Every creative person has experienced or will experience a period in which they couldn’t or can’t create. Whether it’s writing, drawing, painting, or performance arts. As a writer, I’ve experienced these moments where I wasn’t able to write, but I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe it’s a combination of factors, not one thing. It’s mostly a mental obstacle and there are many different ways to get out of this zone. Not every solution will work for everyone though, so find your own things. Make a list and stick it on the wall to help remind you and beat any writer’s block.
Creativity and how we lost it
Our ability to think of something and actually expressing is different as well. I can describe things with words that I can’t draw. There are also scenes in my head that I want to draw (but lack the skill), but which are hard to describe in words. People differentiate it with the muse analogy. The muse brings the idea while the creator expresses it. Elizabeth Gilbert has done a great TED Talk on this topic specifically and dissects why the muse is so important for creative people.
Children have incredible creative freedom. Anything is possible in their world. But as we grow older, we’ve learned more, but our creative freedom has grown smaller. We’re taught all kinds of rules, facts, and what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s getting harder to set aside these assumptions and think outside of the box, the box of rules.
Check out this TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson about creativity and education. It’s one of my favourite TED Talks and has inspired me to think more about creativity in my own life and how to unlock it.
Well of creativity
Inside our minds, there is a well of creativity. Some might have one hidden away, deep within the forest. Others have created their mind palace around them, easily accessible. But everyone has one.
As a child, we often drink from this well in play and creation. Think of the drawings a five-year-old makes or the stories your kids come up with the toys they have (or watch any Toy Story). A kid’s creativity is something special. They don’t experience boundaries, limitations of rules, conventions or things that just can’t be. Talking teacups? Of course. A unicorn pooping cotton candy? Why not. Drawing outside of the lines? Yes, always.
The well is a metaphor for how we access our creative ability and lines up with my theory about the writer’s block. Because I believe that the moment not being able to create is a combination of factors: inspiration, motivation and fear. Inspiration is water of the well, fear the bucket and motivation the power you need to pull up the bucket.
You can pull up the bucket, and find it (half) empty. It might not be filled with the thing that you want. There might also be times that you pull up the bucket and see water spilling out over the sides. Too many ideas that you can work with right now. Nothing you can do about those spilt ideas. The next time you pull up the bucket, you might find them again if they’re strong enough. If other ideas absorbed them, they might not have been that good in the first place.
There are ways to enhance each of the three elements. A larger bucket, a pully to make it easier to pull up the bucket, or the flow of water to the well. This requires practice and it may come easier to some than others, but you will be able to get there. As long as you’re open to it.
Lack of inspiration
What should we do if the well runs out of water? The water represents the ideas we use to create. I’m not talking about the final product, because having that idea is where it begins. After your first draft or the melody line, there’s still the polishing to do and that’s hard work. You don’t need creativity for that. Just skill.
But we want that well filled with water so we can access it when we want. Not just when it’s convenient for the well. So, how do you fill a well? Or, where do you get your ideas? This is one of the most asked questions and also one of the hardest to answer. Everyone has their own ways to fill their well. Some conscious, some subconscious. Neil Gaiman has said a few things about where stories live.
“Sometimes I think that ideas float through the atmosphere like huge squishy pumpkins, waiting for heads to drop on.”
It’s a fun way to explain how you get ideas subconsciously. You can’t explain exactly how, but this metaphor might come close. “And suddenly it hit me”.
Tips for inspiration
This metaphor won’t help you replenish your well. You can’t just sit around and wait for pumpkins to be thrown at you. Sometimes you have to shoot them down yourself. How do you force ideas? These tips are aimed at writers, but maybe it’ll help other creatives as well.
Brainstorming is an excellent way to work your idea muscle (plug that bucket). Try to come up with 100 different and related ideas surrounding one topic. In this stage, quantity is king. The percentage of good ideas is low, so the more ideas you have, the more likely it is that something good will be in the mix.
Pairing is one that I use most often. I pair two unlikely things and watch what happens. For more visual examples, check out the Pokemon fusion generator. It fuses two Pokemon together into something new. Most of the combinations aren’t as good, but it might give you ideas. In the movie Honey, Honey uses basketball and rope jumping to inspire new movies for her choreography.
What-if scenarios are a great starting point as well. What happens if someone gets bitten by a radioactive spider? Most of my what-if ideas come when I’m slightly bored or daydream. My mind wonders off and starts thinking about things that happened to me, but since I’m in control I can direct the situation into my advantage. Or something completely different. I believe superheroes are all born from what-if scenarios.
Borrow stories from other creators. Don’t steal, that’s not cool. But using elements of those stories for your own creation is acceptable. There’s not a corner you can turn in the YA section of a bookstore or library without stubbing your toe on another fairytale retelling. While Western fairy tales don’t draw my attention, retellings from Asian, Eastern European and South American fairy tales did spark my interest. I love getting to know lesser-known stories, so why not try to find one that’s not as popular?
Follow your emotions. Emotions are strong elements and can make or break a story. Listen to what spectators of art often comment on. It’s emotions. In singing competitions, hearing or feeling the emotion in someone voice is essential and for a dancer, it’s a must to be able to convey the emotion of the dance. It’s possible to tell an entire story with only emotions. That’s what makes a composer great. The song ‘The Curse of the Sad Mummy’ from League of Legends does have lyrics, but the instrumental parts are essential to conveying emotions.
