Writer’s Block is an umbrella term that people who aren’t writing use to explain to people who don’t write why in fact they are not writing. Like just about anything in life, if you understand something then that’s a great starting point to learning how to deal with it.
I’ve been trying to take the mystery out of some of the ways that you can be affected by Writer’s Block – so that you can understand why you’re not writing and fix it, and get back producing whatever it is you wanted to write before you got ‘blocked.’
Now I’m going to simplify Writer’s Block even further. Writer’s Block basically affects us in one of three ways:
1) We have nothing to write about
2) We’ve got something to write about, but we can’t get started
3) We’ve got something to write about, we get started, but we don’t finish.
In HTAWB#7 we’re going to look at a strategy that can help if you’re struggling with having nothing to write about.
What About HTAWB#3? Didn’t We Look At The Idea Bank?
In the third article of this series we did indeed look at a method to make sure that we’re never short of ideas. And that article was about creating something called An Idea Bank.
And an Idea Bank is a great way to make sure you have topics to write about. But occasionally the unexpected happens, and you need to write about something that you’ve not got any topics for in your Idea Bank. What do you do then?
In that situation most people would probably brainstorm. Or make mind maps. Or freewrite. And all of these strategies work. But for these situations I use none of these. Instead what I do – assuming I know enough about the topic to write about it – is to take a Road Trip.
You’ve Got Work To Do – Why Would You Be Going Off On A Road Trip?
This is a tactic I knew about, and that I’d used to solve creative problems, but had never been consciously aware of it until I read about it in Julie Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way.’ In one of the early chapters Cameron talks about Steven Spielberg, and what he does when he has a creative problem to solve.
You’ve guessed it, he takes a road trip.
Spielberg literally gets in his car, and drives two hours up the freeway and two hours back. And by the time he gets back he’s usually solved his creative problem.
And man, this tactic works like gangbusters. Once I became consciously aware of how this can work, I started using it deliberately. This was back in the day when I wrote fiction – if I was stuck with plot problems, or needed ideas for stories, I’d get in the car and head up the motorway.
A couple of hours later I’d be back with a bunch of ideas. There’s a problem with this tactic – depending on the time of day, and what else is going on in my life, it’s not always possible to jump in the car and head off for a two hour drive to nowhere. (not to mention the price of gas these days!)
So I started trying to replicate the effects with other activities. Before we look at other activities that you can use, let’s back up a step and look at why it works.
The Devil Makes Work For Idle Brains
Here’s why I think this works. If you’ve driven for any length of time then you can pretty much drive using what most people mistakenly label muscle memory. So you’re not using much brainpower there.
And most motorways are pretty featureless. At least in the UK. There’s not much to look at, not much to catch your attention. So you’re not musing much brainpower there.
And if you put music on in your car that’s deliberately designed to be bland, background music, well your brain’s not going to waste many neurons focusing on that. But your brain knows it can’t go to sleep – because you’ll crash.
And so you’ve created a kind of vacuum. And what you’ll find happening is that your brain will start to fill that vacuum with idle thoughts. At first these thoughts may be just everyday stuff, things you’ve got to do at home, or the game you’re going to see at the weekend. That kind of thing.
But with a gentle nudge in the right direction you’ll find that suddenly your brain starts to get creative. And you start to get great ideas. Not just great ideas either, but your brain is yearning for something to do, and those ideas will be fleshed out in detail and explored in related tangents that you didn’t know you knew, let along could think up.
When that happens, there are two things you can do. If you’re excited about the idea, you can trust that it will stay in your brain until you can get home and record the idea. Or you can be prepared and dictate the ideas as they come into some kind of Dictaphone. Or I believe the iPhone has an App that functions as a voice memo recorder.
That way, when you get home you can transcribe your ideas. And the excitement that you’ll hear in your voice will reignite the excitement as you transcribe the ideas. You’ll be making deposits in your Idea Bank that can keep you going for weeks.
But What If You Don’t Drive – Or Need To Brainstorm NOW And Can’t Hit The Highway?
It’s vital to to remember the key ingredients:
(i) Performing a routine activity that you can do without thinking
(ii) Try and remove visual stimulation
(iii) Shut the world out with bland, background music
(iv) Have something to record the ideas once they start coming
Once you know how this works, you just need to find activities in your life that will allow you to come up with some creativity.
The three I’ve found are walking, swimming and ****ing. (It’s not what you think – I’ll explain in a moment ).
Let’s take them one at a time. Walking is the first – just about everyone can walk. And don’t have to think about it. Grab your iPod and head out of the door. I’ve found 45-60 minutes is an optimal time – make sure that you’re walking around familiar locations. So that you’re not visually distracted. Works like a charm.
The second one is less intuitive. Swimming. I have to swim regularly or face constant battles with my dodgy knees. And swimming lengths is really, really dull. And I’m so short sighted that there’s not a chance of ANYTHING giving me visual stimulation ) And I’ve got an underwater MP3 player – so there’s the musical element.
The only thing with swimming is I don’t think anyone has yet invented a waterproof Dictaphone! So I keep a note pad and pen in my swimming bag – and often go scribble notes straight after my swim. So that works like a charm to generate ideas, I tend to focus on one idea and work it around in my head in detail and try and capture that when I’m doing my post-swimming scribbling.
That leaves us with ****ing. Here’s the story – I traded with my wife on this. Now I absolutely hate DIY – you know, painting, decorating, tiling, that kind of shit. Not only do I hate it, I’m really bad at it, it takes ages, and has to be redone by a professional. So I traded my wife – I told her if she did the DIY, I’d do the ****ing. So every Sunday morning I get the ironing board out, and I do the “ironing.”
And yep, it’s duller than ditchwater. But what she doesn’t know – and please don’t tell her! – is that every Sunday morning I get a ninety minute creative session built into the routine of my life that helps me with my writing tasks for the week to come. Often I’ve mentally outlined three or four articles whilst I’m doing the ironing. (She does wonder why I stop at my computer and type a line or two every couple of garments…that’s our little secret OK?)
The Road Trip Still Works Though
Yesterday I took my family up to my Mum’s house – which is a 3 hour trip each way. My eldest son and my wife sat in the back and watch a film on a portable DVD film. My youngest son sat in the front with me (he gets car sick) and listened to his play list on an iPod.
That left me with a great expanse of time when my brain was doing nothing. I mentally outlined this post on the trip there – and mentally outlined an upcoming Webinar I’m going to be doing on the way home.
This is an extremely powerful technique to get creative if you can harness it properly.
You can deliberately use Repetitive Activities to stimulate the creative part of your brain.
The activity must be something that you can do on a subconscious level. Like walking. Or driving. Or swimming. Or ironing. Or jogging. Or cycling. Or a gazillion other repetitive activities.
You need to cut down external stimulation. Visual stimulation can be cut down by either being somewhere familiar (walking) or by being somewhere monotonous (driving). Aural stimulation can be eliminated using bland music specifically designed as background music (film soundtrack music works the best for me).
Starve your brain of something to do – and it will repay you with a whole stream of wild thoughts. All you need is something to capture them, and you can return home with your creative problem for the day or week solved.
Have you ever experienced this – on a long drive and suddenly you get creative ideas popping in your head like a series of light bulbs? If so, jot down some notes in the comments section below and share your experiences. And no ironing jokes please!