Lucia interviewed me for the master's program "Biographical and Creative Writing" at Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences Berlin. We talked about creativity, fears, writer's block, my offers, and my own writing projects.
This is a translation of the original interview in German. You can find the original here.
Reading time: 12 min.
Author: Tobias Rebscher
Foto: Ann H 🔗
Dear Tobias, it's great that you are willing to give an interview to the BKS students of the 17th cohort! Who are you and what defines you?
Hi Lucia, thank you for your interest! I find it quite difficult to answer who I am. I'll just tell you what I've been up to.
I grew up in the Black Forest and, after a few detours around the world, I have been living in Berlin since 2010. Most of the time, I have worked as a social worker here, advising adults on how to cope with their daily lives. This involved topics such as homelessness, addiction, mental health, and HIV. Additionally, I led a facility for emergency housing assistance for almost five years. In between, I made a living from music for two years. Writing has mainly been a hobby for me. I studied BKS until 2014 simply because I found it interesting. Now, after about ten years, I am fortunate enough to probably publish my first small book with Periplaneta Verlag in February.
Since I have been involved in various organizations and I am very interested in how people collaborate, I completed an MSc in Consulting and Human-centered Design at HU during the pandemic. Furthermore, I focus on topics such as agility, new work, leadership, and mental health.
Another important part of my life is mindfulness practice, which includes meditation and martial arts, for example. I am interested in philosophy, spirituality, and - in a similar vein - chess. I love the nightlife in Berlin and the panoramic view of the Alps at Lake Constance. I try to practice staying open and curious, marveling at life, being grateful, and not taking life too seriously anymore.
How did you start writing yourself, what does writing mean to you, and what was the moment/process when you decided to accompany other people as well?
I started writing after finishing school, where I didn't go beyond a satisfactory level in German. I really started reading after school as well. During my school years, I dedicated myself to music. When I did my civil service in Ireland, I spent the rainy, stormy winter days building a fantasy world and writing away - simply because I loved it. It remained a hobby until the book was finished in 2011. I never wanted to publish it because I felt it wasn't good enough. But I learned that I could complete a book project. Earlier this year - almost 20 years after starting the first book - I signed my first publishing contract for another small book that was written between 2012 and 2018, telling a story through different forms of text. Now I feel that I have returned to writing professionally.
It was at BKS that I first experienced and appreciated writing in a group. Being creative together has something magical about it. As a social worker, I offered a weekly writing workshop in a residential facility for long-term dependent individuals for a year. I considered it a great privilege to hear the stories of such people. And I discovered how much fun it is to accompany people in creative processes. This is also confirmed now in my self-employment with the weekly CREATIVE Sessions and CREATIVITY Coaching.
How do you accompany people and what are your favourites?
Currently, I offer the CREATIVE Sessions, a low-threshold online offer based on donations. With this offer, I want to provide a space for all people, regardless of income, location, and previous experience, where they can develop their creativity. In addition, I send out a weekly free newsletter, through which we can reflect on our journey towards a creative life every week.
Building on this, I provide CREATIVITY Coaching and CREATIVITY Workshops for individuals who want to explore their creative expression in greater depth. I also consult organisations on how to activate and harness the creative potential of their employees. The creativity of employees is the key driver for innovation, and innovative solutions are a prerequisite for remaining future-proof. If an organisation cannot adapt flexibly to the changing world, it will likely not be able to keep up in the long run. Thus, our creativity is invaluable for organisations as well.
I don't have a favourite among my offers. I believe that balance is key. Only online groups would be too one-sided for me in the long run, as would only 1:1 coaching. I find the combination enriching. However, the most beautiful experience for me, regardless of the format, is to see people feeling comfortable and progressing through my offers. Therefore, I tend to find processes more appealing than single interventions.
I am fundamentally convinced that the ability to think creatively and thus come up with new valuable ideas is one of the most important skills of our time. As our daily lives change faster and faster, we must be able to find new paths. The beauty of it all is that all people have the ability to be creative. It is in our nature to create something. If we empower more people to tap into their creative potential, I believe we increase our chances of a better future.
What writing crises/blockades have you personally struggled with?
My own writing inhibitions depend on the type of text. For example, I have never had a hard time starting with poems and stories. Throughout my life, I have been a “playing child” - perhaps that helps me now.
