You don’t have creative block, you have a creative barricade

All you need to do in order to think creatively is to change one or more aspects of whatever it is you’re thinking about.

The size of one part of it, the colors, the uses, the context. Change anyone one element of it – big or small – and you start to change the way your brain understands the entirety of whatever “it” is.

At its most basic form, the act of thinking creatively is really that simple. What tends to happen, unfortunately, is we get so wound up about what it is we’re trying to do, or how we don’t have the right resources, or we don’t know the right questions to ask, or we aren’t exactly feeling like “being creative” in the moment, we find ourselves stuck. We put these barriers up ourselves, often consciously but occasionally unconsciously too.

It’s the same with any creative endeavor, or really any endeavor at all. We get so focused on the thought of the act that we end up barricading ourselves off from being able to do it in the first place.

I have, of course, written on this before: to be a creative, do what creatives do.

“Because what is a painter but someone who paints? Or a writer someone who writes?”

Recently I had the chance to hear from author, director, and actress, Miranda July, who echoed this point and reminded me of its importance. July stated: Don’t think of yourself as an artist, just focus on doing the work.

If you get so wound up on the thought of what it’s supposed to mean to be creative, or to be an artist, or to be a writer, you’re distracting yourself from what really matters.

What matters in all of these things isn’t the label, or whether you’re following the right system for doing the thing in order to match the label. What matters is the actual doing of the thing. Coming up with original and valuable ideas by thinking in strange or otherwise unfamiliar ways. Putting the brush to the canvas. Putting the words onto the page.

There are days when I really don’t feel like a writer (most of the time I don’t). But then I look back at the almost decade of writing I’ve done and I realize that, even though I’m not always happy with everything I’ve ever written, I’m still a writer. I put the words onto the page.

The act is what matters. So act. Even if you have to fake it at first.

Photo by Drew Coffman.

How to deal with writer’s block

Writer’s block should be taken serious.

Some people like to tout that block is “all in your head” and that fact makes it popular to believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block.

Yet research has shown that writer’s block is very real. It may be a psychological block in the brain, but so is agraphia: a very real, physical brain disability that prevents communication entirely.

Famed writer of the early 1900s, F. Scott Fitzgerald, (who you’ll remember wrote “ The Great Gatsby”) struggled so viciously with writer’s block that he led himself into believing that inspiration was a finite resource; a well that, after some use, would dry up for good.

There are other types of blocks outside of writer’s block too. Sculptors block, dancers block, composers block. All very real psychological blocks that we often feel powerless to overcome.

Yet, for writers, block is arguably more vital to beat than any other form of block. It isn’t enough to brush it aside saying: “It’s all in your head, so get over it.” Why?

Writers write to communicate. Writing is a clear form of expression, but more than that: it’s often the writer’s way of communicating. More often than not writing is the only form of communication the writer feels comfortable with, particularly in the case of professional writers.

A writer that feels block isn’t simply feeling stuck. He or she feels as though they truly cannot communicate. Block isn’t about simply being unable to write, for the writer, block can sometimes feel like the equivalent of being unable to suddenly move a limb, or – in some cases – being unable to breathe. Wrier’s block is very really debilitating. It’s not something we should brush aside lightly.

There are distinctions worth making here, between a writer who finds herself unable to write, and someone else who is simply unable to write.

In The Midnight Disease, author Alice Flaherty describes the difference between a writer who has block and someone who else who is stuck as such:

“Someone who is not writing but not suffering does not have writer’s block; he or she is merely not writing.”

For writer’s, block is something that must be dealt with, not effortlessly brushed aside.

In her book, Flaherty explores the numerous reasons for a writer to feel stuck. She lists external causes as a common reason for writer’s to experience block.

External causes for writer’s block are difficult for the writer to identify, for the fact that external blocks are ones that we form in our own heads based on external feedback. Feedback that we may not be paying conscious attention too. Though that’s not always the case.

