Overcome “Creative Purgatory”

Overcome “Creative Purgatory”

How to write well when you don’t feel like writing

It can be easy to fall off the writing bandwagon when other life happenings call for attention. Done long enough, I’m back to square one at rebuilding consistency in my daily writing practice. I was having a dry spell for days and difficulty getting through. Right then I received a timely newsletter from Margo Aaron of thatseemsimportant.com. I have enjoyed following Margo’s work whether it’s through her HAMYAW podcast or reading her weekly newsletter. In this particular newsletter, I learned that Margo was about to do a webinar through Clientcon entitled “How to write well when you don’t feel like writing?” It was going to happen right that day. I jumped at the opportunity and signed up. I’m so glad I did as I received so much value and I was motivated to get right back to writing. It was also refreshing to have Liston Witherill from servedontsell.com as the moderator. Here are my notes from that webinar. I am sharing out of hope it will benefit you as much as it benefitted me.


The myth of inspired writing is that the muse strikes and one starts to write and never stops till they get done. The truth about inspiration is that the Muse is flakey. Working with the muse is fun. She doesn’t show up every single day though. Stephen King says, “Amateurs wait and sit for inspiration, the rest of us get down and show up to work.”

We have to learn to write without the muse. There is a map to the creative process. In one phase one, we start with “I’m a genius and my ideas will change the world.” This is when the ephemeral muse is visiting you. You slowly go to the next phase where you keep writing and it just flows out of you. Then, you show up in the world with your writing and run into someone not being too excited about your work or criticizing your work. You go into “Everything sucks” phase where you showed one person your genius and they weren’t excited. You go into imposter syndrome. This leads into the next phase where you re-read your work and you think it sucks. You end up wanting to crawl into a hole and destroy all evidence of your writing. This is creative purgatory and where most writers get stuck.

Creativity works in a circle. It’s crucial to go through these phases. It’s important to understand why we get stuck, so that we can effectively work on getting unstuck.

Why we go into Creative Purgatory

  1. The Voices: These are the voices in our heads. As writers, we often end up writing for someone else. It can be ghosts of clients, professors or parents, who told us we weren’t good enough. It’s an unconscious act as we try to validate our work to these voices. We have to name our voice. Who are we scared from and who are we trying to impress? Is it the twitter troll looking for our blindspot or the Critics looking to check out each and every blindspot? The voices make our writing defensive and it keeps us from true good writing. In writing for these voices, we miss the mark as we miss writing for our targeted audience.
  2. It’s personal: Everyone writes. It’s safe to make that generalization. Amongst the population, some simply write and think of writing as a tool in a tool kit. There are people who approach writing as a skill and a means to an end. They tend to be much more objective in their writing. For these people, writing is an objective. Some identify themselves as being writers. It’s a label they attach to themselves. This makes it personal. They often struggle more with words. They use this as a means of self-expression. They see their writing as an embodiment of themselves. These people want others to see them as a genius. They want people to see them as a good writer. They are so attached to the work and they worry about the way they are perceived.
  3. I’m better than this phenomenon (Academics plus false humility). It’s easy to fall prey to this. When you write content for sales purposes, have you had thoughts that you shouldn’t have to self promote? Have you ever had thoughts like “I’m above making this sales page/twitter feed/instagram story”? We were told the myth of discovery: If your work is good enough, it will be discovered on its own. You start convincing yourself that you don’t need to write in a colloquial manner and that’s below you. This is an invisible script we tell ourselves. I’m above writing this instagram caption or write this twitter feed. We might tell ourselves this story that our first book will be brilliant and a piece of art. It might or might not be.
  4. Physical/Mental Exhaustion: Our brain has two systems of thinking. System 2 overload. System 1 is our lizard brain or what is known as a gut feeling. The culture dismisses this. System 2 is our rational brain and we often rely on it too much. We are obsessed with results and obsess with system 2 thinking. We often face decision fatigue over simple things. System 2 overload makes us tired in a way that we can’t access what we feel. We need both systems to work optimally to have good writing. When you can’t even make simple choices on what color you want to wear then you have system 2 overload. You need access to what you feel (system 1) and what you think (system 2) in order to write well. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. System 1 is your base level instinctual behavior. This helps you survive. System 2 helps us do higher order thinking after our base needs are met.  The Elephant and the Rider. The Elephant is your animal brain that is acting and the rider is the one directing it.
  5. High Expectations: When we try to be creative, original, interesting, unique, we actually block those things from surfacing. We edit while we write, which is not a good idea. It’s good to expect quality from our work and also give ourselves grace and not expect to be perfect on our first, second, or even third drafts. Check out what comedians have to say about the process of iterative writing. They are the most vocal group about it. To be that funny is a tremendous amount of work. It’s a cycle that leads up to quality. One can not expect high quality from the first few drafts. There is a disconnect between what we are capable of and where we are at the moment. When we put the pressure on ourselves, we end up not doing what we actually wanted in our writing.
  6. Confusing Criticism/Praise with Feedback: Criticism and praise tells you more about the other person rather than your own work. Feedback tells you holes that you have in your writing and ways where you can improve. Praise and criticism are both personal. Feedback is genuinely designed to make your writing better in quality. Often when we are in creative purgatory, even feedback is difficult to listen to. Wherever your content lives (podcasts/blog/social media channels), it is easier to get praise and criticism and very difficult to get true feedback.

