I’ve been staring at a blank page for about an hour trying to drum up a sharp, quick-witted idea to write about.
Unfortunately, creativity is sometimes a surreptitious process, and today, it evades me entirely. I’m in the throes of a stubborn case of writer’s block—a vexing and unwanted condition that’s best remedied by watching Seinfeld reruns, rereading old issues of The Walrus, engaging in staring competitions with my dog, Levi, and partaking in other effective forms of procrastination.
Times like this are a humbling reminder that compelling ideas aren’t drawn from a bottomless well of innovation that I have unreserved access to. Sometimes ideas are more elusive. Sometimes they are tucked away, out of sight, forcing me to seek them out. It can be an exhausting—at times even defeating—routine.
I’ve approached writing from many different angles and read innumerable books by touted experts in the field on how to be an effective writer. Still, there are times, including now, when even the most reliable of strategies doesn’t cut it. Unable to formulaically induce a creative fever, I’m instead left to stare at a flashing cursor on an empty page that seems to taunt me with every blink.
Tonight’s bout of writer’s block is particularly inconvenient because it’s struck me on an evening when my apartment is completely quiet and I have sheltered time to write, without interruption. Even my upstairs neighbors have miraculously decided to take a night off from their evening routine of clog dancing (I don’t actually know if they are in fact clog dancing, but it’s been a long-standing speculation of mine). My only company is my furry, four-legged companion, who in-between his 20th and 21st nap of the day, saunters into my office to stare at me with his woebegone gaze. A look that suggests I’m neglecting him and need to make immediate amends for it with a satisfying ear rub or Milk Bone.
I run Levi downstairs for a bathroom break, staring into the hedges of my neighbor’s yard, lost in thought. Shortly after, I return to my desk and resume my blank stare position. It’s then that I notice my already neat workspace is in dire need of reorganizing. A determination that I make because it seems like a sufficiently distracting thing to do, and as previously established, I possess mad procrastination skills.
I move my lamp to the left side of my desk, a far more rational location than its previous spot on the right. I shuffle things around, dividing stacks of disorganized paper into smaller stacks of disorganized paper. I sit back and examine my work. Much better.
On occasions like this, I’m tempted to buy into superstition. I consider investing in crystals and gems—the ones possessing mystic properties that are allegedly capable of bestowing clarity and inner harmony because they’ve been blessed by modern day witches (or the marketing staff at Anthropologie).
Reminded of something, I go into the kitchen, pull open a bottom drawer and rummage through its contents. It’s a token junk drawer, which if represented by a candy type would be a package of All Sorts. It’s a drawer brimming with miscellanea, largely of an impractical nature. Spare keychains, carabiners, loose half-dead batteries, matchboxes, packets of soy sauce from a half-dozen takeout orders, and something referred to as a grapefruit spoon, the function of which still evades me to this day.
I sift through until I find what I’m looking for: a polished amber stone that fits in the palm of my hand. It was a present from a well-intentioned friend who assured me of its benevolent properties. Desperate times call for previously untested measures. I return to my desk and set down my fancy, wizard rock hoping it’ll do the trick.
I stare intently at the rock. The rock continues to be a rock. Several minutes later I give up, sigh, and set it down on one of my recently organized-but-still-disorganized stacks of paper. At least it makes for a pretty paperweight.
My office is nice. I worked hard to make it this way, believing that a well-decorated space would be sufficiently motivating to work in. And a peaceful, aesthetically pleasing environment is directly conducive to creativity, right? The space is outfitted with all the essentials necessary to an artistic mindset: potted succulents, patterned throw pillows, stylish lamps adorned by retro shades, and abstract art prints. A wall tapestry, the decorative properties of which I’ve convinced myself are capable of spurring artistic inspiration. Or at the very least, tying the room together.
