Kick Writer's Block in the Junk
(or Painter’s, Quilter’s, Potter’s, Chef’s, Philosopher’s) Block
Artist’s block is a bitch, isn’t it?! I’ve never worked with anyone dedicated to creating who could say they didn’t feel stuck with their work sometimes.
Regardless of the guise our art-block is wearing when it shows up, the core of most of our problems getting started or gaining momentum boils down to just a handful of real issues. If we can’t create, it’s usually because we are distracted, afraid, or trying to produce something perfect on the first pass.
There are lots of ways to tackle these obstacles to our creativity. Here are a few of them:
1) Don’t start with a blank page.
Even if you start out knowing what you want to write or sketch, staring at a blank page or screen to begin your project is like looking into the abyss of the infinite without screaming. That might be a slight exaggeration, but it’s tough.
Here’s an interesting idea: try your rough draft on scratch paper. My unbelievably brilliant friend, Linda, made some notebooks for our Abundance Group for journaling. The pages were interesting scraps of paper. Some were from maps, menus, old books, photos, everything.
I can barely describe how liberating it is to scratch ideas on throw-away paper. It doesn’t have to be good! It doesn’t have to be cohesive! The purpose of the scrap-paper notebook is to kick around some ideas, no hesitation, no judgment. Perfection isn’t even an option because you’re working on trash.
2) Create a shitty version on purpose.
Some of the best writing-fun I’ve ever had is writing a stupid version of a piece I intend to be serious. Get your smoking jacket and fez on and write, paint, sing, or dance the campiest, cheesiest, most implausible version of the story you want to tell.
You don’t have to be inhibited by “making it good” or trying to produce a finished piece on the first go-round when you’re playing around like this. It makes your mind more flexible when you look at your project a different way, and spoofing yourself can lighten up a perfectionistic seriousness.
As a bonus, maybe something brilliant will come from this “shitty version.” Some of the best dialogue I’ve ever written for my fiction stories has come from goofing around like this. You might fall in love with the piece you create in this way independently of its service to your intended work.
3) Kill your friends!
No, no! Not like that. Turn off your phone, close your social media stuff, and give your attention to your work like it’s your mom on her birthday. Your art deserves your complete focus! Everything else can wait for a little while.
One caveat: I have kids. You might have commitments that you need to be available for every second, too. Whatever form that might take, be honest with yourself regarding how much access that situation can have while you work. School has my phone number - that phone stays on. Everything else is off.
4) Music (or not).
Every single “how to overcome writer’s block” list I’ve read says to play some music while you work. Some artists are inspired by music while they work. Some aren’t. I often like music with no lyrics while I write fiction or do visual art, but sometimes it feels distracting or overwhelming, especially if I’m at a part of the process where I have to make decisions. Music might not be for you, or it might not be for you all the time. Try listening to music while you create on a piece-by-piece, process-by-process, basis. If it isn’t working for you, or if it makes you anxious, turn it off.
I often wear my headphones for the silence (and because people don’t try to talk to me when they see my headphones are on). Most of us are so addicted to constant input that not having noise while we work is practically painful. You don’t have to make it harder than it has to be to get your work done, but I recommend cultivating a love of silence that can rival your love of music. Silence can coax beauty from the most stubborn block if you let that stillness be an open space.
5) Work with a partner.
The most productive I have ever been with my writing is when I have a companion. My BFF, Linda, and I work together regularly (on separate projects, but at the same table). I used to have Monday meetings with my life-long friend, Steffani, and we produced ridiculous amounts on those days. It worked so well for both of us that I invited her to be my business partner at the Axion Center.
There’s a level of accountability to sitting at the same table with someone else who is head-down, working away. You have to match their hard work or you’re slacking.
Choose someone fun, who supports your work, who has a temperament that you enjoy, and who seems to have the same level of dedication to their project as you do to yours.
6) You can edit when you have something to edit.
It doesn’t have to be good on the first shot - in fact, it probably won’t be. Just barf it all out. Do a sketch, write everything you already know you want to include, play that measure of music that has formed in your mind and then keep playing!
Don’t start editing until you’ve actually written (played, painted, sketched) something fairly complete! It can be easy to get caught in the trap of trying to perfect two paragraphs while the rest of the piece sits in a holding pattern waiting for you to come back to it.
