It’s one of the most dreaded moments in the life of a creative person. The muse packs her bags, walks out the door, and doesn’t leave word as to when she’ll come back. Many of us, myself included, sink into a deep, dark despair filled with doubt and worry. Does she just need a weekend away, or has she gone on a round-the-world cruise? Hell, was she ever there in the first place, or have you been deluding yourself in thinking that you were actually talented.
The easy thing to do, especially when a deadline is looming, is to lose perspective. The harder but much more productive mindset is to realize that you—and virtually everyone you respect and admire—have overcome blocks in the past. You might even say that it’s part of the process. So have a lot of successful people you think never have such problems producing work. "Anyone who tells you they don’t encounter creative block is either not passionate about what they do or is stealing someone else’s ideas," asserts the graphic designer Mike McQuade. He, along with 89 others, from Nicholas Felton to Debbie Millman, have contributed their encouraging words to Breakthrough!, a new book edited by Alex Cornell compiling advice on how to clear creative hurdles. Most seem to agree with this strategy: When you hit a wall, don’t stew; change course. And as soon as you find yourself engaging in some other activity and forgetting the muse, she just might reappear.
Here are some more suggestions for sparking inspiration, ranging from checking into a fancy hotel to just checking out.
They say an elephant never forgets. Well, you are not an elephant. Take notes, constantly. Save interesting thoughts, quotations, films, technologies . . . the medium doesn’t matter, so long as it inspires you. When you’re stumped, go to your notes like a wizard to his spell book. Mash those thoughts together. Extend them in every direction until they meet.
Your notebook is feeling thin? Then seek assistance and find yourself a genius. Geniuses come in many shapes and colors, and they often run in packs. If you can find one, it may lead you to others. Collaborate with geniuses. Send them your spells. Look carefully at theirs. What could you do together? Combination is creation.
Beware of addictive medicines. Everything in moderation. This applies particularly to the Internet and your sofa. The physical world is ultimately the source of all inspiration. Which is to say, if all else falls: take a bike ride.
For me the best way to overcome creative block is with space, going for a walk, distancing myself from the desk. When I’m walking I can think things through, and I talk it through too, with myself and with whoever is nearby. There’s really something to be said for the adage "a problem shared is a problem halved," even if you’re talking aloud to yourself.
This only works if you are a little on the cheap side.
Check into an expensive hotel for three nights. It’s good if it’s near the airport or some other deeply boring location. Bring whatever you need to get hopped up: candy, bourbon, coffee, nicotine patches. Also, pants with an elastic waist. And a stack of books that you love but that you have read at least twice already. Once you’ve checked in, give the remote to the front desk and instruct them not to give it back to you, no matter how much you beg.
Now. Write ten thousand words. If you feel blocked, just think about all the money you’re wasting, sitting there, staring into space like an idiot.
1. Get enough sleep! Sleep is the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.
2. Read as much as you can, particularly classics. If a master of words can’t inspire you, see number 3.
3. Color code your library. This is fun, and you will realize how many great books you have that you haven’t read yet.
4. More sleep! You can never get enough.
5. Force yourself to procrastinate. Works every time!
6. Look at the work of Tibor Kalman, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, Christoph Niemann, and Paul Sahre.
7. Weep. And then weep some more.
8. Surf the Web. Write inane tweets. Check out your high school friends on Facebook. Feel smug.
9. Watch Law & Order: SVU marathons. Revel in the ferocious beauty of Olivia Benson.
10. Remember how L-U-C-K-Y you are to be a creative person to begin with and quit your bellyaching. Get to work now!
I tend to say yes to more than I can do, and the fear of failure keeps the work flowing. When I’m really at a loss—when it feels like my designs are simply circling the drain—I will leave the office. There’s no point in trying to blindly bump into a solution, so whether it’s sketching in the park or reading a book, I avoid trying to use brute force—it’s like trying to get rid of the hiccups.
