Motivation: all about feelings


Writer’s block: Part IV

So much fuss over starting a simple task—writing a book. When I was still stuck, I mumbled about this to a young AirBnB guest, who has certainly never written a book in his life. He instructed me with great confidence: “You just need to make time! It’s that simple.”

But no, turns out it’s not that simple.

You also have to really really want to write a book. And apparently I didn’t, not this book, until now.

Looking back three years, I’ve had a year of being old (doing my boot camp); then about a year of refusing to write about the experience in any depth; and then this last year, a year of good old-fashioned writer’s block. In other words, a year of saying What? A year of saying No! A year of saying Yes But…

That’s what I was thinking. But what was I feeling?

Neuroscientist-philosopher Antonio Damasio posits a simple idea that instantly sheds light on great cultural movements and petty daily personal problems such as writer’s block:

[…] feelings have not been given the credit they deserve as motives, monitors, and negotiators of human cultural endeavors.[1]

His idea is so original (in the world of neuroscience at least) and is so beautifully argued that it will be adopted by the masses and refashioned and misinterpreted and appropriated for many purposes. I am about to do this very thing.

Looking through Damasio’s lens, I can see I’ve been engaged in a struggle to regain homeostasis. I wanted to write because I had decided to write and I love to write. On the other hand, I also did not want to write, because of certain feelings.

Watch out, I am now going to use bullet points.

  • I felt strongly attached to early morning exercise, which made me feel strong and proud.
  • I felt contempt for the iPad Pro.
  • I felt angry with myself for failing to get over writer’s block, and embarrassed too.
  • If I should write this book about my boot camp for the bonus years, I feared I might patronise people, or trivialise the terrible challenge of ageing, or come across as a know-it-all or a bully.

Powerful stuff. But month after month I had ignored these feelings, doggedly trying to solve writer’s block through logic and professionalism, and mystified when it just didn’t happen. It was high time I faced up to these feelings. And that’s all I did, nothing more.

What shifts writer’s block?

What kick-started me writing again, quite suddenly one morning? Maybe it was losing stress, or decluttering my mornings, or reverting to an old computer. Maybe it was reading Damasio’s words and acknowledging certain feelings. Maybe it was a few jolts to my security—illnesses and deaths in my world—reminding me that oh yes, I’m going to die soon, today or in 20 years. Anyway, I got going. Something lit the dynamite stacked around my writer’s block.

Next time someone says to me, “I want to write but I can’t find the time,” I will for the first time understand what they mean. In the past this conversation has tended to focus on practical problems, like schedules or computers, or on the type of writing that appeals. But from now on, the first thing I’ll ask will be about their feelings.

As for me, I’m belting along nearly every morning, no problem. Just me and a notebook in bed, then me and the MacBook Pro for a couple of hours. It’s deeply satisfying. Even if I chuck away every page, even if the book is never published, I’m into it. I’ve got my rhythm back. I’ve got my mojo back. The happy act of writing has justified my existence for today.

In general, I believe my own experiences are common ones. I never think my life is at all unusual, and I don’t mind that one bit. But this particular experience, writer’s block, was new to me, so of course I was puzzled. However, I imagine many of my readers have gone through a similar process,  either eluding or melting or exploding a case of writer’s block. True? Or have you employed different tactics?

[1] Antonio Damasio The Strange Nature of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures Pantheon New York 2018

Photo public domain, Charles Darwin, The Expression of The Emotions in Man and Animals

29 thoughts on “Motivation: all about feelings

  1. lifecameos says:

    I only started writing for myself – as opposed to writing of various kinds required for work – after I finished paid employment. I felt the need for something to stretch me mentally after years of the various readings and writings required for teaching, and decided writing was the way I wanted to do it. So far I have kept to my blog posts which I limit to an A4 page of hand writing in the draft process. At first I got stuck for ideas, but i keep jotting in my ideas book, and these days am better at jotting down everything that comes to mind even if I am not sure it will work. I have accepted that some of my scribblings will never appear on my blog, but it is better to have ideas recorded and not used, than wish I had more ideas available. Once I choose an idea I usually just sit and keep thinking, writing until it works. sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it takes a while to evolve. But I have no idea how I would get on with a book length piece of writing.

    1. Seems your process is working very well for you, and more we cannot ask. And you have good feelings associated with writing, I hope. A struggle is part of the deal: a total block is another matter!

      1. lifecameos says:

        Yes, I do feel good about writing. It may help too that I am not trying to make a living off my writing.

