Let’s face facts. When you’re feeling creatively blocked, it can be hard to think about anything else. You get stuck in a downward spiral. You’ll avoid sitting down to write because you aren’t feeling inspired — but when you go out for dinner with friends, or head out to see a movie, or do anything fun or relaxing...
Suddenly you can’t stop beating yourself up about it. “I should be writing,” you keep reminding yourself. Your attention is never fully on the task at hand — and it’s impossible to just relax and have fun.
Here’s the thing I’ve discovered over the years: it doesn’t do any good to wallow in guilt. And trying to force yourself to write when you’re just not feeling a particular story, poem, etc., doesn't really work.
So what does work? Opening yourself to epiphanies and sparks of everyday genius. Letting yourself accept inspiration where it comes. And most important of all: living life in such a way that you ensure you never run out of ideas in the first place.
So, in no particular order... Here are seven steps every writer can take to keep the creative juices flowing — whether you're in a creative slump or just searching for preventative measures. Start slow. Incorporate one or two into your daily life and work your way up.
1. Become a traveler.
Travel opens the writer’s mind to the true wealth of possibility in the world. Not only will you encounter new people, landscapes, and cultures...you’ll find yourself looking at the world in a different way. (Even parts of the world you thought you knew well.) Maybe you’ll be inspired to write about different times and places. Or maybe you’ll find yourself interested in examining where, exactly, you come from.
I understand that a plane ticket may be out of reach financially. And that it can be hard to get the time off to go anywhere far away. Most people can’t drop everything and take a tour of Europe every time they hit a creative wall -- but being a traveler is mostly about mindset.
You can always hop on a bus or behind the wheel and visit a friend in the next town over. You can visit a new coffee shop down the street. You can take a long walk in the park. You can go for a hike in the woods or a picnic at the beach. You can even pick up a travel guide or a history book if all else fails.
Just go anywhere that isn’t your usual writing space. Bring a notebook and something to write with — but only in case you really need to take down ideas. Don’t actually start writing anything. If you focus too strongly on capturing the sights, sounds, smells, etc., you won’t leave yourself time to really experience them.
2. Meet interesting people.
Where do interesting characters come from? Well, for the most part, they’re inspired by genuinely fascinating people. So it stands to reason that if you’re stuck trying to develop a character that keeps readers engaged, you need to go out and meet people who might not be part of your regular social circle.
Join a book club, a meetup, a professional group. Go to interesting events: book signings, poetry slams, art openings. Have a little to drink and just mingle. Bonus points for stepping outside your comfort zone. If you’re an atheist, visit a church group or a metaphysical shop. If you’re a Republican, head to an Obama rally. And while you’re there, don’t argue with anyone. Part of being a good writer is being able to convincingly write about people you don’t understand or don’t agree with.
The kind of people you should try to meet really depends on what you want to write about. If you really want to write a certain kind of story, meet people living the sort of lives you want to write about. If you’re writing a crime novel, interview some cops. If you’re writing a medical drama, talk to a doctor — or at least some nurses.
But keep in mind that it’s totally okay to inject yourself into interesting situations without an end goal in mind — just mingle with people who draw you in. Many of the best stories are unplanned and grow organically, with inspiration from many different sources. Just sit back and listen to anyone who’s willing to tell your their stories. (And surreptitiously take notes!)
3. Work weird jobs.
Look, we need to be honest here. Most people aren’t going to make enough money on their writing (at least not creative writing) to dedicate themselves to it professionally. And frankly, it’s a good idea to have a day job — but not necessarily for the financial security.
No, what I’m talking about is using your day job as a fuel for your stories. Even the most boring and awful jobs in the world can give you something interesting to talk about. I’ve worked as a professional psychic giving tarot readings, tried to rope people into taking phone surveys for the government, worked as a teacher’s aide for school full of special needs kids, and set up Christmas decorations across the Denver metro area as part of a shady interior design operation. Some of what went down at those jobs was boring as hell — some of it was downright surreal.
If you have to work temp or seasonal jobs to help pay the bills, think outside of the box. And if you’re already settled in to a pretty good day job — volunteer! Expand your horizons by helping out at your local soup kitchen. Read to kids at the library. Run a marathon to raise money to fight cancer. Observe city council meetings. Swing by political protests to see what the fuss is about. But do something different from the 9-to-5.