Ultimately, physical space doesn’t necessarily determine the shape, form, and flow of creative thought. Some of my most inspired moments have been in the noisy, cramped quarters of bustling locales—atmospherically chaotic environments that seem counterproductive to the type of focused thought necessary for real productivity. Spaces where the seating is limited, I’ve spilled coffee on my notes, the person next to me is encroaching on my personal space with frequent elbow jabs, and I’m inadvertently overhearing the specifics of every conversation carrying on around me, including the unfortunate circumstances of a man’s recent fender bender, and a comprehensive outline of a woman’s morning routine, which she’s describing to her friend in painstaking detail, even going so far as to specify her preferred brand of toothpaste (it’s Colgate, by the way). It should be impossible for me to concentrate in such a place, the whole scene is a bit of a mess, and yet, creativity can flow, unstopped, the words pouring out of me so quickly I can barely keep up enough to catch them on the page.
While investigating my creative process, I’ve conducted strange experiments. I read once about the importance of writing in different places, of mixing up one’s routine, and rather curiously, of how effective it is to write in a laundromat. Intrigued, I decided to try it. In lieu of an actual laundromat, I improvised and sat in my building’s communal laundry room. Nestled uncomfortably between the coin-operated washers that rattled and clanged objectionably at my presence, I wrote. Other tenants who entered with wicker baskets in hand, filled with dirty socks and sweaty gym clothes, were startled to see a stern-faced writer furiously scribbling pages surrounded by piles of dried towels. An hour later, I left with a handful of poorly written pages, smelling of dryer sheets and covered in a fine layer of lint.
I’ve been trying to figure out the creative process for awhile and whether there is a set formula to follow. There have been periods where I’ve written dutifully every day, and then others where I’ve strayed from a piece and not returned to it for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. Increasingly though, I hesitate to make writing a blind routine. Personally, I’ve found it a bit off-putting, forcing myself to sit and grind it out, for a set amount of time, each day. Trying not to glance at the clock to see if my designated hour has run out yet. Doing so makes it feel far too mechanical. Writing becomes an arduous and unnatural task.
I think in moments where creativity feels stilted, there are other modes of expression for a person to explore, and it isn’t necessarily by hammering out ten pages on your latest story, by applying a set number of paint strokes to a canvas, or by laboring over a desk trying to conceptualize your next artistic endeavor. Instead, it might be going for a walk or run. It might be visiting with a friend over a cup of coffee. It might be going to a movie or binging a new Netflix series. It might be something seemingly unrelated and altogether removed from the very thing you’re attempting to get done. One thing that I’ve learned from my own, sometimes fickle, creative process is the importance of never being too strict or focused on precision. The reality is, you won’t hit the mark exactly—not all the time, anyways. Be ok with that. And where possible, find enjoyment in the process of flexing your creative thoughts and process and going in whatever direction it naturally leads you.
Sometimes you need to begin far away from that “thing” you’re trying to attain. Sometimes, you need to feel your way toward it, stumbling and even a touch disoriented. There is a misplaced assumption that in order to approach what you want, you must do so aggressively and head on with a clear line in sight. Instead, I would suggest approaching writing— or any creative pursuit for that matter—as an act of discovery. Discover your own relationship with a topic rather than following a dictionary definition of it. Be bold, brazen, inventive, and rely upon your instinct. Try to make the ordinary come to life. Pay reverence to the simple things. To coffee mugs, to bikes, to a favorite song, to used book stores, to trees, to park benches, to geese (yes, even geese), and to smiles shared between strangers. Mention these things in your work, often. They’re the stuff that truly great stories are made of.
Shunryu Suzuki said in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.” The same can be said for writing. Give yourself space to roam. And when you’re ready and have something to say, return and write.
In the end, there is no perfect formula. There’s no perfect writing space. The point is just to create, in whatever strange, unexpected, sometimes inconvenient, and slightly perplexing form it takes. Doodle. Daydream. Pour it all out. Tap into it. And when possible, do it straight from your soul. When you’re in the heart of writing or creating in general, it often doesn’t matter where you are. It’s liberating how in the midst of chaos you can feel inspired enough to make one definitive act. To create.