How to solve a creative block
Five ideas for getting unstuck
Welcome to the third and final installment of #blocktober, my month-long series on creative blocks. In part one, I tried to capture how blocks feel. Then I divulged a bit of my own history in order to unpack the perfect conditions for a creative block. Now I want to offer five potential solutions, drawn from some of my favorite essays and interviews on the subject.
Try doing your very worst work
First, a practical suggestion from the musician Laurie Anderson, who said in a 2016 interview, “I have blocks all the time.” She has a few methods for overcoming them, including this:
Try doing your very worst work. Do the worst song you can possibly think of. At the very least, you’ll get some idea of what your rules are. At the most, you’re going to get something that’s better than anything you’ve ever done because it has a lot of pure energy.
Anderson is hardly the only artist to recommend this strategy. Anne Lamott famously endorses shitty first drafts. In his book Keep Going, Austin Kleon writes, “When nothing’s fun anymore, try to make the worst thing you can.” Kleon also references a letter Sol LeWitt sent to Eva Hesse in 1965, which contains similar advice: “Try to do some BAD work—the worst you can think of and see what happens.”
Do not worry about being blocked!
Another musician with good advice on blocks is Carole King. In an interview for Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting, King shared her secret to avoiding them:
I’ve found that the key to not being blocked is not to worry about it. Ever.
If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.
I don’t know if I agree with everything King says here—for me, getting up and doing something else is the road to ruin—but I definitely think she’s right that blocks are all about getting in our own way. Which brings me to the next point…
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Don’t turn one problem into another one
If you’re trying to do ambitious creative work, you’re going to run into problems. In fact, maybe that’s what ambitious creative work is: trying to solve problems that you’ve invented for yourself. But when those problems are especially difficult, it’s easy to feel so overwhelmed or inadequate that you stop working entirely. Suddenly, as Alexander Chee writes in an excellent 2020 piece on writer’s block, “you have a problem and you have created another problem out of the problem.” He continues,
This, as I have learned, is when it is time to forgive yourself and then to get back to writing. . . . It’s hard enough to have a problem without also being ashamed of the problem. Call a friend, take a walk, cry, whatever it is you need to do.
I like this advice because it acknowledges that resolving a block will not necessarily usher in a period of effortless, straightforward productivity—to the contrary, it often means going back to the most vexing, miserable stretch of work you’ve ever faced! But at least then you’re actually working on the problem rather than feeling ashamed about not working on it.
(Thanks to the writer Sonia Feldman for sending me this essay. If you don’t already, definitely subscribe to Sonia’s Poem of the Week, it’s great!)
Be on good terms with yourself
While researching Daily Rituals: Women at Work, I ran across a touching story about the poet Louise Bogan (that ultimately didn’t make it into the book). Bogan had a dreadful experience of writer’s block: After her book Poems and New Poems appeared in 1941, she didn’t write another poem for seven years. But that didn’t stop her from helping other writers avoid the same fate. In the 1930s, she befriended the younger writer (and New Yorker editor) William Maxwell and became a generous and proactive mentor as he struggled to finish his third novel. Here’s the biographer Elizabeth Frank describing Bogan’s interventions:
Insisting that he go on with it, she now intensified her encouragement, and between 1940 and 1944 saw the manuscript through every stage, including second, third, and fourth drafts, and “never once,” as Maxwell later recalled, “said couldn’t you manage this by yourself now?”
. . . Louise never accused him of doing anything wrong, saying only, at certain points, that he hadn’t got “the swiftest kind of rightness.” She made practical suggestions for working through writing blocks: do needlepoint (like the King of Sweden); read Flaubert, Chekhov, James, Rilke, and Viola Meynell; and be on good terms with yourself: “You’ll have to be at least pleased with your life, or the Blocks will get you. I do want this book to get written. Let me help if I can.”
You’ll have to at least be pleased with your life—a high bar for some of us! But a worthy goal, and I think one that dovetails nicely with the Alexander Chee advice above: Forgive yourself (and then get back to work).
Read this essay by Vivian Gornick
I kicked off #blocktober with a passage from the writer Vivian Gornick, describing her “daily experience” of “fighting to occupy a small clear space in my head.” Now I want to end this series by encouraging you all to read a recent essay by Gornick published in the magazine Lux.
In the essay, the 87-year-old author once again revisits her decades-long battle against blocks. (A sample: “Now I would surely work. Wrong again.”) At the very end, though, something amazing happens, or at least I experienced it as amazing. She solves it! I mean, she arrives at an understanding of her history of writer’s block that hit me like a bolt. I won’t spoil it by pulling out a quote here. You’ll have to read the whole thing (it’s not terribly long, maybe a ten-minute read) in order to learn her hard-won secret.
YOUR COMMENTS, PLEASE!
OK, that marks the end of this first #blocktober—but I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of a phenomenon that, like its cousin procrastination, I believe to be much more nuanced and multifaceted than we typically give it credit for. Luckily, we have the comments section to extend the conversation. Please leave your thoughts below and I’ll be reading and replying this week.
Finally, if you missed it before, don’t forget to listen to my #blocktober playlist on Spotify, which I had a lot of fun putting together:
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I can't tell if I'm blocked at the moment, or just frustrated by life stresses taking up all my mental energy, or both. Either way, I was buoyed by a line in The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr that I reread recently. She says: being lost is a prelude to finding new paths. Yesterday I wrote that out in large letters and propped it up on my desk in my studio where I can see it always!
“maybe that’s what ambitious creative work is: trying to solve problems that you’ve invented for yourself”-- this is possibly the most true and hilarious thing I’ve read about creative work. Wonderful insights in this issue, Mason! Thanks for the Monday morning kick in the culottes.