Drawing a blank.image
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Drawing a blank.

A few years ago, I was in an accelerator workshop playing an improv game. Our goal was to go around the circle and each spit a two line rhyme to a beat. When it was my turn, I drew a complete blank. For what felt like hours, I stood there with the only sounds coming out of my mouth being backchannels and curse words.

Erm. Uh. Fuck. Uh. Hmmm. Shit.

The rest of the team was stunned - probably by my creative use of expletives more than my improvisational incompetence - and encouraged me to just "say anything!" But there was no escape from the infinite emptiness that was my mind in that moment.

Eventually, someone fed me half of a stanza that I was able to turn into a set of laughable lyrics. It's a funny memory now, but in the moment..

It was embarrassing.

Worse, though, is that this wasn't a one-off event. I'd say some version of this story happens once every few months - where I just hit a creative brick wall. It's as if the anxiety of having to produce something causes me to produce nothing.

This week, this pattern presented itself as I was struggling with my writing practice. With every keystroke, my feelings of self-doubt and self-consciousness grew to make the next one harder. I was spiraling in a cycle of self-editing, staring at a blank page, believing there was nothing worthy of taking up the space.

Luckily, I have Sarah, who last night talked me through the symptoms of my self-imposed syndrome. She reminded me of what my freshman English teacher, Mrs. Jewell, used to say,

It's easier to make something bad better than it is to make nothing perfect.

I left that conversation with Sarah and immediately wrote 800 words in 30 minutes that would become the basis for this blog post; a message to my future self that your mind isn't blank; you're blind. You're not lost for ideas; you're lost in your own head.

You're an unreliable narrator.

There's this concept in psychology called "self-talk". Essentially, it's our inner voice; the internal monologue that combines our past beliefs with our current thoughts. I like to think about it as the voice of our ego.

This form of internal communication can be helpful. When we affirm or motivate ourselves, this is called positive self-talk. Neutral self-talk is when we're attempting to think objectively; we're trying to rationalize or work through a problem using facts and logic. Negative self-talk is when we tell stories that are distracting, unhelpful, or even harmful:

If I ask this question, the team will think I'm dumb. I can't start with that line, I'll never find a rhyme. I don't have anything to say. I'm a bad writer.

Negative self-talk is often the culprit for the self-editing and filtering that cripples our creativity and curiosity. There are tactics from cognitive behavioral therapy for self-identifying and dealing with bouts of extreme negative self-talk that I find very useful.

One of them, ironically, is stream of consciousness writing. This is when you write exactly what you're thinking - no filtering. By externalizing the voice in your head and seeing things like, "I'm a bad writer" on paper, it helps us to turn our negative self-talk into neutral self-talk. When it's out of our heads, we can see these thoughts for what they are: opinions - not facts. We can identify when we're telling ourselves stories that are unhelpful or untrue.

Obviously though, these self-help strategies are not fool proof. We can strive to be self-aware, mindful, and a good first line of defense for our own demise. However, relying solely on ourselves for this is like creating a system with a single point of failure.

So, it's best to have a backup plan: other people.

The voice matters.

Now, I know that writer's block is solved by writing. I've heard hundreds of authors espouse this fact. I was consciously reminding myself of it while I was staring at the blank page. So, why when Sarah said, "It's easier to make something bad better than it is to make nothing perfect" did I suddenly take the advice?

Is it because the words - the quote itself - is so powerful? Probably not. No offense to Mrs. Jewell, but I was reading a ton of inspirational quotes that were I'd say just as inspiring in an attempt to unblock myself.

So, what's my theory? I think it's because Sarah said it.

I'm an unreliable narrator. Sometimes, regardless of whether what I'm telling myself is positive or negative, I don't know if I can trust the voice behind the words. That's why I constantly externalize and gut check my ideas with my friends. It's also why if I had told myself that exact quote, this essay wouldn't exist.

The pithy quote means nothing on its own; it's the voice that makes it meaningful. Someday, I might run into this same problem and reread this blog post. Maybe I'll heed the lessons learned from my past self. But inevitably there will come a day when I ignore it; when I won't want to listen to myself talk.

It's those days where I'm incredibly grateful to have other people in my corner to hype me up.

"I'm drawing a blank" is a lie.

Our minds can't actually be empty. We have no concept of negative thought. "Don't think about puppy sized elephants" immediately puts an image of a big eared, adorable, memorable little lump in your brain. Similarly, if I tell you to think about nothing, you'll think about something.

However, there will be times when our fear of failure, judgement, ridicule, or defeat blinds us from these thoughts and ideas. We must strive to acknowledge when this is happening in ourselves and others, and take action accordingly.

We have the power to be our own greatest critic. But we must know when it's time to critique and when it's time to just create.

Until next time.

Drew Lyton
Drew Lyton
Monday, October 31, 2022

I'm a software engineer, ex-founder and writer who cares deeply about creating a better relationship between technology and society. I'm currently writing a book about early stage entrepreneurship.


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