On Getting Stuck, and Unstuck Again

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This is a theme that anyway who reflects on creative practice will need to visit and revisit periodically over the years. It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on it, and going back to see what my past self had to offer, I find it still valid, but a bit tangential to the hurdles I have been encountering this autumn. Today we are going to explore the place where stuckness intersects with apathy.

One of the things I learned early in my life as a researcher was that when writing is hard, it is usually because you’ve not yet done enough thinking (and also possibly reading). Analogously, when arranging is hard, you’ve not done enough noodling about (and also possibly listening).

When you realise that this is the issue, there’s no point beating up on yourself for having started without having fully prepared, because in fact you often need to have started to discover the exact nature of the preparation you needed. You think you know what direction you’re headed, but it’s the process of getting stuck that identifies the specificity of the groundwork you need and thus guides your return to thinking/noodling. The material needs the chance to talk back to you.

This stage of stuckness is so routine in my life that it often doesn’t even register as stuckness, and even when it does the mantra, ‘When writing is hard, you need to do more thinking’ is always there to pull me out of the hole.

But what’s going on when you know you need to go back and do some deep listening, but you can’t quite be bothered to today? Sometimes, this sense of resistance is itself part of the rumination process, but that slightly prickly feeling of your brain saying, ‘No don’t joggle my elbow, I’m working’ is experientially different from the duller sense of just not feeling able to summon the moral energy to get on with it.

The thing is, to get on and do the groundwork that takes you deeper into your material also takes you deeper into yourself. You have to become more cognitively alert, more emotionally engaged. And sometimes, you brain is busy trying to protect you from thinking or feeling too deeply. Like, for instance, 6 months into a pandemic, when your city has been in special measures for some weeks already with no discernible impact on rocketing infection rates and the country as a whole is suffering from a public health infrastructure that is manifestly unequal to the task.

The entry in my thinking book for 28 September starts, ‘It’s all gone to shit,’ and continues to reflect on how I need to find ways to live with the situation, ‘without churning myself up all the time so I can’t sleep’. By mid-October I was sleeping much better, but the anxiety had been replaced by a prevailing miserableness, and I felt like my brain was wrapped in cotton wool.

People are always going through a variety of internal responses to external circumstances of course. What’s unusual this year is that primary thing that shapes experience is the same for so many of us all at the same time. We have an unparalleled insight into each other’s lives right now, with a commensurate opportunity for empathy…on those days when we can muster the emotional energy to take it…

It was at the end of the October when I was really grappling with stuckness affecting both my writing and my arranging. The notes that eventually became this post appear in my thinking book on October 29, and finish with a piece of advice from Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway that I have often found useful when operating outside my comfort zone: ‘The only way out is through’.

And in fact, the factor that forced the issue with the immediate stuckness of that moment was a deadline: I had to get this thing done however I felt so I just lived through the emotional pain of engaging with the deep listening I needed to do to solve my arranging problems, and got it finished in the timescale I had promised.

That’s the point at which I put ‘blog on stuckness’ on my to-do list, though I wasn’t quite sure right then how I was going to conclude. When the problem is that we’re all being blown around on the winds of circumstance over which we have very little control, I wasn’t very confident of offering any solution that would be very effective for me, let alone for anyone else.

Then the LABBS Big Weekend came along and ripped the plaster off the wound, and I emerged feeling able once again both to think and to feel. Apparently, a really good dose of catharsis helps you out of stuckness. I’m not actually sure that this offers a helpful solution for future reference though. It’s not clear to me whether catharsis is something you can seek out at will, or indeed whether you would have the will to seek it out at the times you really need it.

But these are unusual times, and we are learning different things about ourselves in the process, and registering what we are learning on the way past has more chance of being useful than just letting it all wash over us. At the very least, today I am celebrating the fact that I can currently, apparently, write.

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