      2. Good decision. Hardly any writer does make a living, and the effort is a killer.

      3. lifecameos says:

        I can well believe that.

  2. cedar51 says:

    Well in a way I have the opposite problem – although much of it hasn’t anything to do with writing/words.

    I’ve formulated a project that is going take “ages” to create as it’s many objects – but in my mind as knit away at the parts of each object, I’ve got my mind working on doing “another, and another project” semi-related to this one.

    But my hands are not fast like typing, nor can I just touch type and not worry about what each thread is doing…or even if the length of the object is long enough to go around the other part…it’s not saying “oh I’m on page 2” enough!

    Yes I could put down this project and rat around and find the colours and the construction details for the other project but then I would have two loooooooooooong time projects going at once.

    And because I knit when sitting on my couch because it’s the right height, when I sit down for a snack or a drink – those darn k/needles appear to think they should join in…and the next thing is that my drink has gone cold…

    only time, I don’t seem to be knitting is when I’m in here, officially my workroom but too small and now just for the computer – the other rooms of this small pad for dedicated other activities.

    1. Good luck with keeping track of those projects, which seem to have a mind of their own!

      1. cedar51 says:

        one of the problems is too much “stash = materials” on hand. You see if you are typing and saving whatever you wrote – it’s stored nicely – out of sight (mostly) and it’s not calling to you “use me, no not him, me”
        some would say, “well bin it…” but it’s too good to do that – although currently there is a small bag of loopy-type yarns that I know will not work – to be gifted at next group meeting…

      2. Group meetings do help.

  3. I remember some bright spark saying to me, “Everything before the butt is bullsh*t”. Twenty years later it is still with me. I am pleased that you have gotten over your writers block. Now, if I could learn to write “more proper”, I will one day write a book!

    1. No rush 🙂

  4. Roy says:

    Nice angle on writer’s block. It’s not unlike baseball, when Yogi Berra asked his coach, “how can you bat and think at the same time??”
    I really do think that more than a lot of human endeavors, writing is so painful because it is precisely the act of pulling things from the unconscious into the conscious, when thinking probably gets in the way, and how you feel is of utmost importance.
    NO, I don’t really think that life is like baseball, but it has its moments.

    1. I love a good Yogi Bear quote. And you’re right, writing is thinking, which is hard. And even exciting too.

  5. Ally Bean says:

    The happy act of writing has justified my existence for today.

    A perfect summation and goal when getting over writer’s block. That phrase belongs a mug, and in my heart. Thank you.

    1. Great news. Up and at it!

  6. Aunt Beulah says:

    Yay for Rachel! You thought, you analyzed, you figured it out! And along the way you helped all of us. As I noted in a comment on one of your earlier posts, I am working on my novel again and enjoying it; and my journey back started with your first post about your writer’s block. Thank you so much.

    1. Thank you so much Janet. I think you wring maximum benefit from every aspect of life, including my blog 🌟

      1. Aunt Beulah says:

        I try, Rachel. And i forgot to tell you earlier how much I enjoyed the photograph with this post. I smiled again when I saw it this morning.

      2. Aha! I hope you enjoyed a vicarious tantrum. Me too.

  7. Hmm..this has made me ponder about my own experiences with writer’s block. I’ve always thought I was just plain lazy, but you’re right–deeper, usually conflicted feelings may be at the core of it. Sometimes it’s fear of making mistakes, other times it’s embarrassment and self-blame, still other times it may be anger and resentment. Thank you so much for writing about this! I now have a new perspective of writer’s block, and of procrastination, too.

    1. I’m glad–thanks for telling me. As usual I only glimpsed these insights by actually writing about them. I love that process, don’t you?

      1. I do! It turns out writing is not only about sharing ideas one already has, but it’s also the process of clarifying and discovering ideas the author didn’t have when they started writing.

      2. I would personally go further and say that is my central motivation 🙂

  8. “His idea is so original (in the world of neuroscience at least) and is so beautifully argued that it will be adopted by the masses and refashioned and misinterpreted and appropriated for many purposes. I am about to do this very thing.”

    Thanks for this paragraph, it made my day, possibly my week, and perhaps my month! I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time.

    1. Happy to happify you!


    1. How true! If you feel like you’re pushing concrete uphill, best stop. We need fallow time.

  10. This has truly kept me going. It takes time. thanks for the reminder…

    1. Thanks Emmanuel! By the way, this is a common blogging convention: no limks in comments, so I removed the link you supplied. We can usuallu explore each others’ blogs from the avatar.