Introduction

From Hillary Rettig’s book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block (Infinite Art, August 2011). (c)2011 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to copy and distribute so long as this paragraph is included, and a link is provided back to www.HillaryRettig.com

This book is about liberation. Most people think they procrastinate or are blocked because they are flawed (i.e., lazy or uncommitted), or missing some essential quality like willpower or discipline. They couldn’t be more wrong. The truth is that nearly everyone has enough energy, commitment, willpower and discipline to write prolifically. They even have enough time – or, at least, more time than they think they’ve got now.

What they don’t have is: (a) confidence (defined as the absence of fear), and (b) enough of the many conditions that make writing possible. Or, put another way, they are operating under constraints that separate them from, or give them a diminished sense of, their strengths and resources. Remove those constraints – or, more precisely, liberate yourself from them – and most people’s energy, commitment, willpower, discipline, time, etc., “magically” reappear, and they’re able to write. A lot.

Many people are skeptical when I tell them this – and why wouldn’t they be, after years or decades of struggle? But the very phrase “writer’s block” supports my point. It’s not that you’re missing something, it’s that you’re blocked from using whatever it is you have.

Also, think about your performance in other areas of your life. Many people with writer’s block are strong achievers in other areas, such as their day jobs, community work, or family life and friendships. (They are often the “go to” person whom others ask for help.) So they clearly have the energy, discipline, etc., but just can’t figure out how to use them in the service of their writing. This is one of the peculiar torments of a block: that it often occurs selectively around those activities closest to our hearts.

Context is everything. I could put you in one context or environment (perhaps similar to the one you’re in now), and your writing output would be low. And I could take that very same “you” and put you in another context and your productivity would soar. (An example of this phenomenon is the many people who can write under deadline, but not otherwise.) The goal of this book is to help you make the changes – and they’re often surprisingly small ones – that can create a new, productivity-enhancing context for yourself.

A key reason blocked writers have trouble diagnosing or solving their block is that they and others (notably, their teachers and mentors) underestimate not just the difficulty of the writing process itself, but of growing a sustainable writing career. (I’m using the word “career” holistically to include any sustained commitment to any form of writing; not just professional, or paid, writing careers.) This complexity also points to the importance of context, because it is your context that provides or does not provide the conditions that each of your orchestra’s many “instruments” requires to perform.

Even the most seriously blocked writers usually have “inspired” moments when the words flow freely. These moments – when the writer is in what sociologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state” – are craved by all creators, and for people with writer’s block they occur all too seldom. Moreover, even when they do occur, it is often when we’re away from our desks and can’t make full use of them, or when working on a “minor” project outside our main oeuvre (e.g., a letter to an editor or a birthday poem for Dad). The reason for that will be clear when you read Section I, and this book will also tell you how to minimize your constraints so that you have many more of those moments. Perhaps even more importantly, it will also tell you how to behave when you’re not feeling inspired, so as to maximize the chances that you’ll feel inspired again soon.

If you remember one thing from this book, remember this: that writer’s block and procrastination do NOT derive from laziness, lack of discipline, lack of commitment, etc. They have two main causes:

  1. You were never taught the habits of productive work. Ideally, we would all be taught, from preschool onward, the information and strategies in this book. If we were, there would be many fewer cases of procrastination and writer’s block.
  2. Intense fear (usually, fear of failure, but sometimes fear of success, and often both at once!). This fear, which I discuss at length in Section 1, usually lies at the very heart of a block.

My most important piece of advice, therefore, is to NEVER call yourself names such as, “lazy,” “uncommitted,” “undisciplined,” “immature,” etc. Doing so is an extremely common response to a block, but as you will see in Section I, it not only misdiagnoses the problem, but undermines your confidence. It’s also inhumane, since the way to help someone who is afraid is not to badger them, but to provide love and support.

Also, don’t bother feeling ashamed and guilty. Not only is that also unproductive, but it amounts to punishing yourself for problems (poor education, fear) that, (a) you didn’t cause, and (b) merit not punishment, but compassion. Besides, nearly everyone procrastinates, and most people procrastinate a lot. If anything, you probably procrastinate less than many others.

If you must feel anything about your block, feel pride: first, because you’re persevering, and, second, because writer’s block is an affliction of ambitious, sensitive people. John Gardner, in his classic book On Becoming a Novelist, says, “If children can build sand castles without getting sand-castle block, and if ministers can pray over the sick without getting holiness block, the writer who enjoys his work and takes measured pride in it should never be troubled by writer’s block. But alas, nothing’s simple. The very qualities that make one a writer in the first place contribute to block: hypersensitivity, stubbornness, insatiability, and so on.”

Also, feel compassion – the same compassion you’d have for anyone who is frightened.

Finally, feel optimism – because procrastination and writer’s block are solvable problems and, in fact, rather easily solved once you clear away all the misdiagnoses and shame and self-blame.