I cringe every time I hear the phase, “writer’s block.” Gives me shivers and makes me itch all over. Those two words used to be my favorite reason for not writing, “I’ve got writer’s block.” Those blocks could go on for years before I’d get back into a writing ‘mood.’ Sometimes I hear people say that they aren’t creative or that they’ve run out of ideas. I get that, sometimes I don’t have any ideas either, but I don’t let that get in the way of writing activities.
You’ll often hear the phrase, “Writers write.” Well, that’s true – mostly. While writers are expected to turn out words on the page there are other things that need to be done before and after writing.
A simple analogy would be my other hobby, woodworking. Think about building something from wood, say a box. There are a number of steps that need to happen. First a drawing is needed. Then I have to get the wood, glue, finish, nails, screws, sandpaper, and other things. Then I go to the workshop. I’ll cut, sand, glue, nail and paint until I have my finished box. Then I’ll likely show my finished box to my wife, some friends and brag about it at my woodworking club meeting. It’s also possible that I’ll take some pictures of it and post it on my blog.
So what part of all that is “woodworking?” Yes, all of it is.
Same is true with writing. There are many parts. There’s research, editing, revising, writing, posting to the blog, working with editors, and planning the publicity tour for your next best seller. Come on, we can dream here.
Perhaps the most over looked part of writing is getting the idea for your story. Often inspiration is considered a passive activity. Some people think, as I used to, that you just go about life and suddenly a great idea will smack you upside the head and whamo you’re on the best seller list.
It doesn’t work that way and is the number one cause of writer’s block: sitting on your backside waiting for inspiration. Becoming inspired and finding good ideas are proactive tasks. You have to go searching for it and it takes some work.
In 1987 I found a book, Writer’s Block and How to Use It, by Victoria Nelson. I think this one is currently out of print and the only thing I really remember about it is the title. The title does hold the basis for how I think about writing now – if you’re blocked, use it, be active about your creativity.
After reading this book, I’d do things like free writing or reading books about writing – anything that would just get my fingers typing on the keyboard. I also found during this time that often I get blocked on a piece of writing because of the emotions that the writing is generating in me – especially anything that is autobiographical. This is a time when I find spending time writing about why I am blocked, helps.
There are times though when we are truly empty inside and don’t have the creative energy to write anything. It’s times like this when I think of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way and her concept of breathing in. The idea is that in order to spend energy creating something, first you have to gather in creative energy. You do this in a number of ways. Take a walk, hike, ride a bike, anything physical that allows you to let your mind just rest. You should read books, watch movies, see plays and so on. Have a coffee with a friend, or go to a poetry reading. Go to art shows, concerts, museums – anyplace where you’ll find things that inspire you. This is the act of breathing in.
As you experience the creativity of others, or of nature, you’ll fill up your creative self with energy, inspiration and lots of ideas. After you’ve been somewhere take a moment to write about what you’ve seen, felt and experienced. I am willing to bet that the words will just flow.
Which brings me to a book I found last year in an art museum’s gift shop, Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.
If you spend any time in the halls of your local university studying literary criticism, you’ll eventual despair as you begin to realize that all literature and indeed most creative works are really derivative. Ideas build on each other and as it’s been said so many times, “It’s all been done before.”
Look at your favorite stories and movies in depth and you’ll find they are really just clever rearrangements of existing ideas. Just think of the Harry Potter books and how much of that world we’ve seen in other places. Witches, wizards, dragons, trolls, dark magic trying to take over the world and the young reluctant hero who has to save us. How many times have we heard that story?
Yet JK Rowling added one interesting twist, “What if there was a school for magic that looked like an English Public School?” And then wow, that one spark and we have a compelling story.
Kleon’s book starts out by asking, “Were do artists get their ideas?” The answer is, “They steal them.” He then goes on to talk about some of the great ways we can be creative. Things like have side projects, hobbies, be boring (let your mind rest), share your work, steal ideas properly, and write what you like.
Being consistently creative is really about putting yourself into the path of inspiration by looking at all the creative things around you, stealing the best parts and figuring out how to put those together in new ways.
And just so you know, I stole most of this post from the three books I mentioned.