Five Ways to Jackhammer through Creative Block

Five Ways to Jackhammer through Creative Block

We all get stuck. And waiting around for inspiration to strike is…well, let’s just say it’s not a winning strategy. We know this. So what can we do about creative block?

I’m a teacher, but I’m also a creative professional — a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, who’s dabbled in music, theater, cartooning, and other disciplines. As a creative, I’ve picked up a few tricks for forcing through writer’s block or creative despair. And I find more and more that these tricks are handy prompts in my English classroom.

It's all in your head.

So, let’s get to it. Whether you’re a writer or artist or teacher, I think you’ll find a use for these techniques.

Say “Yes, and…”

This phrase will be familiar to improv actors. The phrase alludes to the discipline, in improvisational sketch comedy, of always agreeing with the direction of a scene as it evolves in real time.

While engaging in creative theatrical play, “when you say ‘no,’ you hit a wall.” So says Chris Aurilio, a comedian, writer, and teacher at the People’s Improv Theater in New York. Saying no, he says, “puts the burden of creativity on your scene partner.”

Chris explains: “It does not always necessarily mean agreeing with what is said, as in a character’s opinion. It is more about taking offers that are given and advancing the direction they’re going in (“let’s go climb that tree!” / “Yes, and I’ll bring the climbing gear”). You’re advancing the action and agreeing with reality established.”

On one level, the practice of saying “Yes, and” is about suppressing ego. Ego gets in the way of sketch comedy. If every actor tries to impose their idea of what would be funniest, rather than working together to make jokes off each others’ cues, all you get is an awkward tug of war.

“Yes, and” is a great discipline for actors who must create on their feet. But Chris and I agree that the phrase has applications far beyond the theater or comedy club. As a theater educator, Chris says, when he says “yes, and,” he’s “articulating in two simple words exactly what should happen in collaborative creative rooms (two people writing a play, a writer’s room of a sitcom, an advertising agency).”

Yes, and — I’ll add that there’s a more internal application, too.

In my experience, getting creatively stuck feels a lot like that awkward tug-of-war between ego-driven improv actors. My own ego is causing me to say “no” to something that say, my instincts are trying to suggest.

If I’m drafting a poem, my ego might say, “Ugh, you’re gonna rhyme ‘brick’ with ‘click?’ No way is anyone going to take you seriously as a poet.” Then I have two choices. I can let myself get stuck trying to please my ego.

Or I can ignore my ego, and say yes to the rhyme. At least for now. I can always edit and try other solutions later. Saying “yes, and” keeps the drafting process moving forward.

Apply Restrictions

Ready? Write a poem on the subject of the ocean. Without using the words “ocean,” “sea,” “water,” “flow,” “tide,” “wave,” or “current.” And you must include a reference to a foreign film. Go!

This is one of my favorite things to assign creative writing students. Throwing a series of restrictions — musts and must nots — turns a blank page into a puzzle to solve. The more arbitrary the restrictions, the better.

Be careful with the restriction of requiring certain words. (“Write a poem that uses the words ‘autumn,’ ‘cephalopod’, and ‘knar.’”) Sometimes, with required words, you end up chasing your tail. Your sentences are just meaningless wires to hang the required words on, like laundry.

Finally, I usually make my students follow the restrictions for the first couple drafts — but then encourage them to break free once they have an idea of what the poem or essay might want to say.

Embrace Failure

Listen, I’m not saying you should try to fail all the time, or fail indiscriminately. There are good and bad ways to fail.

Failing because you didn’t feel like committing to a procedure? That won’t produce anything worthwhile. I know. I do this too often. For example, I know that good lesson plans need to sit and cook. I know I need to sit down and plot out the beats of a lesson, including points for small-group talk and reflective writing. But so many times, I’ve delivered lame, flat, forgettable lessons because I “forgot” to sit down and go through the whole creative process. I’ve had paintings and poems fail for the same reason.

Failing because you were testing a hypothesis? Hell yeah. Fail again and again at that. Fail and assess and form a new plan. That is some productive failing.

