How to Deal with Setbacks in the Creative Process

It can be disheartening to hit a stumbling block when working on a piece of writing. But GrubStreet Instructor Ben Berman helps us see how setbacks are often a natural and necessary part of the creative process.


The other day I was cooking dinner when my five-year-old crawled on over to me. Goo-goo, ga-ga, she said, putting her arms in the air. I picked her up and patted her back until she burped.


Now that kindergarten is around the corner, my daughter loves to pretend that she’s a baby – wants to be spoon-fed at dinnertime, asks to be rocked to sleep.


Her regressions would be much more worrisome if I didn’t experience the same process with every single poem I’ve ever written.


Just last week, I decided to make some final edits to a poem that I was preparing to send out – wanted to fine-tune an image and rework the rhythm of a line.


But a little minor tweaking soon turned into some heavy pruning and before I knew it my poem looked like a plundered village.


I think that I’d suddenly felt the pressure of submission and tried to guard the poem from every vicious critique of an imagined editor who would immediately recognize all of its flaws.


By the next morning, I was ready to give up on the poem altogether and file it away in my drawer of failed poems.


It wasn’t until I was talking with an actress friend of mine later in the week that I was able to see my own process with some clarity and perspective.


My friend had just finished a dress rehearsal for a play that was set to open in a few days, and so much went wrong – missed cues, misplaced props, injuries from botched costume changes – that she worried the director was going to cancel the show.


But opening night went fabulously, of course, and it made me realize that setbacks are a natural and necessary part of the process – they refocus you and remind you of what’s at stake.


And when I returned to my poem the following morning, the revisions just kind of flowed out of me with grace and ease.


Often times, in creative work, we reach a point in the path where we can no longer go forward unless we make some great leap. And so we turn around – not to retreat to our cars but so that we can get a running start, create enough momentum to clear the crevice and make it to the other side where a stunning view awaits.




At least that is what I tell myself when my five-year-old finds some old Elmo diapers in her closet and asks if she can try one on.


Of course, I say, trying to convince myself that there’s no need to check in with her pediatrician – she’s just getting a really, really big running start as she prepares for the big leap to kindergarten.


See more Writing while Parenting articles by Ben Berman           

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

See other articles by Ben Berman
by Ben Berman


The Writing Life



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