Writer’s block can be debilitating. Thinker’s block (e.g., analysis paralysis) can be equally as brutal. Yet comedian Jerry Seinfeld once wrote in a Reddit AMA:
Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.
What on Earth does he mean? You are not alone. Everybody runs into these creative blocks. Some of us have figured out ways around or through them, to much success.
These “literary laxatives” are solutions that writers, musicians, and artists have used to get out of idea constipation and back into the swing of things. As painter and photographer Chuck Close once said:
I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
1. Creativity: Interviews > Drugs
History knows of many artists that used drugs to channel their creativity. Yet these substances are far from the only method to spark ideas and get the juices flowing (and certainly not the most sustainable). As Goodfellas star Ray Liotta and screenwriter Nick Pileggi said in an interview with GQ:
Liotta: Nick Pileggi gave me I don’t know how many hours of cassettes of himself interviewing Henry Hill, and I would listen to them continuously. Henry would be telling what happened, and it was so casual: “Oh, yeah, and then this one got whacked.” The whole time he’s eating potato chips, talking with food in his mouth.
Pileggi: You could have given Marty and me all the drugs in Malibu, we could not have made up that dialogue.
Journalists have used interviews for centuries in order to get informed about concepts, ideas, and stories they’re unfamiliar with. What better way to spark creativity than to browse through ideas and perspectives that entirely alien to you?
A fun question that TV show host Steve Hartman used to ask:
Instead of asking, “Is there anything else you want to add?” at the end of interviews, Hartman would ask: “If we knew you better, what question would we have asked?”
2. Research Offline
Although the Internet is an extremely useful tool, it also presents very restricted sources of information. It can be difficult to get someone to elaborate on something if it’s unclear, and it’s difficult to convey body language and atmosphere. There’s also just a ton of material that’s not discoverable on the Internet (yet).
The feeling of seeing a place in Google street view is just not the same as being there. As author Carl Zimmer advised:
Do as much research as possible away from the Internet — with living people, in real places.
The physical world provides additional information, details, and unusual occurrences that are more difficult (sometimes impossible) to come across on the internet. They also double as inspiration and can help get the imagination jumpstarted.
3. Set a Timer
I’m not sure I’m all that fast or all that productive. Take for example, Trollope. He’d rise at five-thirty, do his toilette and have his breakfast, all by six. He would then begin writing, and he had a note pad that had been indexed to indicate intervals of 250 words. He would force himself to write two hundred and fifty words per fifteen minutes. Now, if at the end of fifteen minutes he hadn’t reached one of those little marks on his page, he would write faster. And if he passed the goal in fifteen minutes he would write more slowly! And he wrote that way for three hours — three thousand words a day.
The timer forces urgency. Constraint is often the catalyst to creativity.
4. Write Three Pages Upon Waking Up
Grammy-nominated musician J. Cole mentioned how Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way had influenced his writing process. Cole ran into a creative block as he was working on his sophomore album, Born Sinner. Fortunately, he reignited his creativity using a technique that he got from Cameron’s book. He explained it:
…the first thing you do when you wake up is you write three pages, freehand, non-stop. You can’t stop. You have to write the first thing that comes to your head.
Waking up is the transition time between our subconscious reality and our physical reality. That intersection is ripe with interesting ideas.
5. Explain the Idea in One Sentence
Often times, a piece of art (e.g., article, film, illustration, etc.) can fail by trying to do too much. It ends up diffusing its own potency and spreading its message too thin. Author Ryan Holiday explained his process for focusing on an idea:
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was to–before I started the process–articulate the idea in one sentence, one paragraph and one page. This crystallizes the idea for you and guides you on your way.
Author and investor Tim Ferriss got a similar piece of advice from author John McPhee:
This is a habit I picked up from John McPhee, a master of writing structure and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. Decide on your first or last sentence/question/scene, then fill in the rest. If you can’t decide on the lead, start with the close and work backwards.
6. Use Your Frustration: “If Only…”
If you’re stuck on what to explore (and who wouldn’t be, with the endless possibilities), try to recall the last time you felt angry, envious, or frustrated. That’s how journalist Gaby Dunn created her concept for 100 Interviews, which got her a job at The New York Times and helped her find a book agent:
I started thinking about the job I had had at The Boston Globe, and about all the times I had been upset at them for chopping up articles I worked hard on. I wanted to be able to write journalism again with the freedom I had in college, when I was an editor. At one point with my family, I complained, “I bet I could think of 100 stories I could have written for them if they had only let me!” And my dad said: “Well, why don’t you write those down?” So I did. I stayed up the whole night writing ideas of people I wanted to meet in a notebook on the floor. I realized that I didn’t need to sit around and wait to get hired by a big newspaper. The internet is completely free – I could just start a blog and write the stories that I wanted. I decided to make this a journalism project, with deadlines and goals. It would be more than just a blog about me.