However, for many years, the challenge for me was publishing these texts, which is why I didn't publish anything for a long time and had to approach it step by step. But my biggest inhibition is felt when writing song lyrics. I suspect that on some level, I am competing with my older brother, who is a producer and songwriter himself, as well as with my father, who is also a songwriter. Only in exceptional cases do I find my song lyrics good enough to show them. I believe that behind this blockade lies my fear of losing face in front of my family. It is safer for me to not take any risks. Therefore, this inhibition protects me from having my self-worth threatened.
What has helped you in these situations?
In overcoming blocks, what generally helps me is the understanding that behind our resistances or inhibitions, there are always fears. The critical inner voices that tell us we should stop writing are, in my understanding, the voices of our fears. Our negative beliefs also feed on our fears. Unfortunately, not only do we see the present through the lens of the past, but so do our fears. Like helicopter parents, they tend to see everything as a threat. Additionally, our fears are not very good at communicating.
The game-changer for me was the realisation that blocks are not evil, but rather that we block ourselves to protect ourselves from the sources of our fears. For example, my songwriting block protects me from my self-worth being threatened. This reframing makes it clear why the approach of fighting against blocks can hardly have sustainable success. In the fight, we separate ourselves. What we need is a relationship with our fears so that they can be reasoned with.
Specifically, mindfulness helps me not to identify with my fears. I try to perceive how the fear arises and accept it, as described by Tara Brach (2004). Then I thank it for its attempt to protect me and gently show it that I no longer need it. If we succeed in not artificially keeping our fears alive with thoughts, they naturally subside after a few seconds. But of course, I also find this very difficult. Nevertheless, meditation is an important path for me.
Furthermore, the tools and techniques of productivity are helpful for consciously directing my attention. In this understanding, mindfulness and productivity complement each other excellently.
I also find the knowledge very valuable that no one simply conjures novels onto the page. Countless rounds of revision underlie writing. Therefore, an important rule that inspires me, as suggested by Anne Lamott (1995), is:
Write "shitty" first drafts!
It makes sense to me that it is hardly possible to write masterpieces right away. Art, for me, arises in the dialogue between art and artists. The first draft often lacks the voice of art because it had little opportunity to get involved. The thing is, nothing we plan can surprise us. Surprise enters our work through intuition. We have to relinquish control to art and listen to it so that the artwork has the possibility to intuitively emerge. So we can joyfully write "shitty" first drafts because what we write is not so important. We will revise the text until a story emerges that no longer wants to be revised.
We don't have to be perfect. We have to learn to listen to art.
What techniques do you recommend to your clients for writing crises/blockades?
Free writing. It was already published by Dorothea Brande (2021) in 1934, then Peter Elbow (1998) was one of the prominent representatives in 1973. Julia Cameron (2002) finally translated and popularised free writing as morning pages in the 90s. The idea is that we can't even get into a blockage if we continuously stay in writing. Similarly, associative clustering or listing works for me as well. The main thing is that we write - then inspiration comes naturally.
Schedules: I also find schedules extremely helpful against writer's block. Especially "Deep Work" by Cal Newport (2016) was very insightful for me. By defining specific times, we know when to focus on writing. We block a certain time in the calendar and then do nothing but write. If the blockage prevents us from writing, we can either sit at the desk and stare into space until we get so bored that we start writing out of boredom, or better yet: we just start and write associatively and without judgment. Waiting for inspiration is nonsense. We have to get to work and invite inspiration that way.
Mindfulness rituals before writing: When we practice mindfulness, the critical inner voices cannot unsettle us so quickly. I do breathing exercises to reduce stress and anxiety and improve my mood (Yilmaz Balban et al., 2023). All of this is positive for our creativity (Baas et al., 2008; Byron et al., 2010; Davis, 2009). I practice open monitoring meditation to let go of my top-down control and activate divergent thinking; and focused attention meditation to activate convergent thinking and ground myself (Hughes et al., 2023). With such rituals, our brain realises, "Ah, now we're getting creative!" Sometimes I supplement this ritual with visualisations, such as the one by Anne Lamott (1995) from "Bird by Bird", to silence the inner voices:
“Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want—won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft. A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you.”
Last but not least: It helps me a lot to write down my fears at regular intervals to take away their dreadfulness. One exercise that I find helpful is the "Fear Setting Exercise" by Tim Ferris (2011). It is based on the stoic concept of "premeditatio malorum" by Seneca. I also find the exercise of Julia Cameron (2002) great, where she documents the critical inner voice by writing sentences like "I am a writer" on one page, and documenting all the negative statements from our inner critical voices on the other page. We can then rephrase these negative beliefs into positive affirmations. Hang them up where they are visible and read them once a day.