Some people get all of their best ideas in the shower. Others swear by coffee shop visits or vintage shopping. Personally, I get lots of ideas on airplanes. Maybe it’s the drone of the engine muting my surroundings that helps me concentrate or the fact that I am blissfully unreachable via e-mail for at least a couple of hours. Similarly, I tend to get a lot of good thinking done when I’m on a long drive. The monotony of the road can be very meditative.
Now, if all this mind-clearing business isn’t your cup of tea, why not try coffee—right before bed. It’ll do the opposite of everything I’ve described thus far and likely turn that mental traffic jam into a high-speed demolition derby. Of course, the suggestion of laying in the dark for hours with your pulse and mind racing is terrible medical advice—but hey, I’m not a doctor. Take notes. In the morning, 75 percent will be unintelligible, 20 percent will be laughable, and 5 percent might actually be pretty awesome.
My strategy for getting myself out of a rut is to sit at my desk reminding myself of what the problem is, reviewing my notes, generally filling my head with the issues and terms, and then I just get up and go do something relatively mindless and repetitive. At our farm in the summer, I paint the barn or mow the hayfield or pick blueberries or cut firewood to length; and at home in Massachusetts in the winter, I rake leaves or shovel snow or clean the basement floor. I don’t even try to think about the problem, but more often than not, at some point in the middle of the not very challenging activity, I’ll find myself mulling it over and coming up with a new slant, a new way of tackling the issue, maybe just a new term to use.
One summer many years ago, my friend Doug Hofstadter was visiting me at my farm, and somebody asked him where I was. He gestured out to the big hayfield behind the house, which I was harrowing for a reseeding. "He’s out there on his tractor, doing his tillosophy," Doug said. Ever since then, tillosophy has been my term for this process. Try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll end up with a painted room, a mowed lawn, a clean basement.
Lots of reading and lots of sketching. The reading part is a long-term strategy: constantly consuming ideas, influences, details, angles, metaphors, symbols, etc., and storing them in the back of your brain so that later on—sometimes much later on—you have a rich catalog of starting points to draw from. Sketching is a way to activate all of that background information when faced with a problem: the act of drawing, of giving visual expression to many different ideas, helps you sort through all of those random elements and to make unexpected connections between them. The key is to sketch quickly, without getting caught up in the execution or technique. That way you stay in the realm of content, without getting bogged down.
If you’re stuck in the middle of the design, it probably means that you’re not asking enough questions. Who is the audience? What do they feel? What do they desire? What will improve their life and create joy? How do other designers tackle similar problems? At the core of every successful design is a set of simply defined constraints that you measure your ideas against. It’s all about determining the soul of a product before laying down the first pixel or pen stroke.
There are two main reasons why creative people get stuck on a piece of work. The first is you don’t actually have an idea. You may have requirements, and you may have tools. But you don’t actually have an idea that’s going to carry the day, and you’re going to be stuck until you get a solid idea. The second reason creative people get stuck is that, while they have the idea, executing the idea takes a lot of work, and not all of that work is fun, and basically you don’t want to do the work, because having the idea in the first place was the fun part. If you’re balking at the work, you need to stop playing around, sit down, shut up, go off-line, focus single-mindedly on executing the work, and make it real. In either case, if you try to solve one problem when you’re really having the other, you’re going to waste a lot of time.
My biggest revelation in terms of overcoming creative block was realizing that my best pieces were the outcomes of my biggest struggles. The ones with which I had spent countless hours staring at a wall or crying about how nothing in this piece made sense. Coming to realize these ruts were actually crucial to performing better and coming up with more innovative and less predictable results completely changed my take on them. Now, when I hit a creative dead end, I overcome it by seeing it as an opportunity to rethink, re-evaluate, and make something great.
Excerpted with permission from Alex Cornell’s Breakthrough! 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block & Spark Your Imagination (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Buy the book for $11 here.