Flaherty shares the story of novelist Paul Kafka-Gibbons: “[Gibbons] decided to take a relaxing summer off from writing his novel. He then spent those months wrestling with his psychoanalyst who thought he should face the fact that he had writer’s block.”

External pressures to write can lead us into believing that we’re the ones at fault, that we’re stuck because we’re lacking in talents, because we haven’t nothing worthwhile to write, or for deeper reasons.

In the case of student writers who feel stuck, the external drive may not be any person, but the subject itself.

Flaherty writes: “Students who seem blocked often turn out instead to have a secret dislike of their subject ” or their teacher, or their parents.”

Or, in the case of non-writers who dream of writing, the societal pressures can be internalized effortlessly. The result of external pressures is that the writer doesn’t feel as though he or she has anything valuable to say, and so doesn’t write. “I’m not a writer,” the belief goes, “so I can’t write.”

Outside of external causes there are other, more internal, reasons for writer’s block as well.

Researcher Mike Rose has a few leading theories on the subject. One of his primary theories for writer’s block is that writers place debilitating rules over their work. These rules ” which can often take shape subconsciously, on their own, without our knowing ” hinder our ability to write. Rules like avoiding sentence fragmentation, following a certain rhythm, or the editing too early.

In the end, the reasons for writer’s block varies from writer to writer.

What is commonly believed among researchers and writer’s alike is that block is predominantly an imbalance between the cognitive desire for writing and the emotional need.

Either the higher-process thinking of cognitive writing has tuned-out the emotional appeal (which can result in raw, but unemotional and un-energetic writing), or the emotional process has taken control and the ideas for writing become too uninhibited, more about “expression” and less about “communication” as Flaherty describes it.

Knowing what we know now, we can look to the array of options for getting unstuck. Because of the many reasons for block, there is an equal number of solutions for overcoming it.

On one hand are cognitive solutions. You’ve undoubtedly heard them before: mind maps, brainstorming, editing other’s work, etc.

On the other hand are more strict solutions, such as Chekhov’s rifle: the notion that every element of your story be essential and utterly irreplaceable. “A rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter must be fired by the third.”

What other effective solutions are there for writer’s block?

Writer’s apps

In recent years applications have been developed to help writer’s overcome block in a number of ways. I even created an app that provides creative prompts to help you keep writing whenever you may feel stuck or unable to start.

Writers workshops

Workshops can be helpful in the context they give to both the writer and the writer’s work. A supportive structure to write in can help remove external pressures, while the knowledgable criticism of an experienced working group can be what you need to overcome internal rules or pressures you’ve placed on yourself.

Breaking tasks into smaller chunks

Often the thought of writing a novel – or even a series of pages – can be daunting enough to cause block. An effective solution is to break your task down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Rather than looking at the writer’s job as that of creating a large volume of text, look at it as simply to write a single paragraph. Then to write another, onward until a story begins to form naturally.

Addressing the fears of writing

Rejection and failure are the two biggest fears any writer faces. Often those fears cripple without us knowing. The solution is simple: take time to sit down and think about what your fears of writing may be and what you can do to overcome them. More often than not the fears are irrational (or don’t outweigh the potential benefits of writing). In the end, the best option is to get out of your own way.

Change your environment

It’s amazing what a subtle shift in environment can do for the creative person. In a cafe the noise may be enough to distract you, but it might also help to have people looking over your shoulder to see that you are, in fact, making progress on whatever it is you’re doing. Your environment can make a huge difference.

A dozen more things

From The Midnight Disease Flaherty uncovers more promising and practical efforts for overcoming writer’s block:

“Edit something you wrote the day before, always stop at an easy spot, start with an outline that gets more and more elaborate until it becomes your text, start with stream of consciousness writing, don’t edit too early, drink lots of coffee, take a break.”

When it comes down to it, the absolute best way to deal with writer’s block is two fold: first, experiment. Try any of the options listed above, or even seek professional counseling – as many prolific writers of the past have had to do for their block. The second part of overcoming writer’s block is habits.