7. Revisit Old Notes and Fragments
While our brains can be great connecting tools, they’re often not the best for remembering things. That’s why it’s important to journal and make notes. For example, author J.K. Rowling wrote down the random ideas that came to her as she was crafting Harry Potter:
During the first five years that I was writing the series, I made plans and wrote small pieces of all the books. I concentrate on one book at a time, though occasionally I will get an idea for a future book and scribble it down for future reference.
I invented the names of the Houses on the back of an airplane sick bag! This is true. I love inventing names, but I also collect unusual names, so that I can look through my notebook and choose one that suits a new character.
Even though Rowling wrote by hand, it could be easier to keep track of these notes and fragments on a computer or in the cloud. As Jonathan Franzen said, the text travels with you:
In terms of process, the one small difference between a typewriter and a computer is that a computer makes it easier to find fragments you’ve written and then forgotten about. When you work at a book for as long as I do, you end up doing a lot of assemblage from scavenged materials. And with a computer you’re more likely, on a slow morning, to drift over to another file folder and open up something old. Chunks of text travel with you, rather than getting buried in a drawer or stored in some remote, inaccessible location.
If you don’t have old notes on you, have a look at artifacts from your past. Try old agendas or calendars, old instant messages, and such to jog your memory.
8. Change Your Physical Environment
Your physical environment affects how you think. If you’re stuck in a rut, try physically getting up and moving somewhere else to work. Author Haruki Murakami explained how his physical environment affected him in an interview:
During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That “strangeness” was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel. Come to think of it, if I wrote it in Japan, it might have become a very different book.
Different environments activate different thoughts. Conversely, the same environment can serve as a consistent breeding ground for ideas. As highlighted in The New Yorker, author Roald Dahl always wrote in one particular spot that brought him back to his childhood:
“It’s really quite easy,” he would say. “I go down to my little hut, where it’s tight and dark and warm, and within minutes I can go back to being six or seven or eight again.”
You don’t have to travel to a foreign country to get out of your rut. Just get out of your office, or house, or Starbucks, and try something new.
9. Use Rituals
Similar to how different environments bring our minds to different places, rituals help prime our minds differently as well. As writer Toni Morrison advised her students:
Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was — there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard — but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark — it must be dark — and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?
Understand the rituals you need in order to create your best work (e.g., Which songs on repeat? What time of day?).
Alternatively, try rituals that usually lead up to something else, and interrupt them by writing (e.g., get in your car and, instead of driving, start writing. Arrive early at a restaurant, and start writing). Examine the difference in mood, voice, and thoughts that come to your mind.
10. Try Different Instruments
If you’ve been using your Macbook or iPhone all your life, trying a different writing tool could make for an interesting change. What works for one artist may not work for another. For example, author David McCullough has written all his books on an old Royal typewriter:
I write on an old Royal typewriter, a beauty! I bought it secondhand in 1964, before I started The Johnstown Flood, and I’ve written all my books on it. It was made about 1941 and it works perfectly. I have it cleaned and oiled about once every book and the roller has to be replaced now and then. Otherwise it’s the same machine. Imagine — it’s more than fifty years old and it still does just what it was built to do! There’s not a thing wrong with it.
Toni Morrison writes with a pencil and yellow legal pads. She uses a word processor later in the process, for revisions. She had tried working with a tape recorder:
…I thought I would carry a tape recorder in the car, particularly when I was working at Random House going back and forth every day. It occurred to me that I could just record it. It was a disaster. I don’t trust my writing that is not written, although I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerly-ness from it, to give it a combination of lyrical, standard, and colloquial language.
Just a few days after my stroke I called my daughter Alexandra, who works for me as my assistant, and told her to come to the hospital. I told her to bring the manuscript I was working on, my mystery novel Let’s All Kill Constance. I dictated the story to her and she typed it up. And that’s the way I have written since. I call her on the phone, dictate my stories to her, and she types them up and faxes them to me. Then I edit with a pen. It’s not an ideal process, but what the hell.
In any creative field, understanding how to get past your blocks is part of your job. Learning how to get around these obstacles will help refine your art and improve your quantity (and, as a byproduct, your quality).
So, what are you waiting for?
Get back to work.