Every Writer Feels Stuck at Some Point
I sometimes spend weeks unable to do anything except cobble together a few measly words in my journal. We all know the feeling. There’s a chasm of space between a feeling you want to convey and the disjointed words that sputter out. Writing becomes a half-hearted afterthought at the end of the day.
Call it what you will — writer’s block, a creative lag, work paralysis, a lack of inspiration — it all boils down to the same issue. On some days you just can’t get words on paper. A pressure in your head stymies your mental clarity, or maybe you’re constantly on the verge of writing — fingertips quiver over the keyboard with a pulse of creative energy that slips away before you can capture it.
Google the term “writing prompt” and you’re inundated with a stream of websites offering hundreds of prompts. There’s an entire subreddit with a bottomless list of daily writing prompts with nearly 15 million subscribers. But writing prompts don’t always help me. Trying to mold my writing into a pre-written prompt when I’m already feeling creatively “off” builds an even more paralyzing pressure.
Recently, I found something that works for me. Something incredibly simple that lifts me out of a creative rut and shines a headlight through the mental fog. I’m sharing my method and the science behind it to help other writers who could also benefit from this simple technique.
Here’s the Secret
Slow down. Stop what you’re doing and take a moment to notice your surroundings. Ground yourself. Be acutely mindful of your environment and focus on things you see every day but haven’t given much thought to. Chances are you’re stuck in your head.
Get out of it.
Instead of looking for prompts online that may or may not spark an idea, take note of what’s already right in front of you. You’ll see familiar things in a new light if you slow down to notice them.
What I’m suggesting is similar to mindfulness. You may already be familiar with the concept, but did you know that it improves cognition and mood, enhances the ability to sustain attention, and boosts creativity? We gain mental clarity when we slow down and focus on our surroundings.
Once you start noticing what’s in front of you — truly noticing it — you realize that inspiration is all around you.
It’s waiting between the pages of your favorite book you haven’t read in a while, it’s in the painting you’ve had in your bedroom for years, it’s in the magnets on your refrigerator that bring back memories of places you’ve been, it’s scribbled across the old journals collecting dust under your bed, and sewn into the dresses in your closet that could each tell a story about a different night.
Glean Surprising Insights From Familiar Things
What does this look like in practice? Here’s an example of a moment of inspiration I had this morning that was sparked by my cat, Spooky:
Spooky spends his mornings prowling around the house, searching for beams of light to attack. I sit in the living room and watch his morning routine unfold in the kitchen. It happens a few times every hour — A cloud moves aside, sunlight filters through the window, a brushstroke of light paints itself across the wooden floor.
Spooky’s gaze lands on it. Black fur bristles and yellow eyes fixate on the streak of light. He pounces — When he catches nothing between his paws and his prey regains its form as soon as he stops swatting at it, he recedes back into a dark corner in the kitchen, waiting to strike again.
He does this for hours. An endless loop of cat versus light beam plays in the background as I sip my coffee and respond to emails. This morning, I stopped mid-sentence while writing an email to watch my cat engage in his morning ritual. I’ve seen him do this every day for the past year, but I never stopped to really notice it.
I started thinking about the reasons behind his behavior. Maybe it’s a misplaced remnant of his biological evolution. An incessant, evolutionary urge to catch something combined with household domestication and an uncatchable prey. I’m not sure if never being able to catch the light frustrates Spooky or if he enjoys the hunt regardless of the outcome.
Let Your Mind Wander Without Judgement
From there, my mind kept wandering — What are the loops in my life? What circles am I running in, expecting a different result? What habits have become so ingrained in my life that they’ve turned into instincts? What am I chasing that I can never seem to catch?
These questions sparked a frenzied journaling session. An outpouring of words flooded previously blank pages. I filled page after page to the brim in a hunt to cultivate this sudden need to write. Turns out, there are many things in my life I need to rethink and several habits I should work on breaking.
I pieced together the best fragments from my journal entry and crafted the first personal essay I’ve written in a long time. I know it may sound silly that this all started by watching my cat, but engaging in a few minutes of mindfulness unlocked my creativity. Try it sometime. You may surprise yourself.
Curious About The Science Behind This?
I was, so I Googled it! Here’s what I learned: Our brains are by no means “hard-wired”. We form new neural connections when we have a new experience or view things in a different light. Reframing your approach to daily situations can enhance your brain’s agility, which is closely linked to creativity.
Being mindful will literally change your brain. It speeds up the process of gyrification, forming new folds in your prefrontal cortex. Why does this matter for writing and creativity?
“The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with our higher executive functions, namely our abilities to think flexibly and creatively, switch between tasks and make reasonable decisions.” — Tara Swart in Forbes
Give mindfulness a shot if you’re experiencing writer’s block or if you feel stuck on a work project. I use this technique to deal with writer’s block and brainstorm marketing ideas for my job.
Making mindfulness a habit extracts the extraordinary from the ordinary, illuminates new perspectives, jumpstarts your creativity, and literally changes your brain.
The Takeaway — Find Inspiration In The Familiar
Next time you’re feeling stuck, try simply being mindful of your surroundings. Inspiration is all around us if we’re able to see it.
Your lived experiences and present surroundings are your most valuable resources as a creator. Use them. Inspiration is in the familiar, not the unknown.