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What cracks in the pavement, AI, and writer's block have to do with the process of coaching.

Anyone who likes to write from time to time will have been confronted with a block to their progress; that horrible sense of simply not being able to string a sentence together. I guess we all have our own reasons for that curtain coming down on our ability to convey meaning via the written word, even if we are not always sure what those reasons are. For me it comes at the beginning and the end of the process. It probably happens at points in the middle too, yet I remain blissfully less aware of them given what feels like the almost insurmountable challenge of beginning and ending.

By beginning I mean that moment of confronting the blank page, or the empty screen. It happened tonight and I feel that creeping stiffness in my gut even as I recall the moment of my fingers being suspended over the untapped keyboard of the laptop, and as I now happily tap away on this particular sentence. The tyranny of the blank page, or canvas, is something that David Zinn talked about from his perspective as an artist. The blank page presents him with an opportunity but one that involves too much choice (he talks about this being the basis of his discovery that ‘choice and opportunity are not the same’). I imagine that for him as for me, this encourages the question ‘where to start?’ which rapidly morphs into ‘how to start?’ and thus the brick wall comes into existence, against which I beat my head, in the hope that words will flow!

DZ’s solution for his impasse with blank paper came from a memory of how he and his brother had competed to create pictures from random doodles on paper when they were children. The doodles provided a template for their artistic flair. Looking back he rationalised this by realising that the doodles on paper offered an opportunity for embellishment, with a reduced number choices when it came to thinking about ‘how to start?’ In his young mind perhaps it was true that this reduced number of choices also meant that the eventual choice he made had less chance of being wrong. Whatever it was, this game unleashed a creativity that simply was not accessible via a blank canvas.

As an adult DZ has made an international name for himself with his fabulous, quirky pavement art. He creates it around features in the pavement, like cracks, hydrants, drain covers, which each offer the same ‘choice control’ of the doodles he modified as a child. If you have not seen his chalk art do go check it out and listen to his philosophy about creativity too. It certainly had an influence on me!

Going back to my writer’s block. What might be the equivalent of a doodle on the page that could make the choice to start writing more manageable. Well, I am using one now, in the form of Lex (thanks Nathan, and to Chris for sharing about Lex with me in one of our coaching conversations). Lex is a Googledoc type front end, combined with an AI interface. When prompted the AI can be asked to offer a sentence or two to follow on from whatever you already written. Here is what Lex came up with when I asked it to follow on from the end of the previous sentence…

‘As with DZ’s doodles, these AI offerings can help control choices of ‘how to start?’ and is also likely to reduce the fear of failure that comes when starting a piece of work

When using AI and/or templates in our writing or in any other creative field, there is the risk of a kind of uncreative safety in numbers. Knowing that a robot is helping me piece words together could lead to a kind of laziness in my approach, where I become dependent on it’.

Nothing wrong with that contribution is there?! Although it did not take me in the direction I wanted to go, it did encourage me to choose one, a direction that somehow clarified only when presented with Lex’s alternative. Effectively the AI input from Lex has the same function as the doodle or the crack in the pavement did on releasing DZ’s artistic flair. It frees up the block just enough for creativity to flow, and that flow is often enough to sweep the block away entirely. It provides enough structure for the artist or writer to create around and over it. Even though that structure might ultimately become invisible, its presence is there in the creation it supports.

I suspect that I am hearing you form the question in your mind ‘aahh, but how does this help you actually start writing on the blank page, isn’t that the biggest problem for you?’ In reply I am thinking ‘that’s a great question’. After all, if I have not written a sentence or two the AI could not riff on it in creating its content, could it? I was stumped for a moment or two, then realised that perhaps I was more willing to write on the blank page because I knew I had access to something that will prompt my thinking if (when?!) I did reach a block. I have something that I know can help me see that doodle, the feature in the pavement even if I can’t see it right now. That knowledge, perhaps comfort, is enough to allow me to make the choice to start.

Such is the flow now that I am going to allow myself to be diverted away from my original intent of talking about why endings are difficult for me too. That can wait until another day. What has come up for me is another way of envisioning what a personal and professional coach, such as myself, is doing when they act as a thinking partner with their client. Perhaps what they are doing is helping their client navigate their personal blank page or stretch of pavement. The coaching conversation co-creates the doodle on the page, or if you prefer, it locates the existing detail in an otherwise blank stretch of pavement. This creates a cognitive and emotional framework which is now accessible for the client to explore freely. They take the responsibility for the choices that influence how their creative exploration unfolds. Nice!

Okay, so it’s a flight of fancy. That’s what metaphors are after all, aren’t they? Today I have chosen to write this piece and explore this metaphor in navigating creative block and to explain my role as a coach. It has meaning for me today, which might fade or morph into something different over time. For now I am happy to have something to nudge my creativity, and I am comfortable with my role as a doodle, or a crack in the pavement, in my work partnering with my many coaching clients.

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