If you do happen to be one of those lucky few who manage to make a living writing, don’t think you’re completely off the hook. If you spend too much time holed up in your own creative world, your well of inspiration is going to run dry. You need to put in interesting experiences to get interesting ideas. Go out there and do something new whenever possible.
4. Break your routine.
There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable with your everyday life. There’s nothing wrong with stability. Security is a great thing — it’s what allows you the ability to write comfortably. (It’s really hard to get inspired when you’re spending your lunch eating ramen every day while you juggle 2-3 part time jobs.)
But there is a problem when you let yourself get stuck in a rut. When you stop trying new things. When you stop talking to new people. When you travel the same route to and from work each day.
The solution? Well, taking a short trip or volunteering your time are both good ways to keep from stagnating. But there’s other things you can do, too. Take up a new hobby. Read an author or genre you wouldn’t normally be interested in. Eat a cuisine you were too scared to try before. You’ll be amazed what a difference it can make when you’re stuck in a writing rut.
5. Stop to really look and listen.
View the world around you with a critical eye. People watch everywhere you go: the bar, the coffee shop, the bus, the library. Observe how the construction workers down the street go about their day. Watch how the barista prepares your drink and how the other patrons treat him. Watch how the last leaves of autumn fall from the trees. Watch how the rain runs down the windowpanes. And commit every striking action, image, sight, sound, and smell to memory.
And listen to the conversations that are happening all around you. This won’t just help you with story and character ideas — it’s a good exercise in crafting dialogue as well. Pay attention to how people actually move, act, and talk. What can you tell about someone from how they’re dressed? Their posture? Their accent? Their choice of words? Chances are, you already have an intuitive sense of all of these things. But it may not be making it into your writing.
This doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — creepy. Bring along a book or an MP3 player. Do something while you look and listen. Don’t stare. Don’t stalk people. Don’t butt into conversations.
And one final note on the subject: there’s really no overstating how powerful this exercise can be for generating ideas. You’d be amazed the things people talk about on their on their cell phones in the middle of a crowd!
6. Take (responsible) chances.
Don’t stop to worry about doing something you’ll regret if you take risks. Instead, think about whether you’ll regret not taking the opportunities you’re offered. If the idea of missing out on that trip, that friendship, or that job offer doesn’t make you sick with anticipatory regret... Well, there’s no harm in doing it anyway, if it makes sense at the time.
But we all know what it feels like to be faced with an offer we just can’t refuse. Those times when every bone in our bodies screams that this is what we were meant to be doing, where we were meant to be. You may be the type to jump into such opportunities eagerly and without hesitation.
...Or you might be the type of person who meets every opportunity with crippling anxiety. (You might be like me — in which case you go for it and the anxiety hits later.) And these feelings can make it hard to determine if you’re taking a reasonable risk or just suffering from a case of cold feet.
The trick is beating back these feelings is simply to take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself two questions: 1) If I don’t take this chance now, how will I feel about it 10 years down the line? 2) What am I risking long-term if I try this and fail?
If you realistically think you’d be kicking yourself for not giving it a shot...just do it and give it your all. Unless, say, you risk losing your life savings forever. If the potential payoff is good, it might be worth trying anyway, but you’d be well advised to consult a few experts (and any friends or family members who might be affected by the decision) before acting.
7. Make quiet time.
Of course, none of these steps mean anything if you don’t give yourself time to let your creative juices flow. And I don’t just mean setting up a writing schedule (although a schedule is an invaluable tool).
What I mean is this: give your mind some downtime. Let yourself relax and unwind from the stress of the day. Find activities that nourish your soul and feed your creativity. Maybe you draw inspiration from meditation. Maybe you need a good workout a few times a week. Maybe you need to just zone out in front of a video game or your favorite TV show on the weekends. Or maybe you make the investment in a season ticket for your local theater (or football stadium — I’m not judging).
Find a way to give yourself time to recharge, a space away from the drama of everyday life. It’s easy to let yourself get burnt out from work, relationships, social engagements, chores, etc. And once you start experiencing burnout, even activities you normally find relaxing can be stressful — because you feel like there’s always somewhere you need to be, something you should be doing.
Beat the guilt by thinking of a little quiet time each day as an investment - in yourself, in your writing...and in the world at large. :)
What strategies do you use to beat back writer’s block and keep the inspiration flowing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Still not sure what you should write about? Check out our free e-book, “A Year of Inspiration: 52 Writing Prompts from the Renegade Word" for a dose of instant inspiration.