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Creative Block is a Big Fat Myth

Recently, I watched the movie Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper. The movie was about a writer who suffers from creative block. Cooper played a New York, vagabond-looking author with a killer publication contract—a contract so far from realistic that I almost laughed out loud. Cooper was commissioned, as a first time writer, to author a fiction novel based on a book proposal. First, this never happens. Publishers are looking for complete manuscripts when it comes to fiction. Second, Cooper’s character suffered from writer’s block and was having difficulty coming through on his end of the deal: producing a manuscript. No publisher would give such a writer the time of day.

This scenario made me anything but sympathetic to Cooper’s character. He gets the deal of a lifetime, and he can’t deliver because he has writer’s block? Waah-waaah, cry all over my shoulder, Mr. Cooper. Needless to say, as a writer, I hated the character.

When asked about writer’s block, my opinion is always the same: writer’s block is a myth. Sure, there can be temporary setbacks in a creative process, but these setbacks are usually self-inflicted.

The creative process drives itself. The more one produces creative work–writing, painting, music–whatever, the more ideas flow into the creative mind. These ideas can be filed by writing them down or by simply remembering them and letting them stew. To someone who actually creates finished work consistently, there is no shortage of new ideas. It becomes a matter of picking from the list and running.

Creative block is usually caused by one thing: procrastination. Often, the more one works on a creative project, the more difficult it becomes, particularly near the end of the process when all the rough-in work is complete and it’s time to pay attention to fine details. Many creative people, when the going gets tough, give up and spiral down a slide of procrastination. Even worse, they make the worst excuse for their lack of elbow grease; they say: “I’m blocked.”

So being creatively blocked is a myth. To overcome this mythical state, here are a few suggestions:

Suggestion 1: Never use the word blocked.
Saying you are blocked creatively is like admitting defeat on the battlefield. As a creative, you should never allow yourself to throw your hands up in the air and say I can’t do it. The truth is, you can do it. It will take work, patience, and endurance. But you can do it. If you push your way through your projects one step at a time, you will eventually complete them.

Suggestion 2: Take a detour.
Notice that I am not saying take a break. Creativity begets creativity. New ideas will come to you that are unrelated to the project on which you are currently engaged. Why would you want to take yourself out of that place, the place where creativity flows through your mind during all of your waking hours? Don’t take a break; take a detour. Jump to another idea and plug away at it.

By doing this, however, you run the risk of opening up project after project and never finishing any of them. You must have a main project on which you are working. Any detours you take must be short and surmountable. If you are working on a novel and find yourself in a tight spot where you can’t resolve a story problem, take a break to write a short story or two. By temporarily redirecting your creative energy in another direction, often, when you return to your main project, you will have a clean creative slate and can view your impending problems from a different angle. Think of it as creative cross training.

Suggestion 3: Push on through.
This should actually be suggestion 1. Usually a so-called creative block is nothing more than procrastination. Recognize it for what it is and force yourself to clock the time and mental commitment it takes to finish the project. Accept nothing but success.

There’s something funny about finishing. The closer one comes to finishing a task, the more difficult the task seems to become. Hence, the possibility of ditching a project altogether becomes strongest right near the finish line. Don’t cave to this. Grunt it out. Force yourself to write, paint, compose, or whatever you do. Lock yourself in a closet; get up early; stay up late. Find the time to commit hours to your work. In the end you will finish.

To Bradly Cooper’s character in Limitless I say, go ahead and live like a vagabond. Keep your hair long and unkempt. Wear those wrinkled and unwashed clothes. Go ahead and offend everyone around you with your smell. These are not the things that make up a true creative person. They are only window dressing–and bad window dressing at that. And when it comes to that incredible writing contract, go ahead and default. Leave a hole for someone else who is actually dedicated to his or her craft to fill, someone willing to never make an excuse like, “I can’t finish, I’m blocked.”

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  1. […] had to put the project up on blocks for a while and think about it. As I have written in a previous article, I didn’t take a break. I took a detour. When I came back to Gus’s story, I found it […]

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