What does it mean to be “blocked”? Is it possible for a “block” to be a diversion, a new inspiration, a productive distraction? Or is it just laziness?
Right now, I am “blocked” in a number of ways.
- I’ve been working on a novel for the last ten years. I use the term “working on” loosely. I go through periods of productivity. Every so often, I sit down for a week and have a pretty good time “working on” this novel. Then my energy wanes. I get bored. I lose focus. I decide I’d rather go for a run in the morning or spend the day doing school prep. At the beginning of this summer, I promised myself that I’d make this novel a priority, but it hasn’t happened. The story is still a baggy, unfocused, structurally unsound mess, and I have no real desire to fix it. I’d like to throw it away, but I feel a strange sense of responsibility toward it, even though no publisher is waiting for it. I feel like I have to finish it. Perhaps this is because I’ve received government funding to write it and have been awarded a place at a competitive writers’ workshop – twice – to work on it. Tossing it seems disrespectful and lazy.
- For the past few years, I have taken stabs at becoming a serious meditation practitioner. I’ve taken classes in Shambhala philosophy, have attended week-long meditation retreats, and, for brief periods, kept up a regular morning meditation practice. For almost a year now, however, I haven’t meditated at all. When I think about sitting down to meditate, my chest tightens, and I do something else instead. I trace this aversion directly back to a “city retreat” I attended last August, where I threw myself fully into five days of meditation practice and Shambhala community participation, only to emerge feeling raw, shaken and hurt, mostly because of one long-time member of the community who, for reasons I did not understand, was rude and mean to me throughout the retreat. (My sense of alienation was not mitigated by the fact that almost everyone else at the Centre had been only kind and welcoming.)
- For the past few weeks, I have been trying to find something to write about, in order to get Classroom as Microcosm up and running again for the fall, and the only thing I can come up with is that I’m blocked. So I’m writing about being blocked.
There’s a blog about writing that I like, called The Urban Muse, that has lately proposed a couple of explanations for blocks, writers’ blocks in particular. One suggestion is that we get blocked when we overthink what we’re doing. Another is that we get blocked when we are doing something that isn’t coming naturally. I think both these explanations are plausible, and connected.
I think teachers should take the question of blocks seriously, because we see them happening in our classrooms all the time. We ask our students to do things that they are (usually) not naturally inclined to do. We often ask them to overthink what they’re doing, or they overthink of their own accord, because they don’t know where to begin, or because they panic and try to think/plan/flail their way out of paralysis. They may also have unpleasant, humiliating experiences associated with whatever we’re asking them to do (a mean lady at a meditation retreat, a bad grade, a teacher’s or peer’s derision) that make it scary for them to even try.
I think we can see blocks in a subtly different way, however, a way that is perhaps more productive and healthy. We can see them, not as blocks at all, but as diversions.
This summer, for example, I promised myself I would work on my novel, but I’ve been diverted by a couple of things. First of all, I’m planning my wedding. Planning a wedding is a big and complex job. It is a job that causes many people a lot of stress. However, I am at an advantage in that I have a long summer vacation in which I can, if I like, focus almost all my energy on this job. I discovered that if I focus on the wedding planning and don’t try to squeeze it in around other projects (like a novel), planning a wedding can be really fun. It’s a pleasant and interesting diversion in which I’m learning a lot of things, including how to book tables for an event, what “wedding favours” are (we won’t be having any, but still), and how to do my own makeup.
This last has become a full-fledged diversion in its own right. Since the age of about eighteen, my makeup regime has consisted, on a good day, of a smear of blush, a swipe of mascara, and maybe a bit of lip gloss. About a year ago, a makeup professional gave me a lesson in how to apply concealer, and on the days I get it right, this can take about ten years off my face. My plan was to have my makeup done for me on my wedding day, but one morning, I was flipping through a “wedding magazine” and came across a section on doing one’s own makeup. It didn’t look that hard. I was suddenly possessed by the desire to buy myself some eyeshadow. So I ran to the pharmacy, bought a four-pack in neutral brown tones with instructions on the back, and spent a few minutes in front of the mirror. I liked what I saw. The next day I took a trip to a fancy cosmetics store and set up an appointment for a consult. And within the space of a few days, I had accumulated a massive pile of fashion magazines and several books on basic makeup. Eyeshadows and mascaras began spilling out of my bathroom cabinet. I was OBSESSED.
I had never given a damn about makeup before. What happened? Why was I devoting all this time – time that could have been spent writing or meditating – on something that I had never cared about and that could be seen as completely inconsequential?
The fact is, I had always been intimidated by makeup, and so had never bothered to learn anything about it. If anyone had suggested that I spend an hour doing my makeup, I would have greeted this suggestion with derisive laughter. I had far better things to do with my time. And this might have been true, but at the root of my derision was insecurity – I simply didn’t know how to do makeup, and didn’t believe I could learn. This same insecurity led me to avoid physical activity for many years – I wasn’t the kind of person who exercised, because I was too busy developing my mind. It never occurred to me that exercise, and makeup, could be FUN.
