Writer’s block, free time, and atheism: Tinkering with the human machine

I can’t speak to the experiences of others, but for me, the notion of “writer’s block” as a lack of ideas has always felt a bit wrong. I’m never sort on ideas, it’s just that I often have a great deal of trouble trying to convert those ideas into a good piece of writing. It’s less that the wellspring of my creativity is blocked, and more that the ideas flowing down the stream it creates in my mind sometimes jumble together like sticks and leaves, and turn themselves into a temporary dam. Some stuff gets through, or finds a way around, but a clear state of “flow” is unavailable. Most of the time, the primary culprit is one big piece of work that I’m struggling with.

In the current instance, it’s a post about how we perceive energy as a tool or resource, how we perceive the courses of action available to us, and how I think we’ve been approaching the conversation wrong. Specifically, we’ve mostly been approaching it from the perspective of capitalist notions of competition and scarcity. I’m trying to pull together a couple disparate concepts into a single article that’s coherent, and hopefully persuasive. It’s often a fun challenge to do this sort of thing, and it’s the kind of writing that makes me feel like I’m “earning” the backing of my patrons.

It’s frustrating because the longer a piece like this takes me, the more space it occupies in my mind, and the more the pressure to get it done with builds, along with the worry that I’ll do a worse job just to get it out of my way. Sometimes all I can do is set the work aside, and find a way to move on without finishing it.

Mental dams like this have long been a problem for me. Tegan thinks I have “inattentive type” ADHD, and though I haven’t gotten around to getting checked out for it, what little research I have done makes me think she’s right. In struggling with the symptoms over the years, I once came across an online community that treats procrastination as an addiction, and developed a version of the “12 step program” for it. At that point in my life – around a decade ago – I think I was some form of Quaker/Taoist, and still approaching problems like this from a spiritual perspective. While I was desperate to find any sort of time management strategy that would fix everything, I also still very much had the notion that I could more or less pray my mental problems away.

It wasn’t until I started to truly understand myself as a complex, self-aware machine that I started to make progress. I am my body. My “self” is an emergent property of the various systems that make up my body. Primarily, it’s my nervous system, but that’s also affected by all my other systems. In a lot of very real ways, a human is a self-aware biological “robot” that’s capable of taking in information from the world around it, translating it into patterns of cells in our brains, and storing it in that imperfect form to compare to future information. We are also capable of choosing inputs for certain results, like establishing a particular cell pattern through repeated exposure to a particular bit of information, to the point where it becomes more or less permanent, needing only occasional reinforcement – memory.

Dealing with things like writer’s block is, in whatever way it’s under my control, a matter of using the tools I have available to me to run maintenance, and learn to better operate the meat machine that is me, so I can use it for the things I want to do. Dismantling mental blockage like this, and restoring a state of flow is, in some ways, as important a part of the writing craft as is a large vocabulary, or an understanding of grammar. It’s a form of recalibration done by going through a difficult piece of writing one word at a time, if necessary, and watching for every spot where my brain gets derailed, so I can see the problem and find a way to get through it more easily.

It’s a skill that can be easy to do without most of the time, and mental dams like that often sort themselves out, eventually, or become obstacles we’re used to avoiding. The problem is that it’s time lost that I don’t want to lose. For whatever reason, I seem to have a harder time with things like forming habits than a lot of people I knew growing up, and so that’s something I need to work around. Approaching it in this manner makes it easier for me to break problems down into their component parts, to a degree, and work out how to get things done despite those obstacles. The problem is that this kind of work is difficult to do. Brains are remarkable organs, but they can’t just fix problems with themselves. Sometimes all that’s needed is the help of someone like a therapist who’s trained in ways to get brains to operate in one way or another. Often that’s not enough. In my case, I’m on anxiety meds, and I’m lucky enough to be in a situation where my duty to the household, beyond things like housekeeping, is being as good of a writer as I can be.

It may be that this is a problem I can figure out how to manage without medication that would require an official diagnosis, but the only way I have a shot at that is because I happen to be in a situation where I have the time and energy to work on things like this, and because by doing so, and writing these articles, I’m also paying our grocery bill.

Any success I have in this endeavor – and I have been having some success – is due not just to my own efforts, but to a combination of factors. I needed the time to dedicate to this, I needed the mental security of knowing my basic needs would be met, at least for a short while, and I needed the mental framework of philosophical naturalism – understanding myself as the physical being that I am – to be able to make a material analysis of my situation.

All the fantasies of self-improvement that are so popular in our society ultimately come down to nothing if your circumstances prevent you from actually treating it like a valuable use of time. I guess all of this is to say that I’ve been having some trouble with my writing of late, but I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I have the resources to actually deal with it, at least to some degree. So there’ll be a post about energy sources and uses up tomorrow!


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Someone else’s perspectives on religion and family

It’s easy, when entering the world of atheism, too get a biased view of religion. A lot of what’s talked about are the clearest examples of how bad religion can be. My own experiences with religion were largely positive. I was raised in a Quaker household in New England, and my religious community was, for a long time, my primary social community. It was a group of kind, welcoming people who were great at making everybody feel valued. I think a lot of effort went into creating that space for the kids growing up there, and I’m glad I had it.

And I should be clear – while I was pretty devout, in my way, and pretty clear that Quakerism was a Christian religion, albeit an unusual one, many of my friends, and many adults in the society were not Christian, and viewed Quakerism as more of a lifestyle thing. That really bugged me sometimes. All in all, the people were kind and respectful, and while I had to part ways with that community, I hold no resentment towards Quakers, and it’s been made clear to me many times that if I chose to rejoin the community, or even just to visit, I would be made welcome. The worst that I would suffer would be awkwardness from long absence and different understandings of the world.

Not everybody is so lucky, and not everybody has parents who are as open-minded, understanding, and willing to work for a good relationship with their kids as mine are. Case in point, fellow FTB denizen Joe Sands, over at Incongruous Circumspection:

Now, I will introduce you to one of my most popular series on my old blog, off in that dusty corner of the internet.

I grew up in an abusive environment, learning to cope quite well until I was 19 years old. At that point in my life, the heat got too hot and I was ready to be free. I left and went to live with my dad to get on my feet and expose myself to the real world in full color, rather than a world through sheltered and well defined, paranoiac lenses. My freedom came with many bumps in the road as I discovered that I was truly lazy when I wasn’t being yelled at to accomplish a task. I needed to mature…grow up. Life moved very fast and I needed to jump in and roll with it.

I’ll let you read the rest at his latest installment of Letters from my Mama, and just add that talking to other people from religious families sometimes makes me quite grateful for my own family, and my own experiences with religion.