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How to Overcome “the Block”

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

Many of you probably know I (Jason) work in corrections. As an administrator I have often had the honor of being present, and sometimes speaking, at graduation ceremonies for inmates of all backgrounds who have chosen to change their lives for the better during incarceration. Rehabilitation is a model California corrections has embraced fully because it is true in most cases, “Today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbor.”

During one of my first exposures to one such ceremony, a high school graduation ceremony, the captain of the facility stepped forward to say a few words; actually, two.

“Inertia,” he began. And then he spoke of what inertia is, holding a body in whatever state it’s in. He lauded the graduates for overcoming their inertia, their lack of movement in any direction in this case and moving toward a positive goal. It takes incredible drive and perseverance to rise up from a criminal lifestyle and work steadfastly to better yourself.

And then the captain surprised me. He said, “Now I want to share another word with you: momentum.” He went on to speak of the need to keep going, to keep moving forward, and not stop here. A life of improvement, learning, growing, rehabilitation, does not have an end point. We are all masterpieces in the making. And to have that certificate, that diploma in your hand is not the verification that you’ve “made it,” rather it’s a permission slip to keep driving to higher goals.

Though I was not in the class, I found myself inspired by the speech. It was simple, direct, and incredibly uplifting. So much so that even now, about 3 or 4 years later, it still resonates with me.

I am also a huge fan of John Maxwell, a prolific author and speaker on topics of leadership. He describes in one of his books that a freight train, one of the most powerful machines created by man, capable of hauling thousands of tons efficiently across miles of track, can be prevented from moving from a stop by placing a simple 1” by 1” metal block in front of one of the wheels. It cannot overcome its own inertia under those circumstances. However, remove the block and allow the train to come to full speed, and it will easily smash through a re-bar reinforced concrete wall, and just keep going. How is this possible? I refer you back to the Captain’s speech to the graduating class: momentum.

What does this have to do with writing? “Well, I’ll tell you…” (cue Monty Python background music) “He’s going to tell, he’s going to tell…”

So in my years of writing many lengthy documents, both for work and in my personal pursuits, I have struggled with “sticky spots.” No, I don’t eat too much at my desk. What I’m talking about are those points all writers come to where they finish a thought or a scene, and aren’t sure where to go from there. Writer’s block. We sit at our computers, frittering with whatever is at hand, figuring a trip to the kitchen may help (don’t judge me), but when we come back and look to the screen again, nothing has changed. At this point we have two choices: walk away and come back later, or try to push through it and keep writing.

The times I’ve walked away, my experience has been it becomes harder and harder to come back to writing. I will always find something more pressing to do, something more interesting, some obscure thing I would never dream to let interrupt my writing if I was on a roll. Why is that? It’s the essence of procrastination: you’ve lost your momentum, and you’re back in inertia-land. It’s hard to get through the sticky spot. So we find ways to delay the chore. In the handful of Facebook writers’ groups I am part of, I see the question asked repeatedly in different ways, how to overcome this stymied intellectual or creative momentum.

For those of you who know this pain as well, I have two pieces of advice. The first one comes from Mark Twain, and it goes something like this: “If your job is to eat two frogs, eat the biggest one first.” Said another way, a precept that has been talked about in many self-leadership or motivational books, it is best to organize your day starting with the hardest or least fun thing you need to do that day, and working your way toward the easiest or most fun things to do. Eat the biggest frog first.

Just do it. Eat the frog.

So if you’re looking for advice, my friend, mine comes from my personal experience. Stay with it, get through the sticky spot, no matter what it takes. Don’t leave the keyboard until you have words written that you’re happy with and start to make you feel like you’re on a roll again, and then take a break. That’s right, you heard me correctly. When the words start to flow again, that’s when you can take a break and walk away for a few hours, or a day. When you come back to your keyboard, those inspiring words, that momentum will still be there waiting for you, and you can pick up right where you left off. This is how I combat writer’s block. Always end a writing session when your train is at full speed and you have a clear path ahead. Then, neither heaven nor hell, nor angels nor demons, nor any number of meaningless excuses or time-wasters will keep you from going back to writing when the time is right.

Keep up the fight, my friends. Keep up the momentum.

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