Form a habit for writing. It doesn’t much matter what your habits consist of, only that they exist. A quality writing habit helps overcome nearly all of the pressures that have been known to cause writer’s block. External pressures are defunct because they have no part in your habits, and internal pressures can be made powerless as a result.

Creativity is, after-all, like riding a bike. The only way to effectively learn to ride it is to get on regularly and practice. Habits should be your practice.

Photo by Jochen Handschuh.

Get out of your own way

How often do you get in your own way?

We put ourselves into situations where doubts and fear basically shut down what we’re capable of. Rather than looking at situations in an opportunistic way, we shun our abilities by telling ourselves “I can’t do that” or “That’s dumb.”

If we want to be creative, we simply need to get out of our own way; to relax and let the ideas come naturally.

It sounds so effortless, but if it were that easy to get out of our way, then coming up with creative ideas on command would be painless. But it’s not easy. The fears and negative thoughts build up and make it extremely difficult to get out of our heads.

There is hope, fortunately.

To let creativity flow naturally we have to use what researchers call emotional agility. It’s the ability to take our fears, doubts, and negative thoughts, and turn them into opportunities based on our personal values or goals.

There are four steps to improve your emotional agility and get back to creating:

1. Look for thinking patterns

Any time you feel stuck, think about how you’re feeling and the thoughts you’re having. If you find yourself consistently thinking repetitive thoughts (like “I can’t do this” or “This is hopeless”) then that’s a pattern you need to be cognizant of. Why? It’s these cyclical thoughts that are keeping you stuck in the first place! Recognizing them is the first step to getting unstuck.

2. Label those thoughts

Once you’ve recognized the thoughts that are keeping you stuck, you simply need to label them as what they are: thoughts.

If you’re working on a big project and find yourself thinking something along the lines of: “This will never work.” The next step is to recognize that you’re simply having that thought and that it’s just a thought. Whether it’s true or not is not impacting you, what’s impacting you is that you’re having the thought; “I feel like this will never work because I’m thinking this may not work.”

3. Accept them

Take a few deep breaths and acknowledge those thoughts now. Even if you’re really angry or frustrated, give yourself the proper time and setting to acknowledge and accept those feelings. We have acknowledge and accept these thoughts because, whether the feelings are logical or not, the thoughts are markers that we’re doing something important. Ignoring them or trying to brush them aside only makes us focus on them more and remain in a stuck cycle. Accept your fears and doubts as they are.

4. Remind yourself of who you are

Lastly, check how the thoughts and feelings are impacting your mission and values.

I use this quote so often, but for a good reason. It’s from Merlin Mann, he said: “We procrastinate when we’ve forgotten who we are.” The same is true for getting creatively stuck.

We have these fears and these negative thoughts that are preventing us from moving forward, but we’ve now recognized that they’re just thoughts and they aren’t going anywhere, so what do we do next? Remind yourself of who you are and what you value. Then check if the thoughts you’re having align or interfere with your values. Ask yourself if those thoughts will benefit your objective in the long term. If they aren’t helping, you now have emotional motivation to press on.

As a personal example of this (the inspiration for this post): last night I found myself stuck on a project. It has been going well for the past few months, but all of the work left to do on it has begun to feel overwhelmingly daunting.

So I was absolutely stuck. I didn’t want to keep working on something that may end up being trash. If I put in a few more months of work and the project ends up being a flop, won’t I have wasted all of that time? Time I could have been spending having fun with friends or doing anything else worthwhile? As a result: I’ve been procrastinating.

For the last few weeks I would end up watching TV or going out to dinner with friends, anything to keep away from the work.

But last night I sat down and reminded myself that the fears of the project failing might be just that: fears. I was then able to remind myself that I’m someone who creates. Failure or not, creating is what I do. That’s what I value most right now in my life.

Just like that, almost immediately after having that realization, ideas began to pop-up in my mind.

By simply acknowledging the fears and choosing to keep working anyway, it’s as though someone flipped a switch in my brain and the creativity began to flow on it’s own. That is, after-all, how our brains work. We just need to get out of our own way.

