“I have writer’s block. It is bad … Whatever genius is in me is still a sneaky little [expletive deleted] that cannot be found.”
– Recent friend asking for help
What is Creativity?
First, what is creativity? Creativity is literally something that hasn’t ever existed before coming into existence. Writer’s Block begs us to answer the question: How could you possibly plan to bring about something you can’t, by definition, know ahead of time? Yet you can’t answer the question logically.
If you assume that creativity is inventing something novel, then you can’t make it happen. You have to instead get your old (non-novel) thoughts out of the way and open yourself to something new arising. You have relinquish judgment. As Rice University Creativity Professor Susan Lieberman said, “The average person obliterates 90% of a good idea because they focus on the 10% that is bad. Inventors do the opposite.”
Write boring fluff, paint something that’s been done before, write an unoriginal song, and don’t judge it. Natalie Goldberg talks about composting in her book on creativity “Writing Down the Bones,” how sometimes the crap acts like compost, feeding nutrients to the new good creative stuff coming down the pipeline.
Thanks Jordan, but how do I actually foster novel ideas? How do I get out of the way?
Creativity Creator I: Do Weird Stuff
Consume all ideas: new movies, new stories, new political opinions, new theories, without judging. Not personally—you’ll still have preferences and things you believe and don’t believe—but for the sake of what they might inspire. Try reading a genre you’ve never read before (romance novels, the sports section, Fortune mag, a feminist essay), watching a type of movie you’d never otherwise watch (Disney animation? Film Noir? Dysfunctional Family TV Dramas?). This is why I started listening to country music. Get out of your comfort zone.
Now, make this a lifestyle. Not just in entertainment, but in everything. Try wearing a bathrobe around town all day. Try spending twenty minutes listening to the same song over and over again. Try eating something you haven’t eaten before—some rare fruit from the Amazon rainforest. Eat cereal with water. Eat it for dinner. Go to a Mormon meeting. Go to a Buddhist temple. Go to the bar and only drink tea. Find a really weird magazine (perhaps about clowns or UFOs) and write a letter to the editor. Invite someone to coffee who you think is weird. Surprise someone. Surprise yourself.
Do things that you wouldn’t normally do; that no one “normal” does. Don’t hurt anyone and don’t hurt yourself, but step outside of your patterns for the sake of art. Take a class on pottery, or hip-hop yoga. Go find an ecstatic dance group or contact dance group. (For more suggestions, click here). Write about it all. Keep a journal.
Write it Down
Writing is useful whether you’re looking for creativity as a poet, musician, stylist, businessman, mother, actor, whatever. You don’t have to be a good writer to keep a journal, and no one ever has to read what you write.
In your journal, try writing about yourself from the third person. Try writing a letter to yourself (2nd person) now, in ten years, to your ten-years-ago self. Try writing a letter from your ten-years-ago self, and another from your successful self ten years in the future. Write in the first person about your friends. Take a first person perspective on the people you’re most attracted to and most repelled from. Write in first person from Olivia Wilde’s perspective, Barak Obama’s, and the coach of the your favorite (or least favorite) team.
Shift your perspective around as much as possible. Write about anything—the sun, the coffee table—but do it from a new point of view. Try writing from the point of view of the coffee table itself—What does it feel? What does it see? How long does it live? Three main characters in Tom Robbins’ successful book “Skinny Legs and All” are a Painted Stick, a Dirty Sock, and an androgynous Can of Beans. Turn off the filter. The voice that says “this sucks” is appropriate only for the editing phase, and you’re sunk if you try to edit while you write.
Now you might find that ideas leap off the page, and you might not. You might be able to adapt some of what you’ve written or experienced in any of these exercises as part of your art, or you might not. But you’ll live a very fun and interesting life in the meantime.
To be continued. Forthcoming…
- Part II: Embracing Paradox
- Part III: The Discipline of Practice
Links to what other people think about creativity:
- Finding Your Deep Creativity: Three Easy Steps
- Four Steps to Creative Ecstasy
- Creative Trajectory
- Who Are Your Creative Influences?
- Andrew Cohen’s Authentic Self
- 13-Famous Writers on Overcoming Writer’s Block