Lack of motivation
A lack of motivation can be caused by many things. It might be the sight of a well without much water, dirty water or a bucket that leaks. But even a little water or dirty water can help you satisfy your thirst and it gives you a chance to plug one of the holes of the bucket. The next time you’ll get more water and it might even be cleaner. If you keep going, doing it regularly, your bucket will be fixed and the flow of water will be better.
Motivation is probably the easiest of the three to get help with. There are dozens of books that can help you with productivity because, in the end, that’s what it’s about. Being productive and keep creating. Doing instead of thinking. Working instead of planning. Coaches can help you reach the goals you set if you’re a procrastinator and you need someone to hold you accountable. They may be paid or unpaid if you don’t mind a friend or partner to kick your butt.
Life likes throwing curve balls and sometimes it’s just not possible for you to create. It might be due to illness, either mental or physical, or you don’t have the resources. That’s okay. Do what you can, but put yourself first. The topic of illness and creating is dear to me and I will dive deeper into that subject at a later date.
Tips for motivation
Two of my sources that can replenish my motivations are books: Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman, and The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. Make Good Art is also available on Youtube if you prefer to listen, but I highly recommend checking it out one way or another. Here’s a full transcript as well. Neil’s speech is inspiring on so many levels and the advice he gives are pieces that every creator has to hear again at some point in their career, just to remind themselves.
The Alchemist is something else. I’m sure this story will mean something different to every reader. For me, it’s a story about purpose and finding your path. It’s about recognising the opportunities as they present themselves. And that even when you think that you’ve taken a wrong turn, it’s always possible to go back. But never forget the journey you made and what you learned from it.
Movies can also be very inspiring. Whisper of the Heart (1995) by Ghibli studios and Freedom Writers (2007). Freedom Writers shows what writing means for people. The act of writing alone can change a life. Change yours and start your story today. Whisper of the Heart is one of my favourite movies because it shows Japanese life and it talks about stories and dreams. Shizuku, the main character, is dedicated to finishing her story before her crush comes back from Italy. The dedication she shows is infectious. It’s also a reminder that a first draft is never perfect, but a diamond in the rough. And it takes time to polish it, but it’s there. Everything you create has the potential to be great.
Other times you just need a good kick in the butt. If you want some one-sided tough love, I highly recommend reading some of Chuck Wendig’s blogs or books on writing. He uses crude language, but his advice is still gentle. I’ve read writing books that say “You must be healthy”. Well, I can’t do that. I have my own challenges. Chuck would say, “Fuck that. Keep going at your own speed. Kill anyone who stops you”. Much more gentle right? He wants to elevate you.
He’s not the only one out there who want to help you or support you. There are plenty. Find them on Twitter, in your local writing community or on the NaNoWriMo forums. Friends or family want you to succeed as well. Write a story for your kids to enjoy or to immortalise your pet. These supporters will help you to pull the bucket up.
Fear might be the biggest reason for what they call a writer’s block. It’s a mental construct that limits what we can or can’t do. In worst case, it might even cause fainting or death and we shouldn’t underestimate how strong it is.
Fear comes in all shapes and sizes. Since we’re talking about creativity, I’ll only highlight the ones that are directly related to the creation of art. There’s fear of the blank canvas, fear of failure, fear of success and the imposter syndrome. Saying ‘stop being afraid’ or ‘get over your fear’ might be easy, but it’s not. Lucky us that there are people who can help us get over our fears. If you think fear is one of the major reasons you’re in a strut, consider seeing a specialist.
The blank page can be intimidating. There’s no starting point, nothing to indicate where you should go. The easiest way to make that blank space less intimidating is to start. Type a word, draw a line, do a two-step. Maybe you’ll immediately feel that the word, line or dance move is wrong, and it’s a win. You now know what it’s not supposed to be. Type another word, draw another line (or a circle!) or do the robot.
If getting started is hard on you, use prompts to wake up your creative muscle. Daily doodles, free writing or morning pages, or dancing to your favourite song can be a good warm up before you start the real work. Have a space that’s safe for you to warm up. A notebook that no one will see, where you can be free of everything. The action of claiming a safe space can be liberating as well.
Fear of failure is common and not just for creative people. It can start as early as grade school and it can be academic or athletic achievement, creative success or business success. I’ve never gone through therapy or did self-help for this fear. Therapy might help, but watching J. K. Rowling’s speech on how failure has helped her, might be a point to start. There isn’t much else I can say except find someone who can help you conquer this fear.
Kristine Kathrine Rusch explores success in her Guide to Freelance Writing and she mentions the fear of success. I didn’t know it existed, but after reading her explanation and the examples, I know I’ve felt that fear before. Which is odd since, in my eyes, I haven’t been successful yet. Check out Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art speech above, in which he also talks about success and what to do when you ‘fail’.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, use their achievements to set new goals. I recently joined a group of indie authors who aim to make $50.000 per year from writing. Some of them have already achieved that. Most of them are still working towards it. By sharing experiences and giving advice, setting attainable, new goals will be a better experience than to feel jealous. Instead of wanting something, give. Try to help others, and others will help you reach your goal.
And one day, you’ll stand in front of your well. Beautifully framed, overflowing with water and an automated system to get that water to where you are. You’ll be able to do whatever you want to do, as long as you put the work in. Even then, the automated system can have its problems and no longer work, the rope of your bucket might break or your water might have gotten dirty because of a storm. Moments, where you aren’t able to create, can always come up. But know that it’s temporary. Take a step back. Make a plan. And keep going. You can do this.