Every writer gets stuck at some point. For some, the period of creative stagnation is solved by a simple nap or run at the gym. Afterward, writer’s block floats away like a red balloon from a sewer drain. But for others, well. . . who knows how long it could last?
There are a million reasons why it happens. Why those creative thoughts either disappear entirely or just rattle around inside our heads like marbles in an impenetrable aluminum skull, unwilling and unable to break free. But, whether you find yourself unable to grab one of the ideas running in your head, or they’re just gone, poof like a grad student’s credit rating, here are five ways that I use to spark creativity when those inner voices start giving me the cold shoulder.
1. Get Outside
Stephen King has said in interviews that, when working on a project, he walks about three and a half miles a day. And while this may have netted him a brush with oncoming traffic, the point he makes is valid. People need to get outside. Fresh air does wonders and not just for our respiratory systems. Research has shown that time in nature can have calming, stress-reducing effects even down to lowering our blood pressure (source).
So, if the poorly painted walls of your home office or the same repeat customers wandering through your local Starbucks are doing nothing for your writing then I implore you to get outside. Start with an hour or two a day for a week. I guarantee that after a while, you’ll be anxiously waiting for when you get to step outdoors and into fresh air. Oh, and no cell phones. Every time you look at the screen, the clock resets and you have to start again.
I know what you’re thinking: like I have time for that. It’s true. Between the ever elongating work day, and the increasing amount of familial demands—soccer practice, baseball, dance recitals—how or why would you ever devote precious free time to anything other than writing or sleep?
First: karma. Bank some. It’s worth it; believe me. Second: volunteering is not only good for the soul and good for a cause, but it’s good for creativity. You’ll be distracted. You won’t be focusing on the problem you’re having with chapter seven or how the two protagonists are going to get together or trying to remember what that novella idea was. Rather, you’ll be focused on what you’re doing, and not in the same way as a job because let’s face it: a job is for the paycheck. Volunteering is for something more.
And the encounters you have while in a rewarding environment might just be what lights that fire in your work in progress. Case in point: I volunteered as an EMT for several years. The first book I sold was about a paramedic. Couldn’t have done it without that volunteer experience.
3. Consume Other Media
There’s a basic understanding that writers need to be readers. While that’s true, I would argue that we’re at such an exciting point in entertainment as a medium that writers need to be media junkies. We all love books. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. But a lot of times when a writer reads, they do it critically, even without thinking. They analyze what works and what doesn’t. What they wish they had done in their own work and why that fragmented narrative works for author x but their manuscript with a similar structure was rejected by 37 agents and publishers. As creative people, we need a break from that self-criticism. We need to focus on the story itself. The way characters make us feel. To do that (and I know this is blasphemy), take a break from books. Look at stories in other mediums.
For example, each episode of Black Mirror is a remarkable science-fiction horror short story with a beginning, middle, and end, developed characters and relationships. An episode or two might be what sets off that oh what if this happened? moment. Maybe classic stories without misused tech are more your thing. Well, in high school I was told over and over (and still told this by my English-major friends) that The Great Gatsby was the great American novel, capturing the essence of America and the culture that permeated the country at that time. Okay great. And, while I loved The Great Gatsby, it might not connect to younger writers or people embedded in this time frame. Well, you want the great American story of our time? Watch the movie Mississippi Grind. And if you do and want to talk about it, please get in touch because it is one of the greatest movies of all time. These moving pictures will help your show don’t tell writing as well. Note what people do when they talk. How they physically express emotion. Sure we can do that when we read, but sometimes it’s refreshing and informative to watch someone versus use our imagination.
But maybe movies and television don’t suit you. Then I suggest you pick up a controller and flex those thumbs. If you’re a gamer, you exist in one of the greatest times to be alive. Between Mass Effect, The Last of Us, and Dark Souls, I’d be hard-pressed to find a deeper, harder hitting story. Seriously, I’ve posted at length about Dark Souls alone.
And if you don’t want to play video games, grab a set of headphones. Not only do songs spark emotions within us that we don’t get from other places, but in this day and age, certain bands go one step beyond just putting out amazing records. They put out albums that are stories. Don’t believe me? Carve out an afternoon for yourself and put on the album Transmissions by the band Starset. Go ahead. I’ll be here when you get back. But you won’t be back. You’ll have so many good ideas you’ll move from your stereo to your laptop without thinking twice.
Okay, so I’ll admit that I’m a little biased with this one. Traveling is my favorite hobby, and I know that I am extremely fortunate to have the ability to do so. But traveling doesn’t have to mean hopping a flight to a foreign country. Though it can, and if you have the means then spin a globe and throw a dart. The world is huge, and there are so many cultures and ways of seeing life that writers should be exposed to. We’re always told how big the world is, but we don’t really realize it, at least I didn’t, until we travel.
I remember coming back from my first international trip, ten days in Peru, and I couldn’t let go of the fact that all those people were still there living their lives, existing in their own ways, and it still to this day blows my mind. But, assuming you don’t have a passport or can’t get out of the country, traveling can be going one state or even one town over. Just go somewhere that you’ve never been and take it in. Expose yourself to how people live their lives and what you find might be surprising.
One of the things that annoys me most is when people float the idea of “assimilating” to American culture. First of all, we all float down here, so watch it. Second, which American culture? Trust me, I live in New England. My brother lives down south. These are vastly different cultures. As is Utah to Virginia. California to Maine. And Alaska to Florida. Go places that are different. Be respectful and open your mind. Oh, and I beg of you, if you travel outside the country, please, it is all of our responsibility to break the loud, obnoxious, demanding, American stereotype. Thanks!
5. Indulge in. . .
I’m not going to go any further then to say maybe a night or two off while partaking in something might loosen up those creative genes. Pick your poison and fill in the blank. Opiates discouraged.
All right, so there you go. Those are the things that I use to help spark or reignite my creativity, and hopefully they are somewhat useful for you as well. The biggest thing I think we can take from this list (here’s your too long; didn’t read moment) is exposure. There’s a saying out there that goes “write what you know.” I think it’s good advice. But I think it would be better advice if it read “write what you’ve experienced.” I don’t know the intricate threads of Peruvian culture. But I could write a story that takes place in Cuzco with confidence. Not to mention a nostalgic smile.
is the author of Jack Be Quick, the bestselling medical thriller inspired by Jack the Ripper, and short stories found in One Night in Salem, Winter Tales, Flash Fiction Online, and more.
He’s an avid traveler, gamer, and animal lover.
A picture scrawled in blood pushes paramedic Noah McKeen into a game of hide and seek with someone attempting to honor Jack the Ripper. Tormented and controlled by little white pills and visions of the woman he had loved, Noah fights to control his sordid selfish behavior and stop a brutal reenactment of history’s most notorious serial killer.