Brain Pickings

How to Break Through Your Creative Block: Strategies from 90 of Today’s Most Exciting Creators

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Refining the machinery of creativity, or what heartbreak and hydraulics have to do with coaxing the muse.

What extraordinary energy we expend, as a culture and a civilization, on trying to understand where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, its mechanisms, and the five-step action plan for coaxing it into manifestation. And little compares to the anguish that comes with the blockage of creative flow.

In 2010, designer and musician Alex Cornell found himself stumped by a creative block while trying to write an article about creative block. Deterred neither by the block nor by the irony, he reached out to some of his favorite artists and asked them for their coping strategies in such an event. The response was overwhelming in both volume and depth, inspiring Cornell to put together a collection on the subject. The result is Breakthrough!: 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination (public library) — a small but potent compendium of field-tested, life-approved insight on optimizing the creative process from some of today’s most exciting artists, designers, illustrators, writers, and thinkers. From the many specific strategies — walks in nature, porn, destruction of technology, weeping — a few powerful universals emerge, including the role of procrastination, the importance of a gestation period for ideas, and, above all, the reminder that the “creative block” befalls everyone indiscriminately.

Writer Michael Erard teases apart “creative block” and debunks its very premise with an emphasis on creativity as transformation:

First of all, being creative is not summoning stuff ex nihilo. It’s work, plain and simple — adding something to some other thing or transforming something. In the work that I do, as a writer and a metaphor designer, there’s always a way to get something to do something to do something else. No one talks about work block.

Also, block implies a hydraulic metaphor of thinking. Thoughts flow. Difficulty thinking represents impeded flow. This interoperation also suggests a single channel for that flow. A stopped pipe. A dammed river. If you only have one channel, one conduit, then you’re vulnerable to blockage. Trying to solve creative block, I imagine a kind of psyching Roto-Rootering.

My conceptual scheme is more about the temperature of things: I try to find out what’s hot and start there, even if it may be unrelated to what I need to be working on, and most of the time, that heats up other areas too. You can solve a lot with a new conceptual frame.

Designer Sam Potts suggests that heartbreak isn’t merely evolutionary adaptive strategy, it’s a creative one:

Have your heart broken. It worked for Rei Kawakubo. You’ll realize the work you’d been doing wasn’t anywhere near your potential.

From the inimitable Debbie Millman, who has kindly offered this hand-lettered version of the typeset list in the book:

  1. Get enough sleep! Sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.
  2. Read as much as you can, particularly classics. If a master of words can’t inspire you, see number 3.
  3. Color code your library. That is fun, and you will realize how many great books you have that you haven’t read yet.
  4. More sleep! You can never get enough.
  5. Force yourself to procrastinate. Works every time!
  6. Look at the work of Tibor Kalman, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, Christoph Niemann, and Paul Sahre.
  7. Weep. And then weep some more.
  8. Surf the Web. Write inane tweets. Check out your high school friends on Facebook. Feel smug.
  9. Watch Law & Order: SVU marathons. Revel in the ferocious beauty of Olivia Benson.
  10. Remember how L-U-C-K-Y you are to be a creative person to begin with and quit your bellyaching. Get to work now!

Illustrator Marc Johns, whose art I have on my arm, offers:

Pretend. Stop thinking like a designer or writer or whatever you are for a minute. Pretend you’re a pastry chef. Pretend you’re an elevator repair contractor. A pilot. A hot dog vendor. How do these people look at the world?

One of my favorite musicians, Alexi Murdoch, extends an infinitely important, infinitely timely contrarian critique of creativity-culture:

Beethoven drank buckets of strong, black coffee. Beethoven was creatively prodigious. (He also went deaf and, perhaps, mad.) Sound syllogism here? I’d like to think so.

The idea that creativity is some abundantly available resource waiting simply for the right application of ingenuity to extract, refine, and pipe it into the grid seems so axiomatic at this cultural juncture that the very distinction between creativity and productivity has been effectively erased.