Right, but how do we beat creative block by embracing failure? My hunch is that creative block is actually the result of two conflicting mental processes — like I was saying in the “Yes, and” section. You get blocked if you try to create and edit at the same time.

Creativity requires us to turn off the inner judge. And knowing, ahead of time, that failures — small failures that don’t cost much — are going to happen, takes the pressure off and helps shut up the inner editor.

I expanded on how this applies to pushing through sucky first drafts here.

Apply Algorithms

In college, I was reading about this coo-coo medieval theologian named Ramon Llull. He apparently was looking for a way to generate lots of theological arguments to convert Muslims to Christianity. So what did he do? He hijacked the Arab concept of the zairja.

He invented a kind of theological computer. Using this system, called a Llullian Circle, the user could generate propositions for theological arguments. A kind of blog topic generator, medieval style.

Once, I experimented with a similar process: I put a list of plot tropes into a spreadsheet. Then I wrote a little script that would randomly turn up three tropes from the list. I’d use the wacky combinations to brainstorm story ideas. I still have a few ideas from that exercise that I plan to pursue.

Here’s a good example:

Given those tropes, I brainstormed a story where a group of blockchain currency miners discover that a chain’s genesis block is actually a prison. A sentient AI program has been fragmented and encrypted in the data. The sentient program was named the legal heir to the fortune of a tech CEO, so a rival “disposed” of it. The “lost wizard” character is an AI programmer who renounced his art to live on a farm in Lancaster, PA. With his help, the miners reassemble the AI and it inspires them with its childlike wisdom… And so on. Just the bare bones of a story. And it needs serious work. But it’s a plot I never would have conceived without my Llullian spreadsheet.

So, reflecting on my spreadsheet exercise, I think the approach has a lot of potential. Knowing that creativity starts with combining and remixing preexisting ideas has helped me to see that really, you’re never staring at a blank page. There is no “blank page.” Our internal editor fools us into seeing a blank page, by telling us our ideas aren’t original, and are therefore not worth pursuing.

Using a spreadsheet, tarot deck, or anything in between can shut that inner editor up.

Find your Proximal Zone

Oh, yeah. The proximal zone. This phrase comes from developmental psychology jargon. You know. Teacher speak.

Say you’re picking apples. The low branches are all picked out, and the only apples in reach are bruised, buggy, or blemished. There are some gorgeous ones on the high branches, out of reach.

But imagine your delight when you spot a beautiful apple that is just, just out of reach. If you stand on your toes, if you really stretch, you can just grab it.

The idea is that for someone to be motivated to learn something new, the skill or concept can’t be too obvious or simple or over-worn. And it can’t be too abstruse or frustrating. There’s this Goldilocks zone. The classroom questions and tasks that make us stretch a little? Those are the ones that help us develop.

The proximal zone concept can be more than just a post-facto description of a cognitive challenge. In fact, I think we can manipulate what challenges land in our zones of proximal development. There’s a kind of discipline to pushing your own creative limits.

Here’s what I propose: see the creative problem as a chance to stretch. Not a need to perform. Approach that poem, or essay, or product design, or whatever it is — approach it like that apple that is just out of your reach. Mentally move the problem into the proximal zone.

If the solution comes too easy, you probably did it wrong. Brainstorm some additional constraints and start over. (Yes, I’m suggesting that making the problem a little harder will make it easier to overcome your creative block!)

If it seems impossible, break it down or re-frame it as something you feel you could push yourself to grasp. Even if you can’t foresee what the solution might be, choose a path through the woods and start hiking.

The Fallacy of Inspiration

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest something to you. The whole notion of “inspiration” is flawed. The word means breathing into something, but who’s doing the breathing? Who are you waiting on, to come give your art or writing or teaching artificial respiration?

Maybe the most fundamental way to bust through creative block is to just wake up and take a breath.

4 Replies to “Five Ways to Jackhammer through Creative Block”

  1. I’m going to print this out and refer to it every time I get my head stuck in the drywall. Great article, Peter!