. The value of the ideas you stumble upon is super-inflated in this zone, and deep down you know it, but the temporarily inflated sense of worth—maybe delusions of grandeur—is an amazing motivator. It can be overwhelming, so be ready. And don’t stop. Lean into it hard. Don’t look away from the questions. Dig into the layers of complexity under the layers of complexity. Picture a terrifying tsunami rising up after a tectonic shift under the deep oceans of your unconscious mind. Your instinct may be to run to the hills, but instead you madly decide to swim as hard as you can right into it. You are a crazy fucker and you’re going to ride that fucker.

Those are the 10-steps that produce the desired results for me more than 90% of the time. Not a simple recipe. How does one come up with such a crazy complicated recipe? That’s the simple part. I used to wait for inspiration to write. Sometimes it came. Most times it didn’t. Eventually I observed some basic factors. It occurred to me that most of my best writing seemed to happen at night. Then it occurred to me to examine the days that preceded good writing nights. Patterns emerged. I can’t write on a full stomach. I can’t sit still or concentrate if I haven’t done something physically active during the day. And so on.

I’d be interested in hearing about what works for other folks.

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