And so it is that, when faced with a decreased flow in productivity, we ask not what it might be that’s interfering with our creative process, but rather what device might be quickly employed to raise production levels. This is standard, myopic, symptomatology-over-pathology response, typical of a pressurized environment of dislocated self-entitlement.

At the risk of going off brief here, can I just ask: What’s wrong with creative block? Might it not just be that periods — even extended ones — of productive hiatus are essential mechanisms of gestation designed to help us attain higher standards in our pursuit of creative excellence?

Writer Douglas Rushkoff rebels:

I don’t believe in writer’s block.

Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written — even when I may have wanted to — but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.

The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise — even if he happens to be in your own head.

Musician Jamie Lidell echoes Tchaikovsky:

Cheers. Watcha gonna do with a blocked toilet? I mean, that’s all it is, right? A bung that needs pulling to let the clear waters of inspiration flow.

Maybe. Or maybe it just takes showing up. Going back again and again to write or paint or sing or cook.

Some days the genius will be in you, and you will sail. Other days the lead will line the slippers, and you’ll be staring into the void of your so-called creative mind, feeling like a fraud. It’s all part of the big ole cycle of creativity, and it’s a healthy cycle at that.

As a notorious marginalian, I wholeheartedly second this bit from digital-media artist and data viz wunderkind Aaron Koblin, head of the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab:

They say an elephant never forgets. Well, you are not an elephant. Take notes, constantly. Save interesting thoughts, quotations, films, technologies…the medium doesn’t matter, so long as it inspires you. When you’re stumped, go to your notes like a wizard to his spellbook. Mash those thoughts together. Extend them in every direction until they meet.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a special term for his method:

My strategy for getting myself out of a rut is to sit at my desk reminding myself of what the problem is, reviewing my notes, generally filling my head with the issues and terms, and then I just get up and go do something relatively mindless and repetitive. At our farm in the summer, I paint the barn or mow the hayfield or pick berries or cut fire wood to length…. I don’t even try to think about the problem, but more often than not, at some point in the middle of the not very challenging activity, I’ll find myself mulling it over and coming up with a new slant, a new way of tackling the issue, maybe just a new term to use. Engaging my brain with something else to control and think about helps melt down the blockades that have been preventing me from making progress, freeing up the circuits for some new paths. My strategy could hardly be cruder, but it works so well so often that I have come to rely on it.

One summer, many years ago, my friend Doug Hofstadter was visiting me at my farm, and somebody asked him where I was. He gestured out to the big hayfield behind the house, which I was harrowing for a reseeding. ‘He’s out there on his tractor, doing his tillosophy,’ Doug said. Ever since then, tillosophy has been my term for this process. Try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll end up with a painted room, a mowed lawn, a clean basement.

But as a tireless proponent of combinatorial creativity, my favorite comes from the inimitable Jessica Hagy of indexed fame, who pretty much articulates the Brain Pickings founding philosophy:

How can you defeat the snarling goblins of creative block? With books, of course. Just grab one. It doesn’t matter what sort: science fiction, science fact, pornography (soft, hard, or merely squishy), comic books, textbooks, diaries (of people known or unknown), novels, telephone directories, religious texts — anything and everything will work.

Now, open it to a random page. Stare at a random sentence.

[…]

Every book holds the seed of a thousand stories. Every sentence can trigger an avalanche of ideas. Mix ideas across books: one thought from Aesop and one line from Chomsky, or a fragment from the IKEA catalog melded with a scrap of dialog from Kerouac.

By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas. And if you’re not, whip open another book. Pluck out another sentence. And ponder mash-ups of out-of-context ideas until your mind wanders and you end up in a new place, a place that no one else ever visited.

Marvelous.

At once practical and philosophical, Breakthrough! promises to help you burst through your own creative plateaus. Whether or not it succeeds, one thing it’s guaranteed to do is make you feel less alone in your mental struggles — and what greater reassurance than that could there be?

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