How to Solutions:

Shitty First Drafts dubbed by Anne Lamott from Bird by Bird

Shitty first drafts are how one ends up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. Some days, it takes 1000 words to write one decent sentence.

Lower the stakes for yourself.

Write badly first to get rid of the gunk. It’s good to edit bad writing. In order to write well, write badly first.

Tip: Write dumb words when you are not feeling the flow of writing. Just sit down and start writing what you see or how you feel. Write things that are boring and un interesting. Write with way too many adverbs.  Stakes often feel high when we are generating leads, connecting to our tribe or writing a book. Please lower the stakes.

Sol Lewitt to Eve Hesse-Read by Benedict Cumberbatch “Relax and let everything go to hell”.

It’s hard to sit down and work. It’s difficult when you have been successful. It’s also difficult when you are a beginner.

Tactical Tips:

  1. Write to your customers/audience and not to your colleagues. We have the wrong person in our head. We write to the voices in our heads. Pick a person by name who fits the criteria of your audience and write to them. You are not writing to impress or validate yourself to your colleagues. Tip: Physically write to a person while you are writing.
  2. Get yourself some creative allies. These creative allies need to be in the arena themselves. They are writing and creating content. They have the creative eyes to make the distinction between feedback and praise/criticism. They will ask you what your work is for. They will ask you if you want feedback. They will ask you what the objective of the work is. You want people in your tribe who will let you know. They have to know when you need encouragement and when you need feedback. These are the special people you have in your life and they are a limited resource. Not everyone is a creative ally. Choose them wisely.
  3. Write first and edit second. Capture everything at first. Do your verbose vomit draft. Write drunk and edit sober.
  4. Sleep and hydrate. Take care of your brain. There are times to push through and times to rest. Your body can help you decipher what you need. No other tips will help you work through this. It has consequences to how you show up to work and write.
  5. Costume changes. To get into work mode, put on work clothes. To get into writing mode, put on some writing clothes. Your brain will make that connection and get you in the mood. Demarcation line to help you get into a mood.
  6. Environmental Changes: Change the environment. Something as simple as lighting a candle if it works for you can do wonders. Have a specific place where you write. Change your mindset.
  7. Move: Do something that will get you out of your head and into your body. We get our best ideas when we are moving and living life. Some people get their best ideas in the shower. Use aqua notes (found on amazon) to capture those golden ideas in the shower. Get yourself into feeling again through movement.
  8. Foreplay: get yourself in the mood. Do something that sparks joy and gives you excitement. It has to be something totally unrelated to your writing. Read, watch or listen to something that is totally unrelated to what you need to write about. Hijack that system 1 brain and get yourself feeling again to write.
  9. Be derivative. Write like someone else. Austin Kleon dubbed the phrase “steal like an artist”. The great secret about this tip is that when you try to write like someone else, your voice inevitably comes out. Try to copy the tone and not plagiarize obviously. What you read tends to influence what you write. Your own voice will flow out naturally.

The first draft of anything is shit. -Ernest Hemingway


Tune into Margo’s webinar on youtube. What tip is the most helpful to you in your creative journey?

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