The Dry Season: Writer's Block & Burnout

Key Points:

  • Embracing the context-lite® void when the mind goes blank (a.k.a., the big idea behind having no ideas)
  • A customized approach to clearing writer’s block and burnout

The Desert Knows you’re out of Ideas

In early November, the California coast turns chalky from seven months without rain. The seasonal creek bed is empty; the wilted forest is a tinderbox. Devil winds scatter wildfire embers that won’t stop until they reach the ocean. Ultra-fine grime lines the nostrils. These are not exaggerations, but what happens next, is: Mirages ripple and ghost-dance off the asphalt, inspiring abstract visions of lost trails curving toward sun-bleached skeletons in the high Atacama Desert. Titanium-white powder suspended in an infinite expanse, staring toward a non-existent horizon. Dry-docked in unproductive fear and wonder, conjuring zilch…the sun goes down on your blistered skin in shadows and dust. Some vague and bristly old god of inertia has temporarily colonized your mind, and lowers your face to better choke on the sand you’re already pounding. A befouled “time witch” joins him, casts a spell and absconds with your deadlines; her poison is procrastination. This is writer’s block, a paralyzing sensation for all ages and near-universal hazard for those engaged in work and school life. Eventually, we all get bitten. If left untreated, a prolonged lapse of the wills can cost people money, get them fired, and theoretically relegate them to a sniveling life of obscurity and homelessness. But, you know… no pressure, brah.

Shards of ideas are not ideas. Be merciful to yourself and the intended audience—step away from the keyboard and air it out. Perfectionism can lead to distraction; distraction detonates focus and litters the virtuous path with obstacles. There’s been a robbery of ideas in your house, and now you’re further delayed by a tardy, absent-minded detective. Awash in the sleep of reason, this cannot be where the story ends. We need a remedy.

Across the spectrum of mental blocks, writer’s block is small, numb and zonal; force a cynical smile in its direction, and it mockingly smiles back. If stuck in the nemesis-like agony of a looming deadline, then it’s a racked smile to silently curse a recurring, deep-rooted foe.

In the total reduction, medicine for any mental block reverberates in gentle clichés like “life’s cruel; tough shit.” Hopefully it was a lovable grandma who broke the news to you when you were young. You already knew the clock on the wall was a mendacious and formidable bastard. When it’s time to write, constructive time itself accelerates (or compresses). You might hyperbolically sense everyone prefers “everything” early and flawless upon draft #1 (even if they don’t actually expect it). Editors and readers can pretend as though the proof and process never existed, so that the end-content might appear as magic. Magic is a place where “everything” has yet to be said and done. If there’s non-magic uselessly spewing forth, why continue? And if you can’t persevere in a crippling phase, then whoever generates the cash has several arrows in Plan B: outsource whatever can be done at a mere 80%+ of what’s considered achievable under your “good” mode (optimum output) for half the price; contract out lines of clever code or a machine-learning avatar to cover what you failed to do; and carry on more or less without worry about the troublesome, trivial nuisances of a human pulse. And did we mention you’re a would-be failure quite enough yet? Obsolete? (Slap.)

[ excruciating, yes… you’ll get nothing and like it ]

Having trekked rudely across worst case scenario, let me cheer you up with this next thought:

The world does not need to hear your voice today. You were wrong and full of vanity to think otherwise. I tell you this in the harsh-yet-vitalizing spirit of Pai Mei. Sensei told you “I’m not here to cheer you up.” Why decontextualize your garbage in a chasm of obfuscation, pedantry, and foolishness? You must eventually remember that you possess the tools, stamina, luck and adaptation from a lifetime of training in the wilderness…so stop your fidgeting and wait for distant thunder to approach! It’ll come. Then, your voice and mastery will matter.

