I’m stuck. Just forty minutes ago the words were flowing, full steam ahead. Now they’ve dried up. I stand, stretch, sit again. Still no words.
It’s time to follow my own advice. I say that writer’s block can be overcome*, so this is my opportunity to walk the talk. I resist the temptation to fall into a social media vortex. The weather is too hideous for gardening or a walk, so I head to the kitchen.
Flour, butter, sugar. The basic elements for baking are all there, and it is truly amazing how many variations flow from them. Like Lego blocks, they can build many things. I grab my trusty recipe for oat and raisin cookies.
Not enough butter, so I make up the shortfall with avocado oil. It’s supposed to be super healthy, and it ought to be at that price. Must have been feeling well off that day.
The recipe says raisins. I substitute mixed fruit and chopped ginger. Little changes make these cookies uniquely mine, raisin and oats and something else.
Creaming butter and sugar is repetitive and soothing. I can’t get this wrong and there’s no pressure of time. I sift the dry ingredients together and inhale the aroma of cinnamon, noting the random speckles of brown against white flour.
While I combine ingredients, the story problem simmers in the background. It’s meditative, this focus on a single thing. I lose the plot. I start clean up while the oven preheats. Blobs of dough sit unevenly on assorted baking trays. They’ll all taste great.
The aroma of baking is heavenly and I inhale deeply. The kitchen is quiet and tidy again. After hours of mental effort, turning the focus outwards and creating order restores calm. I feel more in control and the nagging voice of doubt recedes, because the cookies are a small but certain win.
And then the protagonist whispers, “I fell asleep on the train and now I’m waking up in Sheffield with a dead phone and no money. Help.” Oh yes, I can work with this. The next steps light up in my brain and I return to work energised, with tea and a warm, delicious cookie.
*No more writers block
Simple repetitive tasks are calming, approached in the right mindset. Step away from the keyboard. Let your subconscious work on a problem while you occupy your brain elsewhere. Engage all your senses and pay attention.
Limitations create problems. Solving those problems demands creativity.
Making something tangible is satisfying in a way mental work is not. Small wins help enormously on the way to the bigger goal. Enjoy your cookie.
In the developed world 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.
It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by too much choice. We’ve all done this. 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. In 2015 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.
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 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.
If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. But there is a way forward.
Put some walls in place, and ideas can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not only true 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.
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. 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.
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 she must fight 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.
I’m a big fan of Chuck Wendig and read his emails every week as he photographs tiny things, rants about politics, and talks writing, in very colourful words. In the post above he tackles the deep despair that can overcome you when the wanton f*ckery of the world seems too much to bear. (his phrase, not mine)
Creatives, especially at the early stages when it’s hard slog for little reward, can be tempted to give up. What’s the point we say, crying into our gin/ice cream tub/family pack of snacks? Nobody’s listening, it’s no good anyhow, the world is going to hell in a handcart and I’m powerless to stop it. My little story/song/picture/recipe/whatever is pretty useless as ammunition in this fight.
Chuck says, just do it anyway.
There’s someone out there for whom your thing is exactly what they need, right now. That could be entertainment, distraction, tools to do a job or navigate a heartbreak. They might see themselves in your thing and be inspired.
I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a comment saying she had wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life, and that she felt like it was her story on the screen.
Emotional connection transcends time, gender, place. There is no better feeling for an author than knowing your words touched a chord with a real person.
You never know what people will take away from your work. Once it’s out there, it doesn’t belong to just you any more. Like a newly minted adult, it must take on the world on its own merits and find its place.
So enjoy Chuck’s take on writing, and keep creating. Don’t deprive the world of what you have to say, just because you got discouraged. Take a break and come back stronger. The world is awful, and it’s also amazing. Be part of the amazing.
Ill-concealed jealousy, or perhaps a fleeting moment of self- knowledge, a slip of the tongue, a confession unprompted. Still, I understand. You think you know the price.
You make it look so easy.
I assure you it is not. After years and centuries of practice, practice, try again, I have earned grudging acquaintance with the standards I keep. Improvement is my goal.
I don’t understand it.
I hear the scathing tone of your dismissal. Should art be understandable? Only for those to whom it speaks; and to the rest, it is noise. Listen harder.
How do you do it?
I just do it. I persist. I hear the self-doubt and corrosive whispers of fear that burn my heart, and I do it anyway, because the art demands to be heard. The pain of silence, I have learned, is worse than carrying my art stillborn in my chest.
Anyone could do that.
No, anyone could not. Every one’s a critic, but very few a creator. Anyone could do it. Hardly anyone does. I invite you to try.
I’ve always wanted to do that.
Creation does not wait for permission. But if you need permission, go ahead. It’s never too late to begin. The world is waiting to hear your story. It’s as simple, and as terrifying, as that.
You’re hardly the next JK Rowling/Beyoncé/Picasso/whoever.
You’re right, nobody is. But what I am, what I will be, if I can keep going, is the first, glorious me. I don’t seek comparison. You are no-one special, either. But I allow you the possibility that you could be.
It’s just your life story.
It’s just my heart and soul, bled out on the page, the canvas, the stage. What else is there? Where else will I find the raw and honest stuff to build my creation? I fuse drops of my history and things not yet imagined and echoes of other people’s random musings. Something new emerges. It is enough.
I envy you.
You see the glittering jewel. I see exhausting hours mining, selecting, cutting and polishing, rejecting and starting over. I see blood and tears. I remember pain carved in my bones, doubt piercing my heart, fear and loathing waiting to trap me. It looks so easy. But it’s not.