In which digital/real (writing) spaces are you connected?
Currently, I don't belong to any (writing) group. Only in 2023 did I make writing a priority again and I am currently trying to establish my independence so that I can make a living from it even after the start-up grant expires. In addition, as an introverted child at heart, I prefer to write on my own. However, I know the importance of writing groups and I want to get more involved again. It's so important to surround yourself with inspiring people who are on a similar path. Therefore, I am always happy to exchange ideas and I am very grateful for valuable tips!
What would you recommend to all aspiring writing group leaders?
I'm not sure if I'm in a position to recommend anything yet. What I think is important is that we do what excites us. I find self-employment to be a demanding activity that requires a lot of energy. This includes, for example, the entire public presence with texts, photos, videos, etc., and the application for financial support through business and financial plans. It also involves the conception of all offers, website design, and the development of a scalable system, so that future increasing interest does not overwhelm me. In addition, I continuously educate myself, maintain my knowledge, techniques, and tools, network both analog and digitally, post social media content, create promotional materials, and constantly put myself in situations where I have to prove myself. I find that challenging.
For this reason, it is so important that we are passionate about what we do. Only when we are passionate can we muster the necessary energy and overcome crises. Aditionally, when we listen to what excites us, what we offer will naturally be unique. We cannot be perfect, not at all; there will always be people who do not like us. We should not try to be like others, otherwise we will never emerge from their shadow. Instead, we should do what excites us. For example, I am passionate about creativity, mindfulness, nature, martial arts, productivity, psychology, and science, and I allow myself to combine elements of all of these in my offers.
What are your (writing) goals for the next quarter/year/the next 5 years?
To stay consistent with my writing and keep my perfectionism in check, I aim to publish a text on my German blog "Prosa kleiner Stunden" twice a week. This way, I don't run the risk of waiting for perfection and end up not publishing anything out of fear.
Additionally, I post on my social media channels almost every day and write a weekly newsletter with short inspirations and creative questions. It is important to me not only to share perfect things, but also to give insights into what I am currently working on and what I am trying to learn, inspired by Austin Kleon (2012). In addition, I want to publish an article on my website once a month on a specific topic.
In February 2024, hopefully, my first small book will be published. I am currently writing texts for the second one, which - at least in my mind - could be released as a kind of sibling book in about two years. Additionally, I have another novel half-finished in the drawer, and I have to be careful that the idea doesn't feel neglected and runs away... there is still so much to tell!
What else would you like to share with us?
Personally, I find it very rewarding to explore creativity from a scientific perspective. Most researchers would agree that when we are creative, we create something valuable that did not exist before. This can be materially valuable, but also simply because it benefits us or brings us joy. In this understanding, creativity goes far beyond the arts. Any activity in which we express ourselves in a valuable way can be considered creative, such as gardening, cooking, or building a business. Creative writing can be a method to foster creative thinking within this understanding. All people have the potential to be creative. And who knows - if we activate all that untapped creative potential, maybe the world can still be saved.
As a creativity coach, I also find it meaningful to foster creativity independent of the creative project itself. For example, we can support our creativity by remaining open and curious, facing new challenges, surrounding ourselves with inspiration, connecting with our emotions, practicing mindfulness, making friends with our fears, letting go of our resistance, managing stress and pressure, creating a temporal and spatial environment where we feel safe and our creativity can flow freely, designing a system to capture and implement creative ideas, establishing habits that support our creativity, and of course, taking care of ourselves. Therefore, in my opinion, it is the task of creatives to put themselves in a position where we can be creative. All of these levels and many more can play a role.
And last but not least, I can't forget to ask, with all my many typewriters, do you also have a typewriter?
Unfortunately, I don't have a typewriter at home right now. But I do write a lot by hand because I feel that ideas can "unfold" more freely that way. So, like you, I also have papers flying around the room - just not in a sepia-romantic way from a typewriter.
Dear Tobi, thank you very much for the personal insights, inspirations, and your fantastic accessible offer! Keep up the great work. Lucia
Dear Lucia, thank you very much for the interview and good luck with your creativity!!
This is a translation of the original interview in German. You can find the original here.