[ meanderings within meanderings, within meanderings… ]


[ it looked so serene and easy to navigate from above… ]

Though rarely trapped in the writer’s bugaboo for long, I occasionally lack bandwidth to support non-paying ideas. The condition is in reverse—”blocked writer.” Behind this wall there’s a nice little stash of novel concepts in the hopper for later: quasi-sense notes, blueprints and casual scribblings interlocking Tetris-like while awaiting proper cultivation.

The dial’s also been set to “maintenance pause” while I evaluate and mend the technical side of customizing, upgrading and optimizing with the website developer and host service, tweaking the security/failsafe add-ons, and solving some complex coding snags along the way. This was done to future-proof dem411 against changes in the web infrastructure and a major open-source software shift to WordPress 5.0 Gutenberg (content management and publishing system). I also re-edited and shortened old text in the site’s music, work and photo sections.

Outside the nuts-and-bolts my main “focal block” is that I’ve spent several months exhausting nearly all brainpower and capacity with a boundless run of pieces/projects as a hired gun. Amid hundreds of unique items, I was co-author on a digital publishing team that just won a 2018 industry award under the category “Thought Leadership/White Paper” for this micro-site and white paper combo.

If you’re in top form, busy and overbooked, then by rite you have one of the best problems in the world. While cranking out content for self-sustenance I’m also on “burnout alert,” when there’s no room for the theoretical/analytical groundwork vital to churning out a signature style and delivering on the core goals that define dem411 articles:

  • Timeless angles, above all else.
  • Do the research, spot/parse patterns, and see old/lost knowledge applied in fresh connections. Create the optimum conditions for a measured internal debate. Find out what everyone else has unearthed and divulged, then find a way to say what no one else has thought of yet. Make a discovery.
  • Self-regulate the tone and content for the audience (a more relevant aim than self-satisfaction).
  • Provoke conversation using detached objectivity, independent of feelings or confirmation bias. Ventilate false ideas and hypocrisy, so that they dissolve like passing clouds.

[ just passin’ through these here clouds, wingin’ it… ]

Field Tested Tactics that Break Writer’s Block

This article contains 2,000 words about a bunch of nada if it doesn’t serve to help you untangle tragic complication and put the beast back to sleep. Maybe you’ve already tried the standard advice to no avail, and are destined for pain. Whenever we experience the horror of our own arbitrary limitations, there is a temptation to disassociate from it as it rises revoltingly from the darkness. Writer’s block is something that appears self-inflicted in a world where human control is limited in scope. Now’s not the time to escape these thoughts by retreating into childlike witlessness, or by pursuing base pleasure to overlook it. You must conjure the strength to act rationally and quickly put an end to the illusions, yet without tearing yourself apart in desperation as you unearth character flaws in creative deterioration. This is all perfectly understandable to strong and logically consistent people. We know that every person is too complex to know themselves completely, and we all contain wisdom that we cannot comprehend (when your entire Being can tell you something that you can neither explain nor articulate).

Having cracked the metaphysical aspect, on to practical matters…

Eight methods with high success rates: if the conventional how-to bromides and web search has failed, it’s dem411 to the rescue. Without divulging all secrets, here are some key techniques I use to break the surface tension, provide vigor to a mind still teeming with life and creation (!!!), and encourage molten lava to flow non-stop from the volcanic peak to the sea:



1. Ed Rusha’s Never Odd or Even offers a pristine meditation on writer’s block. Here’s a puzzle or sneaky Jungian game that might help you form a “visual dislodge” of mental block. The “mirrored mountain” effect is not exactly as it seems from across the room. Ten or 20 seconds into cross-examination I began to see how Rusha meticulously altered the detail, adding forms within forms; it’s not what I thought it was, a vision that drew its creator into halls of obsession. You need to get back to that place, too, if just to nudge writer’s block into the forbidden wasteland from whence it came. (See a larger version of the painting here, where it hangs in Los Angeles.)



