I used to believe in “creative block”.
Years ago, I would sometimes find myself with articles to write and, nearing the deadline with nothing done, I’d down a few glasses of wine and plow through it, weeping at the (usually subpar) result and the joy of having a monkey off my back.
I believed in the myth.
Later, I discovered how inspiration works.
Last week, I saw a handful of posts about “Creative Block” making the rounds and the passive acceptance of this myth made me lose my temper.
Most of the time, when we feel “blocked” while attempting to work on something creative, there are three possible causes:
- We don’t want to do it.
- We’re not physically/mentally capable of doing it.
- We don’t understand how ‘inspiration’ works and rationalize our natural urge to laziness with “lack of inspiration”.
#1 and #2 require serious life changes. You need to learn to not put yourself in the position of having to do something you strongly dislike or are too impaired/unskilled to do. I will write posts about these problems in the future.Today, we’re going to address #3.
When the problem is “inspiration”, the cure begins with refusing to wait around for inspiration to “show up”:
- Schedule a specific time to do creative work and keep your schedule. If your work window is, say, 9am-3pm, sit down at 9am and start working. Turn off your internet, phone, TV, or anything that can distract you. Shoo away distracting people and make them understand that you need time to concentrate. Focus on the task at hand with all of your attention and energy.
- Every time you start creative work, begin with a ritual to tell your brain that it’s “creative time”. The brain responds to cues and signals and having a reliable signal will get it working the way you need it to. I light two candles, say a prayer to the Muses, fill two mugs of whatever I’m drinking (water, tea, or coffee) and place them next to my work space, put on a working soundtrack (usually Indian Classical or Bossa Nova) and light a stick of nag champa incense. This tells my brain that it’s “go time”. Pro athletes often have similar rituals before practices and games. You should, too.
- Turn off your internal editor/critic. When you are creating, the purpose isn’t to get it perfect the first time out (which is high-pressure and technically impossible). Writing involves re-writing, editing, and multiple drafts — after you have a completed first draft. Painting involves getting something down — you can touch it up later. Et cetera. Don’t criticize or try to edit as you go along. You’ll stifle yourself. Get something down and then refine it.
- Grind. Start making something, even if it is terrible and you know you will throw it out. As you get “warmed up”, your quality will improve as you go. I often start with something fresh that I’m not attached to and when I get warmed up, I have no qualms about switching over to something that I really want.
- When you feel yourself getting mentally tired (usually, when you start making silly mistakes), stop. Sometimes, all you need is a break; and sometimes, you are done for the day. As long as you put in the hours, you should be fine.
- Afterward, reward yourself. I usually indulge in one of my favorite foods: mangoes or fancy dark chocolate. Sometimes, I’ll get a massage or engage in “decompression” activities. The key here is to let your brain know that creative activity is something you appreciate, enjoy, and want more of.
- Don’t judge the quality of your output or the depth of your inspiration. Every day is different and some days are better than others. This is natural. As long as you put in the work and maintain a schedule, you will get the results you are after over time. And you’ll get better at luring inspiration into your schedule.
Sometimes, you do all of the above and still get nothing. It’s rare, but it happens. Similarly, you might have a tight deadline and have to work beyond your normal limit. And some people have a different work/rest rhythm and need to time things according to that rhythm.
I will address these issues in How Inspiration Works Part 2.
What creativity myths have you been shattering in your own life?