If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.
Inspiration is the Holy Grail for creative people. All of a sudden, something magical happens – words, images sounds or rhythms appear in your mind as if from nowhere, entrancing you in their spell. All you have to do is get it down on paper, canvas for the digital screen, as easily as if you were taking dictation. It’s effortless, delightful, surprising and exciting. It’s also mysterious. When you’ve been visited by inspiration, you feel special.
But it doesn’t last. It’s like a will-o’-the-wisp that vanishes when you pursue it. Some days, you wonder whether it exists at all. Or whether itself visiting other people. Meanwhile, you’re sat there like a lemon, with your notebook or computer in front of you, or your guitar lying silent in your lap.
So what can you do when you run out of inspiration? This is the question Felipe Lira asked, in response to our invitation to tell us about your creative blocks.
Let me start by thanking you guys for the blog and the creative blocks series, the “Fear of getting it wrong” post (one of my major blocks) helped a lot and was a great incentive.
I’m a young guy from Brazil who just decided to make of writing a career path. I always wrote, but just from the middle of last year I started showing my scribbles only on the internet, for fun. Since I started posting those I came across some big blocks despite the short time I’ve been doing it.
My major block is my disappointment with the amount of the story/plot I came up with. When I first get the idea for a story It might seem complete in my head, but when I sit to write it down I realise that all I have a a few complete scenes and the general plot, so I write what I can and get stuck to link scene A to scene B, I get so disappointed that I drop the story for long periods of time before going back to it.
This also has to do with another associated block I go trough. Although I love writing ( and other process like playing/writing music, drawing and reading) there are times when doing those thing simple don’t give me the pleasure they did just the week before, a few weeks later I might get excited for those again but I doesn’t really last long. I need to seek constant inspiration in works and artist I appreciate and admire to get that felling back.
In internet marketing circles ‘passive income’ is a popular concept. It means setting up a system of websites/adverts/affiliates/e-commerce sites that generates income with no further effort on your part. Once you ‘set it and forget it’, your automated system allows you to ‘earn money while you sleep’ or laze on the beach or whatever else tickles your fancy. For many aspiring internet marketers, this is their Holy Grail.
But the thing is, all the successful internet marketers I know work really hard. And from what they tell me, so do the ones they know. It’s true that once you get to a certain point, your business develops a certain momentum, so that you can make more impact with less effort. Some of these guys really do generate millions of dollars in a matter of hours or days. But even if the big launch happens overnight, and makes a great story, it’s invariably the result of years and years of hard work, developing products, building mailing lists, learning from customers and refining their strategy.
To me, inspiration is a bit like passive income. It’s wonderful when it happens, but you shouldn’t bank on it. And when you look a bit closer, it starts to look a lot less passive.
Everybody knows the story of Newton’s inspired insight about gravity, when he saw the apple falling from the tree. We don’t hear so much about the years of study that prepared his mind for that moment. And to revisit an example from last week’s article, lots of people have read the story about Coleridge’s inspired composition of the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ while in an opium trance, but not so many have gone through Coleridge’s notebooks and seen how much reading and writing had prepared him for such a virtuoso performance.
One of the biggest mistakes a creative person can make is to hang around waiting for inspiration. I should know. I spent years waiting for it, wondering when it would hurry up and strike. Occasionally I would get a fitful burst and write the words down excitedly. And then wait for the next bit to come along, leaving the manuscript unfinished.
It was only when I started attending classes and applying myself to writing more regularly, practising the basics like form, meter, rhyme and syntax, that I started actually finishing poems that I was proud of, and getting them published.
These days, the harder I work, the more inspiration I get. In fact, I can walk into my office feeling very uninspired, but if I stay there long enough, tinkering with the words, toying with different combinations, then sooner or later something starts to happen.
There are several explanations why this is so. One is that creativity is a bit like fitness training – the more you do it, the stronger, faster and fitter you get. Another is that that your unconscious mind needs to be ‘primed’ with knowledge and experience before the ideas start to flow – this is what you achieve by reading, research, and plain old hard graft and hard thinking.
Another, older idea is that the Muse doesn’t waste her time on idlers. She expects us to do our bit to help ourselves before she comes to our aid.
So how can you get past this block?
Roll Your Sleeves up and Get on with It
Treat your writing like a job of work. A meaningful job, that can be enjoyable and even exciting. But just like any other job, it can be boring, frustrating and disappointing at times. Many writers in particular find that a regular daily routine is the best way to approach their work. See if it works for you.
Accept That Inspiration Is Just a Small Part of the Process
Treat inspiration as something that’s ‘nice to have’, rather than essential. If you feel inspired, great. If not, carry on with your work.
Face Down the Resistance
Steven Pressfield would say that waiting for inspiration is a form of Resistance – the invisible, insidious force inside us that tries to make us avoid tackling the difficult challenges we set ourselves. So whenever you feel disappointed with the amount of story you have, or you’re not enjoying your writing, don’t let Resistance get the better of you – keep writing for another 30 minutes, to see if things get easier. If not, take a break for 10 minutes and do something completely different. Then go back and attack the writing for another 30 minutes. If that doesn’t work, leave it until the next day, and keep going until you make a breakthrough.
Learn about Story Structure
As a poet, I need to know about things like rhythm, meter, alliteration, rhyme and so on. As a fiction writer, you need to learn about story structure – once you understand the basic principles of plot and narrative, you’ll know what questions to ask yourself at key points when you get stuck. The best books on the subject I know of are Story by Robert McKee and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, based on Joseph Campbell’s classic study of mythic story structures, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The first two books are written specifically for movie screenwriters, but all three will be helpful for storytellers of any description.
Watch Out for Discoveries Along the Way
You’ll be pleased to know that it’s not all hard work and determination. 🙂 As we saw a few weeks ago, not knowing what you have to say in advance can actually be a very creative, liberating state of mind.
J.R.R. Tolkien once described his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings as “a children’s story that grew up” – he had set out to write another children’s book like The Hobbit, but “the tale grew in the telling” and he found himself writing for much longer, darker and more serious book. One example he gave was when the Hobbits stayed the night at the Prancing Pony inn at Bree. As he described the main public bar, Tolkien found himself writing about a mysterious figure sitting in the corner of the room. At this stage, even the author had no idea who this person was. He turned out to be Aragorn, one of the most important characters in the book.
Don’t worry so much about planning everything in advance. Trust the story to take you where it wants to go.
Become a Pro
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says the way to overcome Resistance is to ‘turn pro’. The difference between the amateur and professional is that the amateur is put off by the boredom, disappointment, frustration and failure that are an inevitable part of the creative process. The professional feels just as bored, just as disappointed, just as frustrated and just as much a failure as the amateur – but unlike the amateur, he accepts it all as just part of the job. And carries on regardless.
So the next time you experience those feelings, remind yourself that this is your chance to become a professional.
What Do You Think?
What do you do when you run out of inspiration?
Have you ever created something remarkable without ever once feeling inspired?
Any tips for people struggling to hold on to their inspiration?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.