Could Louis Armstrong, a Russian psychologist and a Hobbit Hole help you get unstuck? Why yes. And there’s more. Read on…
Who do I envy most?
A car mechanic can get up in the morning and do his job. It doesn’t matter how shit he feels. I wish to God I was a car mechanic.
Stupidly, I’ve spent the past 10 years writing for a living instead.
Yes, it pays well – and allows me to spend most of my time dossing around. But every day is a personal battle. Here are some of the weirdest problems I’ve noticed…and some possible reasons for your creative-blocks.
Weird reason #1: You have crap taste in music
What’s the difference between great music and crap music?
I’m not sure exactly.
But I’ve noticed great music tends to come from an actual time and place. Think about it:
- Blues began as call-and-response singing during the days of slavery.
- Much of Jazz began in the houses of poor immigrant families in New Orleans. They used musical improvisation as a common language to communicate.
- Hip-hop emerged from the inner cities. Schools couldn’t afford musical instruments. Kids began to experiment with samples of existing records, rapping and beat-boxing.
Great music, I repeat, comes from real places. This is why it’s so effective for getting you in the writing-zone.
Right now I’m working on a novel set in 1920s Hollywood. If I’m ever ‘blocked up,’ I stick on some early Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. In a flash, I start seeing the world again. I can even hear the sentences’ rhythms.
You see, this is not a subjective matter.
If you’re listening to, say, Justin Bieber or One Direction, you’re not listening to anything which is grounded in reality.
Weird reason #2: You’re not reading anything decent
I’ve noticed a parallel between my reading and writing.
When I’m reading a novel that’s vibrant and energetic, it rubs off on me. My writing improves. Sadly, this has not been the case lately.
I’ve gone 4 or 5 months without reading a novel I really like. And it hasn’t just affected my writing. It has affected my will to write.
So what should you do in this situation? What did I do?
Well, I’ve decided to revisit one or two old favourites. The other day I opened Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty…
‘When Chilli first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.’
…Already I started to feel better.
Weird reason #3: You’ve left a previous task unfinished
I talk about this more in my post on creative-minimalism.
It’s called The Zeigarnik Effect.
Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, noticed waiters always remembered orders in the process of being served. However, once the task was completed, the memory evaporated and their head was clear for something new. She went to her lab to experiment further.
Zeigarnik asked participants to complete a series of small tasks and puzzles. At different moments, they would be interrupted. She found participants were around twice as likely to remember the interrupted tasks as the ones they’d completed.
Humans have a basic need to complete a task once it’s begun.
Until it’s complete, the task is baggage. Mental clutter. It takes up creative space, getting in the way of whatever’s next.
Weird reason #4: Your personal life is too noisy
Stephen King says ‘staying married’ is one of the biggest reasons behind his success.
It goes against my early beliefs on creativity: “Isn’t it all about sex and drugs?”
Well, the problem with sex and drugs is they lead to divorce, drama and death.
It’s much, much easier to write when you’re not living in a world of chaos yourself. Chaos is attractive because it’s exciting. But excitement in your reality makes it difficult to switch on your imagination.
Choose the quiet life.
Weird reason #5: You’re trying to write words
Stephen King also said ‘writing is telepathy.’
You’re communicating a situation or feeling from your brain to someone else’s. It’s not about the words themselves.
During my early days writing advertising, I was obsessed with my ‘Swipe file.’ It was a folder of top-performing ads I would turn to for inspiration. But the swipe file was creatively stifling.
It focussed my conscious mind on other people’s words. I wasn’t thinking about the things which mattered most. That is:
- The person I’m writing to
- The product I’m writing about
- And how it fits into said person’s life
Focus your conscious attention on what you want the reader to feel. Then let the words pour from your subconscious.
You might find, as many do, your best creative moments come when you’re focussed on an easy task – like brushing your teeth, or washing your hair. This is because it distracts your conscious mind, focussing it on something small.
Mozart used to compose while playing billiards. He’d bounce a billiard ball off 3 table cushions and catch it again. Each time he did this, the billiard ball would take a slightly different trajectory, returning to a slightly different point. Although it was easy to catch the ball, it demanded focus.
This unhinged his conscious mind, allowing the subconscious to take over.
Weird reason #6: You shouldn’t be writing
Maybe now is just a bad time. You need to take a break.
I used to live with the idea that I MUST keep writing – “no matter what.”
After writing a novel, I immediately started work on another. “Write write write. Never stop. Never stop.”
But for some reason I just couldn’t get it going.
The process was slower. Everything felt mechanical. And the more I punished myself for these shortcomings, the harder it was to create.
I realised I had lived in my first novel for so long, I needed some time on the outside. To celebrate the achievement, and wait for the characters to leave my consciousness.
I took a 6-week break.
In 10 years I had never taken more than 3 consecutive days away from writing, so this was huge.
I went home to the UK. Then fled to the Welsh countryside.
I walked across castle walls and empty beaches.
I stayed in this little hobbit-esque hut.
Part of the joy of writing is sitting back and taking stock. When I returned to my desk I realised my old novel’s characters had packed up and left.
I wasn’t thinking about them any more. And I felt more prepared to tackle the next challenge.
Anyway, that was only a few weeks ago.
I’m sure something else will get in my way. And no doubt it’ll be weird.
Writing’s like that, don’t you find?