A lot of crafters/writers/artists run into creative block (“writer’s block” for crafters), and end up waiting around for inspiration to hit. I rarely suffer from this kind of block (you may have noticed!), but it’s not because there’s something supernatural about me. It’s because I practice creativity and creative thinking constantly – so I’m in the habit of looking for interesting ideas, and crossing one into another to produce something new. I believe very strongly that creativity is not a personality trait, but a learned skill that anyone can master.
That’s why today’s post on my book blog is titled “Don’t Wait for the Muse!” I think a lot of creative block is simply not knowing what to do when ideas don’t appear out of nowhere, or the internal censor knocking down ideas as they come. This post has a simple exercise that helps turn off the censor and generate lots of interesting design ideas. Of course you won’t want to pursue all the ideas – some may be too wacky, extreme, or boring – but it’s a great way to prime the creative pump. In essence, you’re just doodling on the page, so you aren’t starting from nothing.
In general, I feel the design process has these steps:
- Gathering seed ideas
- Brainstorming designs
- Refining designs
- Finalizing/testing designs
Many crafters try to evaluate ideas as they come. I think that’s a mistake. The problem is that the creative mind, after running into several rejections by the internal censor, gives up and shuts down. The result is creative block.
Instead, the first two phases – gathering ideas and brainstorming – are what’s described as “opening” phases, where you open up and invite ideas in, no matter how crazy they are. You turn off the internal censor and just let the ideas flow. (That’s what free writing exercises are about – turning off the internal censor and freeing up the creative brain.) The second two phases are the “closing” phases, where you bring the process to a close by turning on the internal censor/judging mind, evaluating and eliminating ideas, and then choosing one or more to refine and improve.
But you can’t open and close at the same time. It just doesn’t work – the creative mind shuts down.
There is one other source of creative block (that I’ve experienced, anyway), and it usually hits when you’re in the middle of designing something. This one is much nastier; you have to figure out what the problem is, nagging at your subconscious, and fix it before you can proceed.
Annie Dillard describes it like this:
When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split up the middle—or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse, and you do not know about it yet, quite.
In Bridgeport, Connecticut, one morning in 1987, a six-story concrete slab building under construction collapsed, and killed twenty-eight men. Just before it collapsed, a woman across the street leaned from her window and said to a passerby, “That building is starting to shake.” “Lady,” he said, according to the Hartford Courant, “you got rocks in your head.”
You notice only this: your worker—your one and only, your prized, coddled, and driven worker—is not going out on that job. Will not budge, not even for you, boss. Has been at it long enough to know when the air smells wrong; can sense a tremor through boot soles. Nonsense, you say; it is perfectly safe. But the worker will not go. Will not even look at the site. Just developed heart trouble. Would rather starve. Sorry.
What do you do? Acknowledge, first, that you cannot do anything. Lay out the structure you already have, x-ray it for a hairline fracture, find it, and think about it for a week or a year; solve the insoluble problem. Or subject the next part, the part at which the worker balks, to harsh tests. It harbors an unexamined and wrong premise. Something completely necessary is false or fatal. Once you find it, and if you can accept the finding, of course it will mean starting again. This is why many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.
I’m not quite as pessimistic as Dillard, but I do get stuck sometimes and usually it’s for one of the reasons she describes (adapted to craft, of course). The trouble is that the problem is not obvious, and has not been noticed by the analytic mind. If you could frame the problem, you could solve it. It’s been noticed by the subconscious, which is more powerful but also less focused and less communicative than the analytic mind. The only thing to do is to try getting the subconscious to talk to the analytic mind enough to let the analytic mind focus on the spot – then the problem undoes itself neatly and you can get going again.
This is, for obvious reasons, hard. I usually work on something else for a day or two and let the subconscious chew on it, figuring out how to explain it to the conscious mind.
At any rate, those are my two roots for creative block, and how to get past it.
I’m curious: what kinds of creative block do you suffer from (if any!), and how do you get past them?