So if you’re feeling stuck or find yourself procrastinating often, follow the above four steps and see if that doesn’t get you back on a creative track.

Original photo by Nicola.

How to beat your psychological creative blocks


It’s not uncommon in the creative industries to be told: “Do it because it’s something you enjoy doing.”

What is uncommon is to find that advice actually working for us.

Why? Well, scientific studies have shown that we’re less likely to be creative or produce creative work when the task at hand is motivated by external drives, a paycheck, some level of attention, or a reward, and so on. These external motivators hinder our creative abilities.

For example, I’ve recently found myself stuck while working on a very large project. At first I was excited to be working on it, but as the work progressed I noticed my thoughts drifting away from: “This is fun, I’m learning a lot,” to more of: “How can I make sure this succeeds? How can I make money to pay my bills off of this?”

I ended up feeling stuck, unsure of what to do next.

Rather than tackling these types of burdened/required tasks in a casual, relaxed way (as creativity requires), we find ourselves asking routine questions to instead distract ourselves. Am I using the right tools? Should I get coffee again before starting? What’s the expectation for how this should be done? I wonder what so-and-so will think of this? If this is going to fail, why should I even start? And so on.

These questions stop us in our tracks. Rather than simply doing the work to see where it goes, we come up with excuses on why we can’t start or keep going.

We are essentially the makers of our own creative blocks.

Sylvia Plath, an esteemed poet and short novelist, knew that her regularly experienced writer’s block was self imposed, albeit as a result of expectations. Sylvia wrote: “Editors and publishers and critics and the world… I want acceptance there, and to feel my work good and well-taken. Which ironically freezes me at my work, corrupts my nunnish labor of work-for-itself-as-its-own-reward.”

Even if we find ourselves working because the work is it’s own reward, as Sylvia puts it, the overwhelming sense of being criticized, of making something that falls flat and fails, or of not achieving the goals we have envisioned for ourselves, often paralyzes us.

Psychologists refer to this as “overjustification hypothesis.”

Our own internal motivation to do something becomes overridden and stomped-on by external motivations. Even if we enjoy the creative work we do, when we’re doing it to pay bills, or to build reputation, or while someone watches us, we’re less likely to do it creatively.

This explains why I’ve suddenly found myself stuck on this project. While my originally intentions were good and enough to start the project, they’ve been overridden by external motivators. For me, money and reputation have halted my progress.

To beat this type of creative block we only have to look to psychological science.

In a 1980 study titled Effects of salience of extrinsic rewards, researchers learned that by simply going over a list of internal reasons for doing something, participants felt more aligned with their own intrinsic motivators.

The research has been confirmed by additional studies as well, including one that explicitly evaluated how motivation hinders or enhances creativity.

In the study, established creative writers were tasked with creating poems. Simple enough. In addition to the task of writing a unique poem, a small group of the writers were also given a short, five-minute questionnaire asking questions about why the writer chose writing as their primary profession or passion.

There were two versions of the survey given to the group at random. One version had writers explore intrinsic motivations for writing (like: self expression, the ability to explore their thoughts, and because of it’s utility as a form of self-therapy), while the other survey had writers explore external motivations (to impress fellow writers, parents encouraged it, getting a job, or to become a financially-secure and best-selling author).

At the end of the study researchers learned that those who had done the questionnaire that entailed extrinsic motivations produced work that was vastly less creative than the other groups.

External motivators certainly do hamper our ability to think creatively and produce creative work.

The researchers exclaim at the end of their report: “These results add considerable strength to the intrinsic motivation hypothesis of creativity. They demonstrate that, even in the absence of specific extrinsic constraints, creativity may be undermined if extrinsic goals are simply made salient to people.”

For us, this means that simply taking five minutes to explore our own intrinsic motivations for working on something can help us produce more creative work.

So there we have it.

When it comes to creativity, the absolute best work we can do only comes from an intrinsic desire to do so. Reminding ourselves of those reasons often can help get us through creative slumps.

What are your reasons?

You can read a PDF of the full creative writer’s study at Crumpled paper photo by Steve.