Dear creators: there will be days when you’ll wake up so inspired and so full to the brim with ideas that there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get them all down on paper. Those are the best kind of days. But then there are other days, days when you can’t bring yourself to type a single word, draw a single line, or imagine a single idea. These days are the enemy of any creator.
“Writer’s block” is a well-known problem for authors, but they’re not the only type of creator who can find themselves in a creative slump. YouTubers, visual artists, podcasters, gamemasters, poets, designers, bloggers: we all have those days. And that’s just something that comes with the territory.
But sometimes these days can stretch on for too long. While it’s healthy to take a break from creating, and not to push yourself when you don’t feel like it, when left to fester, “creator’s block” can gain new power. Ruts can last weeks, maybe months.
When I look back to my blogging stats, there’s a huge time period that stands out to me: Autumn 2015. From the 30th September to the 8th December, I published a single blog post. Compared to the amount I usually post – about once a week – the difference is notable. Initially, there were obvious reasons for this – I was incredibly busy – but even once these reasons were gone, more seemed to appear. And the less I wrote, the more convinced I became that I couldn’t write anything worth reading. I stopped reading fiction, stopped listening to podcasts, and I stopped writing. But gradually I built my writing back up again, starting with one blog post, and then another, and then another, and here I am, a few months later, feeling inspired and happy to be blogging again.
Of course, dry spells like this are always going to crop up occasionally. Just last week, with the looming pressure of exams, and the claustrophobia of too much time indoors, I felt my inspiration to write slipping away from me again. But now I’m prepared. These are the things I do to beat creator’s block, whenever it begins to rear its ugly head:
“Running, for me, is not just a series of steps and a log of miles. Running, for me, is and endless series of metaphors, wrapped up in one giant metaphor.”
– Wil Wheaton (actor, writer, geek), from this blog post.
This might seem strange since running is such a physical activity, and creator’s block is in the mind. But the two are inextricably linked, and running, in particular, has been cited as a great way to alleviate (at least slightly) feelings anxiety and depression, which can often be some of the biggest barriers to creativity, and the hardest to overcome. Even if you can only run for ten minutes, or if you split up your run by walking part-way, it can still lift a huge weight off your shoulders. Being able to spend time outdoors is an added bonus. We sometimes lose our creativity because we’re so closeted up indoors that we’re forgetting to look outside. Other exercises I find can help include yoga, swimming, or on the flip-side, anything that involves enough effort to really take my mind off the daunting task at hand.
Stop trying to speak, and listen
Sometimes, you need to listen to others to be able to find your voice again. Nothing can be made from nothing: if you want to create, you have to consume too.
If you need something to blog about, read a newspaper – there will almost always be something in there which prompts at least the tiniest reaction from you. Go with that tiny reaction. Turn it into a blog post. If you want to write a novel, read a book, but be careful not to let the author’s voice transplant your own: simply look for inspiration – a word that you like the sound of, a sentence that reaches out to you – or maybe the book will simply get your imagination flowing, like warming it up before asking it to do the real work.
Inspiration doesn’t even have to come from the same medium as you’re creating with. Listen to a podcast to inspire a story. Watch some TV to inspire a song. Listen to music to inspire a scenario in a game.
Go out and experience something to inspire you
Sometimes, you can’t just wait for the muse to find you. You have to look for her. Look for her in nature, in conversations on the train, in airports, in a brief encounter with a stranger.
Don’t listen to the voice inside your head that tells you it’s going to suck
‘…all I can feel today is a sense of massive failure at the center of a delicious burrito of Imposter Syndrome. Instead of being able to get excited about the things I’m making (and the things I want to make), there’s this giant, menacing meerkat who is, like, fifteen times the size of a regular meerkat, who is just doing that cute little sitting thing they do, but it’s on top of me and is quietly saying, “you suck, dude. You had a good run, but you’re irrelevant now so don’t even try.”’
– Wil Wheaton (actor, writer, gamemaster).
When you get too deep into the hole of “not creating”, you can forget why you do it. You can forget that people like your work, that people care about what you create, and that most importantly, that you get something out of creating. Instead, all the positivity of creating can be replaced by this notion that you can’t write, that you have nothing to say, that whatever you say will be worthless, or awful, or even that you may never create anything valuable ever again. But this voice is a liar. This voice is your enemy, and it is not trying to protect you from getting hurt or from embarrassing yourself. It seeks to destroy you. So destroy it first.
This is a big deal for me, because so often when I take a break from blogging, I will cringe as I press the publish button on my first post in a month. I will be wringing my hands, waiting for my fears to be realised, for someone to comment and tell me that they hate my work, and that it’s the worst thing they’ve ever read. But this fear is yet to actually be realised. And even if it does happen, it’s not even the end of the world. I was feeling particularly unsure about a blog post I published a couple of weeks ago. It was a stream of consciousness that I’d had saved in my drafts for a while. I published it because I could only muster the creativity to edit something that already existed, not to create something entirely new, and I nearly trashed it altogether. I almost wished that no-one would read it, so they wouldn’t see how much of an imposter I am. Yet, there it was, a couple of hours later, with people commenting to tell me how much they liked it, and adding their voices to the conversation I’d started. As usual, the voice that told me I sucked, Wil Wheaton’s giant meerkat, was a liar.
Just create something
‘Puke draft is the term I use for first drafts of anything… it’s the draft you vomit out quickly before you go back and start editing.’
– Amy Berg (writer and producer)
Sometimes, taking a break from creating for a few days can help. You can come back with a fresh mind, ready to tackle the challenge. But sometimes, that still isn’t enough, and the empty page still glares. Those are the days when you just have to take the plunge and create. For me, this is the best way to get out of the rut. Even if you produce something you’re not fully happy with at the end of the day, you’ve made something, and that’s better than nothing. You can go back and edit. You can even look at what you’ve done and re-write it, re-design or re-film it.
Once you’ve put something out there and the world doesn’t end, creating the next thing feels slightly easier, like a weight has lifted. You’ve created before, and you can create again. So make a “puke draft” if you have to. Maybe even publish the “puke draft”. Because the world won’t end. And at least that way, you’ll have something to work with, not an empty page.
For writers or gamemasters, writing prompts can be a valuable tool when your mind goes blank. You don’t even have to use what you produce from the prompt in your final product, but just creating something can help put you in the frame of mind to create more.
‘Suggestions? Put it aside for a few days, or longer, do other things, try not to think about it. Then sit down and read it (printouts are best I find, but that’s just me) as if you’ve never seen it before. Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.’
— Neil Gaiman (author) on banishing writer’s block
Let me know your tips for vanquishing writer’s block or creator’s anxiety in the comments below.