2. Wayfinding visualization (A): Search for metaphorical exits in the winding, cloistered paths of Bryce slot canyons. Moving mentally through a series of caves, canyons or unfamiliar rooms can induce a sense of escape, whether it’s fictitious or not.




3. Wayfinding visualization (B): “X marks the spot” or “beacon in the night.” There is a light hidden in the rocks in the middle of nowhere. Must reach it. This is an exercise in decreasing the noise that’s blocking your signal, because you have a surplus of nothingness crowding the mind. Sometimes writer’s block is everything in your field that is superfluous; all the data, words and ideas you don’t need. Can you mentally map your way to the one thing that stands out against the ordinary, and pinpoint its meaning like a buried treasure recovered from the abyss?



4. The fast fix: Does looking at images of fire give you fire? Put yourself in front of anything jarring or elemental that triggers your sense of wonder or haunts your reverie…oftentimes, that’s all it takes to dismantle low-level writer’s block. Sweeping vistas and weird landscapes can have the same effect.



5. The competitive impetus of your friend or coworker, who is not blocked. It’s social, primal, and positively contagious. It doesn’t matter if he or she is an artist, writer, or anything else. Who’s being productive around you while you are adrift in ennui? Try channeling that person without glomming on (doesn’t need to be a physical maneuver). Subtly, there is a current of curious electricity to rally around. Their mojo will rub off—almost ethereally—by reminding you that you are falling behind, needing to catch up or about to watch outside talents surpass your meager effort. We hear another fiendish verbal scolding from the masterful Pai Mei, another ice-cold splash of water in the lazy face. If your friend made this mixed media collage (above), which reminded you not only of her talent, but that she was functional where you were not, it would begin the necessary stirring. The negative motivation blooms in cross-comparison, and gets us off our asses.



6. A bunch of unrelated objects / whimsical knickknacks. Desk clutter, visual curios and “mental palette cleansers” can be strategically situated around the work space: pine cone, air plant, natural imagery, unusual rocks, rare earth magnets, vintage semiconductor chips and circuit board cross sections, Pantone color swatches, pre-digital era New York City subway tokens, wooden owls and monkeys, VW engine pistons or low-tide sand dollars. They jog a thought process when the mind goes blank. This is one of the sublime and minor techniques known as “gaze at random junk and allow it to sink in.”



7. Zen way out. Stubborn writer’s block can descend into the comedy of tortured, nihilistic existential philosophy, calling for something a little more stringent to transcend it. Among the possibilities, maybe the Zen objects tied to a simple, eloquent scene from the film “I Heart Huckabees” can shatter this frozen moment. If it works, offer gratitude to the screenwriters (David O’Russell, Jeff Baena) and actors (Dustin Hoffman, Mark Walberg, Lily Tomlin) for their silent contributions to mental block. Cinema at its best serves as a mirror and filter on society. In this case, it’s centered on a debate about something (being) versus nothingness (the void), on the way toward seeing ourselves as both dynamic souls and an existential dish of mold (because one cannot live without the other):


Bernard: You and me and the air are actually tiny particles that are swirling around together. Look right here. You see?
Tommy: Okay. But look at the cracks between these particles and the cracks we fall through, the holes of nothingness.
Bernard: Look closer. There are tiny particles connecting the larger cubes.
Tommy: Yeah, and then tinier cracks between the connections.
Bernard: And even tinier connections.
Tommy: And even tinier cracks.
Bernard: Yeah, but if you look close enough, you can’t tell where my nose ends and space begins, because they’re unified.

[see the full scene here]

Mind blown; writer’s block destroyed (Yeah? No?). Next.



8. Last but not least, you are afforded a one-time opportunity to get over writer’s block by writing an article about writer’s block. Unlike the visual cathartics mentioned earlier, this option is self-limiting and only works once, so that’s it for me. The wisdom was hard-earned, I had something useful to tell you, but I can never use this technique again!



[ an accurate portrayal of others’ pity for your dilemma ]