blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

In a creative slump? Try thinking inside the box

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image: pixel1 via pixabay

Sometimes more is not better.

We live in a world (at least, in the developed world) where choice is king. The more choices, the better the world is working, and the received wisdom is that more is always better. Whole industries are built on finding and then expanding niches.

Where we once had a choice between porridge, corn flakes or wheat biscuits for breakfast, we now have a glittering array of possibility. Walk down the cereal aisle(s) at the supermarket and see for yourself. Traditional or “classic cereals” jostle with those aimed at kids, adults, healthy adults, overweight adults, adults in a hurry…

It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by a surfeit of choice. It is something we all do. We rush into the store to find something for dinner, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, unable to choose.

FMI statistics show the average US supermarket carries over 42,000 items. At one point recently, Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, carried 90,000 items, including 28 kinds of tomato ketchup. They planned to cut this to 60,000 to make shopping more efficient.

Mind. Blown.

How often do we grab the first thing we see, or give up and get a takeaway meal instead, in a mild state of panic? Those tempting offers and discounts take advantage of our frazzled brains, already worn out by too many choices from the moment we woke up.

In his TED talk Phil Hansen talks candidly about his quest to “Embrace the shake”. Well worth ten minutes of your time. He talks about being creative, losing the ability and will to create as he wished, and how he overcame a creative slump that lasted for years.

He vividly describes becoming overwhelmed by possibility. For writers, this equates not only to the empty page, but also to absent parameters. “Write a short story/novel/poem about anything” sounds great, till we sit down to start.

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image: geralt via pixabay

If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. The cure is surprising.

Creativity blossoms where there are restrictions.

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

attributed to Orson Welles

We all know that necessity is the mother of invention. Welles just put it more eloquently. Put some walls in place, and creativity can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not just for artists, because we all have constraints. Problem solving is a key skill for life.

If there are no constraints, there is no problem to solve, no question to answer.

We happen on a brilliant solution not by waving a hand or throwing money at problems, but by understanding that we must transcend apparently fixed parameters. We use only what we have been given to find another way.

This is a great way to recover creativity. Or to overcome the dread of the empty page. Or to continue when we we doubt our ability to get going. Here are some suggestions. The first and most important step is to suspend judgement, the endless chatter of this is stupid/no good/worthless. It’s just practice.

The idea is to move forward and get ideas flowing, so that the energy feeds into your current project. In your project there are constraints, blocks, problems to overcome, yes? First, you need to loosen your creative muscles, like an athlete warning up.

Look around you, and write 100 words on the first red or blue object you see.

Construct a main dish using only the items in your fridge right now.

Pick up a book, turn to a random page. Look for the first word that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write a one page story using that word, in ten minutes or less.

Paint using only shades of one colour.

Use random word generators, or a random first line generator, to get started. No more than ten minutes to create something using your preferred medium; words, images, music.

I highly recommend Phil Hansen‘s talk, where he gives great illustrated examples. He tried some surprising things. One might just be the spark you need to get started again.

Limiting our fictional characters can also be a good thing. Give her a seemingly impossible situation, and then write her way out. Put him in a literal or metaphorical cage, and see how he responds. It’s a great way of showing character.

Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility.

Big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.

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