I expect to discuss the phenomenon known as creative block and other crises of inspiration & muses on this blog, extensively, repeatedly, and time and again. It’s one of those subjects that will just keep coming back to haunt any creative discussion no matter what you do. For this particular post, I just want to discuss a few quick starters, inspiration shortcuts, sketches and word sketches that I employ when I feel a little stuck. Your mileage may vary.
Nearly every single creative person has known this at least a little: There are some days that the blinking cursor or blank canvas sit there in front of you, and you know you should do something, but you aren’t sure you wanna, aren’t sure what you should do or say, or aren’t sure you even have anything TO say, for that matter.
But if you’re going to take this creative stuff seriously, you have to at least show up and try – as if it were your job. Sure, if you had the flu, or an emergency appendectomy, you might call out sick. But for the sniffles or the I don’t wannas,** you still show up. And you might not do your best work, but… then again, once you start, you just might. And you won’t know unless you DO something.
I know how it feels, I’ve done it. I’ve sat down to do that thing, and it’s 3 hours later than I meant to start because of various minor crises or errands that took too long, and I start to wonder: Is there really enough time before lunch or dinner? Answer: Yes! Anytime is enough time to do SOMEthing. Shouldn’t I mow the lawn, it might rain tomorrow? Hint: the lawn will still be there the day after tomorrow, might as well wait until after the rain. I could get that stuff ready to ship, I’m sure that it’ll only take a few minutes. Newsflash: it won’t, it’ll take yet another half an hour. I should go see if that client’s replied…You know it: their response will still be there whenever you get to it. And if they haven’t replied, you’ll let yourself get dragged into other emails, or another quick check of all the social media. *
It is worth it to pick up the brush or pencil or open up the word processor and DO something.
Invariably, when I tough it out and just start to put brush to canvas, or write down a few words, what follows is well worth doing.
It’s that first brush stroke, or that first sentence that’s the key hurdle.
So, what can you do, to try to make you WANT to take that first action? I have a few things I might try.
When painting, I might look at similar paintings I’ve done, or in progress paintings, and think about what the next step is for any of them. If I don’t have anything specific planned, I look at artists I admire, paintings I love, and think, “oh, yeah, I wanted to try to paint a cat that way…” I have folderfulls of things like this on my computer and in real life. A good practice for any creator: Have a file like this, maintain and organize it, and pull it out when you need it.
With writing, I might read a scene related to the one I’m trying to write, maybe the scenes that got the characters to that point in front of me. Or just a really decent scene, one where I was really happy with how it turned out.
Doing this works well for me, and may not for everyone. When I see a good painting or a good paragraph from someone else, I think either “hey, I can do that!” or at least, “hey… I wonder if I could do that!” Or looking at things I did in the past that I’m happy with: “Hey, I wonder if I can do that again…” I’ve pretty much always been like that, with a few dips & wobbles. If you’re one of those creators who’s always questioning the worth of what you do, that it’ll never be as good as what you did before, or as good as what your favorite creators have done… then you need to find a way to get over that first. I’ll discuss that here at some point, in one of these posts. But for now, I suspect the above shortcuts won’t work so well for those with that particular sticking point.
At any rate, it works for me. Seeing good stuff makes me want to try to make good stuff.
But then… there’s that first action itself. Maybe you’ve got yourself in the mood, but still don’t quite know where to start. With the visual stuff, I start with a sketch. I put pencil to scrap paper, or noodle with charcoal, something easily erased. It relieves me of all obligation to Make Great Art until the hand & eye are warmed up and the mind now into the project at hand. Imagine drawing or painting one interesting part of it. Then start to do it. Once I start, something usually happens, and then that something leads to more somethings happening. Next thing I know, a few hours have passed and I’ve got a lot more in front of me than when I started..
With writing, I think of this: “Ford Prefect hit the ground running.” Some of you recognize that line I’m sure. I first heard those words long ago, read aloud by Douglas Adams himself, reading from the then newly released Mostly Harmless at a bookstore somewhere in the DC area. It remains to this day one of my favorite chapter-starting scene kick offs.
And so, faced with a new chapter or new scene or even a new story, where I have no idea how to begin, I use a sort of Mad Libs template version of that sentence.
“__(character or thing)__ __(did something)__ __(in some manner or description)__.”
– Joey kicked the empty can in aggravation.
– Rudie knocked the glass over to Angi’s dismay.
– A fiery cloud of arrows descended on the villagers.
– The gong resonated in Lisa’s ears.
Don’t sweat it. It’s just a little thing to set the tone and attitude for the scene. The sentence I come up with does not always survive beyond the first draft. I’m a firm believer in crappy crappy crappy first drafts, by the way. They serve their purpose – and that sentence served its purpose. It gave other elements and characters in the scene something to react to. It got words out, so that other words could follow.
So that’s my trick. No magic, no brain surgery. Just fill it out like a form. Treat it as little more than Name, Address, Phone Number. Give it a shot. Find one of your favorite scene starters and use that as a template. Or just ask yourself:
– Who’s the main character? or Which character should kick off this scene?
– What is that character doing?
– How are they taking that action, or how is that action affecting others in the scene?
Put it down, and know that – just like a pencil sketch before a painting – it does not have to show in the final.
If you have your own tips and tricks, please share in the comments below!
* Confession: I wrote this instead of getting into the next chapter of BloodDreams Part 2. But that’s because this entry (a) started to write itself in my head while I was tidying up the house (b) was on my to-do list for later, and (c) was due. So I gave myself an hour, and that’s about what it took.
** Note: I do not equate I don’t wannas with actual depression or other disorders that affect concentration, mood, or motivation. Those are issues in and of themselves, and also a topic for some later post, or posts. They are serious issues, and NOT signs of weakness or laziness. I say this because some might not recognize the difference, even in themselves.
(Editor’s note: Windycon 42, an annual Chicago area convention – and one of the best – is themed for Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this year and Amazing Stories has been hosting their weekly blog, which has been, oddly enough, largely devoted to things Hitchhiker, including Ford Prefect, Norman and towels. Check it out here.)