Try not to get too invested in any one part of the piece until you’ve gotten a good chunk of it down. I had to cut a chapter from my last book that I had spent a lot of time editing in the beginning of the process, and I was super pissed off that I didn’t get to use it in the final draft. Everything should be up for revision during your first draft of a project. Edit later.
7) Cool it with the caffeine, already!
Okay, I know that “coffee + art” is some kind of sacred, time-honored tradition. I, myself, am a big fan of coffee, soda, tea, and uncontrollable shaking, but too much of a good thing can wreck your art-ability (see “uncontrollable shaking”). Caffeine can mimic and also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, so if you’re already feeling a little freaked out about not producing, maybe skip that next cup.
On the other hand, a hydrated brain has improved functionality, greater short-term memory (which helps those of us who get to the end of the sentence and can’t remember what we were going to say when we get there), and is thought to help build neural connectivity more efficiently. A tall drink of water just might be your muse.
If this idea is wrecking your rebellious-artist’s ideals, you can always wear a leather jacket while you work.
8) Try it a different way.
Remember that the same getting-into-the-zone technique might not work every time. I think it’s useful to have a creation ritual, but if you’re doing what you usually do and you’re not finding the flow, you’re allowed (encouraged) to try something else.
In fact, please try everything else! Your ritual will evolve, change, digress, fight you, love you, throw you a surprise party, and sucker-punch you. You will forever be in flux as you grow, and your relationship to your work will evolve just as much. With that in mind, experiment with many different techniques and combinations to get into the art-groove.
9) Finished, Not Perfect.
My illustrator and darling, HM Ward, told me with some sternness that the goal of art is “Finished, Not Perfect.” I’ve adopted this as my motto for so many things in my life. It has a soundness that is so reassuring that it has allowed me to try out ideas and projects that I probably would never have even started before they scolded me.
Perfection is the mass-murderer of art. It’s also a myth. Even the most inspired, most expertly executed piece isn’t perfect. Perfection is not even humanly possible! Look closely enough at anything, and flaws will be discovered. Not to mention that perfection is subjective - there will always be some surly jerk who doesn’t like a piece regardless of how much truth and beauty it contains. Aiming for perfection is a recipe for dissatisfaction.
You can edit, revise, redo, or throw away any project you like, but in order to do that, you have to finish it, first. Finished, Not Perfect.
10) Critics can suck it. Even you, Inner Critic!
I said at the beginning of this post that I hadn’t worked with any Creative who said they didn’t get stuck sometimes. Actually, that’s not true. Kids are art machines. My daughter does art all the time and I’ve never seen her stall. As I write this, she’s nine. She is pretty obsessed with imagining and drawing Pokemon in interesting variations of their evolutions.
When she was about four, she drew this fabulous butterfly with colors swirling all around the wings and a giant sun behind it that filled the page. As she was telling me about it, she said, “A minute ago, I was thinking that maybe butterflies aren’t supposed to have this many colors on their wings, and that I might be coloring it wrong. Then I thought, ‘what do I know? I’m four!’”
If you’re concerned that you don’t know enough, or aren’t practiced enough, skilled enough, whatever enough, to accomplish what you’re attempting, I want you to remember: if you don’t think you know enough to do the work, you sure the fuck don’t know enough to criticize it. KEEP GOING!
11) Work around it.
Okay, so you’re stuck. No biggie. Work on a different part of the project. At the beginning of R&D, lots of big tech companies just factor in a time margin for technology that doesn’t exist yet, but that’s crucial to the project, for that technology to be invented or developed.
If you hit a snag with your story, choreography, painting, or other project, often the best course of action is to just make up your mind that you’ll come back to it when you have an idea. Work on some other part or project for now.
And, as an aside, starting at the beginning of a writing project is seriously not the easiest way to do it. Start where it feels natural and the beginning usually writes itself, as they say.
12) Create a mind-map.
If you have artist’s block, it’s because you are at a point in the creative process where decisions must be made. How do you make an informed decision? See all of the options? Mind-mapping can get you there.
I imagine you’re relatively familiar with mind-mapping: you make a circle in the middle of the page filled with your main topic, and then write your ideas around it, connected by lines. You can break those ideas down further with lines around those. Here’s a picture of the one I did to work on the Instant Creativity Class.
The beauty of mind maps is that, whether you use the ideas or not, it’s a place to just puke them all out. When you have them all down on paper, you can compare your ideas and make creative decisions that you can actually use.
13) Take my Instant Creativity Class.
It’s almost ready! I’ll have a page up for you to check it out next week!