And fun is really the point here. I have been lamenting for several years now that writing fiction is no longer fun for me. Hell, even READING fiction feels like work a lot of the time, maybe because I’m an English teacher. And meditation certainly isn’t fun. And while blogging often is – at least, it’s fun in the sense that it often helps me enter a state of “flow” – there are times when I need to get away from thinking about teaching and do something entirely different with my brain.
So instead of doing the things I think I should be doing with my summer – writing a novel, meditating, blogging – I’ve been planning a wedding and playing with eyeshadow. And it’s been a lot of fun.
But more than that, I see a deeper purpose to throwing ourselves into these little obsessions, these little diversions. Writing fiction started out as an obsessive diversion for me when I was a child (growing out of another obsessive diversion: reading). Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to read and write, and never made me feel like these were frivolous wastes of time. Meditation and Buddhist philosophy were also obsessive diversions, and blogging is, too. My interest in these activities waxes and wanes, but they are always there for me when I go back. There is no need for me to treat them as jobs.
This is not to say that painting my face is going to become a central activity in my life, the way writing is. I’m not going to go to cosmetology school. But new interests are great fuel for writing. One of the main characters in my novel, for example, is the sort of person who might become obsessed with makeup. And writing about her obsession with makeup would probably be a lot of fun.
Here’s the point I’m trying to get to in a roundabout way: obsessive diversions are good. They bring us a lot of pleasure, and they help us learn. We can’t predict where they’ll come from, and we can’t necessarily create them in others. But is there a way we can make our classrooms less block-prone and more obsession-friendly? Can we create environments where our students are more likely to become obsessed with something we offer them? Granted, calculus and Shakespeare and molecular biology are not eyeshadow, but we know they can be fun. If we can get our students to fall in love with them, to want to know more and more, to cram their bathroom cabinets full of them, then we can stop hounding them to do their homework and stop texting in class. How do we do this?
Image by Christine Weddle
10 thoughts on “I’m Not Blocked. I’m Obsessively Diverted.”
Thanks so much for the link, Siobhan! I agree that diversions can be useful; in fact, that’s how I’ve come up with some of my favorite ideas for articles or blog posts. 🙂
Susan: It’s true, my diversion often lead me in creative, and sometimes even useful, directions…
Wow. I’m going to try to think, but not overthink, this post vis a vis my life, personal and professional, right now.
I love this blog!
Thanks OKP! Yes, thinking but not overthinking – the very tricky key to a lot of things…
This was a great piece as usual. I think you’ve convinced me not to feel guilty about picking up these “obsessive diversions” and running with them. I recently started blogging myself and it was one of these obsessions and suddenly I hit a brick wall and felt like I’d never write again. Before I finally recovered, though, I was constantly pressuring myself to write and not only was it unproductive but it felt like a chore, and I think you make the point that those things like writing and learning which are meant to fulfill us should never be a chore.
Unfortunately, as you say, these obsessions show up almost out of nowhere, so it’s difficult to know how students can adopt an “obsessive” attitude toward their learning. I’ve been trying to figure that out for ages but to no avail. Perhaps sharing what made you obsessed with reading and how it changed you would help students see the light.
“I think you make the point that those things like writing and learning which are meant to fulfill us should never be a chore.” I’m not sure about that – in fact, that’s one of the things I’m trying to figure out. I think things that are worth doing are going to feel like a chore sometimes, which is why I keep struggling to finish this novel even though I’m not having a lot of fun any more; I keep hoping I’ll break through to the place where it IS fun again. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize when something’s not worth the effort, and also to indulge ourselves in the things that do bring us sincere creative pleasure. It’s a tricky balance!
The issue of blocks is something that has plagued me for a long time. However, I have found hope with Peter Block’s Writing with Power in which he too admits that for years he was hamstrung by the very same issues when starting to write. He has an excellent exercise called Freewriting where you write on anything for ten minutes without stopping, without editing and without trying to force you mind to make sense of what you’re producing. Such an exercise acts as a catalyst for writing and enables you to see that you can churn out words and that the anxiety caused by the Editor is the reason for the haltingly slow progress of writing. Elbow’s book mirrors what Corita Kent says in Learning by Heart: creating and analysing are two separate processes – you can do one, or the other, never both at the same time.
P.S. I really enjoy your blog.
Thanks! I have actually completely decimated my right arm and shoulder, as well as my neck, through years of obsessive freewriting. I sometimes wonder whether my inability to freewrite by hand – it causes me too much physical pain – is part of the reason that I suffer from more blocks than I used to…
Sorry Siohban – was that a case of telling granny how to suck eggs?
If you can’t type on a computer have you tried dictating your Freewriting (so it becomes Stream of Consciousness talking)? I know the sound of one’s voice through bone conduction is horrible, but it’s an alternative.
With regards to the reading/writing becoming onerous have you heard of Neil Fiorre’s ‘Unschedule’? Where you only schedule fun stuff and fit work around your life – not allow work to subsume your life. You honour the sabbath and take digital sabbaticals and strictly limit hours of work. I too was experiencing an inability to enjoy reading/writing due to what appeared to be unproductive working all the time, however, using these methods I have been able to re-invigorate my passion for both and produce more work than I’ve been able to in years.