Break the Block

We all experience it; the drought, not having ideas, the feeling of being detached from our creative source, the lack of inspiration. Those down times are part of being creative. You just can’t keep flying high and be in constant flow. Sometimes you will have to land and just accept that you need some time to ground yourself again.

Yes, it is frustrating when you hit a creative block. Particularly if it lasts a long time. However, the more you experience it—and the more you create the more you will experience it—the more likely you will know that it’s a temporary state of mind. It seems like the muses have left you, but they will be back again. Maybe not today or maybe not even in a couple of months, but they will. So don’t lose faith. Don’t give up when it happens.

What you definitely should not do, is stop doing something. Just because whatever you do isn’t worth the energy you put into it—in your eyes, at least—it still important to trick the muses to show up again, and you do that with keep working, even if the result is pure rubbish. That’s how you get them back again. I promise.

If you can’t find anything you want to do in your usual endeavour, do something different. Just find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. I write a lot; articles, chronicles, blog posts as you see here and even novels, and every so often I do get stopped by a writer’s block. Then I leave my computer, and start doing something else. I might draw something, even if I am not good at it, I might start to construct a new part of a deck or repair something on the house—I will do something, whatever it is. For me, I find practical work to be a good block breaker. Eventually with enough energy put into this other whatever it is the writing starts to flow again.

Albert Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.

Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes. The Australian writer, poet and critic Clive James lost his flow and stopped writing. But after a long spell of this funk he managed to trick himself back to work—or more correctly, his daughter did. He lost it all after a play he wrote became an enormous failure. After that he thought he would never be able to write again. He almost ruined his family financially, lost friends and fell into a deep depression. It was only when his daughter much later more or less pushed him into painting her bicycle that things started to change. Not immediately—in the beginning he was rather reluctant even to start the painting—but after some time he found pleasure in colouring the daughter’s bicycle in new and imaginative ways. Finally he began to add hundreds of silver and gold stars all over the bicycle. Although his daughter first was a little embarrassed by the artwork, it didn’t take long before a friend of her asked Clive James to do her bicycle as well. Soon he had painted the whole neighbourhood’s bikes. Painting thousands and thousands of stars was a healing process for him. Finally he realized that one day he would write about this. He had found a way back to writing.

In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else. Or, to phrase the famous Stephen Stills song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”.

Go walk the dog, go pick every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, buy a colouring book and colour, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with bright colours and put them in a pile. You may think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t, it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave you arms. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

63 thoughts on “Break the Block

  1. You’re absolutely right. It’s a larger scale variant of what happens when we’re searching for a word we can’t find, or attempting to remember who wrote a particular book. The harder we think, the less we remember. In the same way, the harder we try to create, the less successful we are.

    Jonah Lehrer (despite some unfortunate tendencies toward plagiarism — not an approved method of creation) wrote a fine article about the phenomenon in an article titled “The Eureka Hunt.” There’s a reason that trying too hard can be counterproductive:

    “Trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight. While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that we should be encouraging.”

    That’s why doing something is critical — but sometimes it’s doing something different that breaks the block. Refocusing allows our mind to relax, and get back to the business of creating.

    1. Refocus is a good word for what I am writing about here. Thanks for the quote by Lehrer, which is very indicative for what is going on in our minds when we force something to happen.

  2. Great post, Otto! I love the concept of combinatory play! And your advice is great. My different muses show up at different times – they love to take turns in long cycles 😬 There are long periods of poetry writing, music and prose writing/photography. The music writing/playing muse has been absent several years now and might never show up again. But who knows 🤔

  3. Comes at a great time for me. This is also a good technique to use late at night when your brain is running in 42 directions at one time and you cannot go back to sleep. If I read a book it channels my brain back to perhaps one train of thought and quiets my mind. Funny how we are wired! Thanks for the input Otto! Good timing!

    1. I am happy to know I timed this post well. As for quieting the thoughts at when going to sleep, I do exactly the same. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the might overwhelmed by thoughts. But after maybe half an hour of reading, I can easily go back to sleep again.

  4. I know this feeling. This could lead to completely loss interest in the matter entirely as Clive’s life. I am glad he found his way out even so that seems like something you can’t control 😦

  5. I appreciate your using the words of Stephen Stills as an excellent illustration to your point, Otto. There is so much stress to “clog” some of our creativity, this message is really what I need. Thank you. I need creativity to keep my inner balance from extreme upset. I do appreciate your very important perspective.

  6. i’ve been in a lull for so long, but have just started to think about buying a new camera… and such… but i still think it’s too soon

  7. This is beautiful advice (so true about combinatory play). As a person uses laser focus to solve problems (creative and otherwise), I found this especially helpful. Thank you for the lift.

  8. Thank you Otto, I am in this struggle now, the ideas run around in my head. When I try to type in my blog, they run away & I’m starring at a blank screen. I’m going to take your suggestion & color for a while, since I’m limted to my options.

  9. … when no interaction occurs with others… you’re done! “Our Minds can be wonderful, but at the same time “Mental” can be our worst enemy.” well, to me. Enjoy a great day 🙂

  10. A wonderful post, Otto, full of wisdom. So glad you mentioned Einstein’s violin playing! It was a big inspiration throughout his life – he famously said “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Switching to an alternative creative activity has always helped me, whether it is gardening, sketching, or even playing ball with my dog.

  11. Your articles are always so reassuring, Otto. Through your own extensive experience you are able to empathise with the struggling creative artist – helping him/her to understand that they are not unique in the problem of creative constipation. You offer constructive advice and help to boost their battered self-confidence.

  12. Another wonderful post with great advice, Otto. 🙂 I draw mandalas during my dry spells and it turns out that they are not dry spells at all. They’re a way of recharging.

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