Exactly a year ago, I got an email from Alex Cornell, a writer and designer in San Francisco. He was assembling a book on overcoming creative block for Princeton Architectural Press (which has a very nice new Tumblr). The book was inspired by a post he wrote for ISO50, featuring advice from Nicholas Felton, Khoi Vinh, Ji Lee, Erik Spiekermann and many others, that generated 100+ comments. He wanted my advice too.
The book, now bodaciously titled Breakthrough! Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination, was published this week. Re-reading my short piece, I realize it sounds entirely commonplace. But for me, that’s what creative activity is. Sometimes I get up in the morning after spending the hours from 3 to 6:30 a.m. sharing a twin bed with my five-year-old (kindergarten jitters) and think, “Now I am supposed to be creative and original?!” Just this Wednesday, I followed all of these strategies, blowing off a rewrite (of an essay on play, of all things) and instead transcribing and editing an interview, hacking another essay down to size, and following up on any other project I could think of. That day, those tasks felt easier.
I haven’t gotten my copy yet, but the final list of contributors includes Astrid Stavro, Project Projects, The Heads of State, Paula Scher, Debbie Millman, Christoph Niemann and many others.
Here is my contribution to Breakthrough!, reprinted in full.
What do you do to overcome creative block?
I do something else. One of the few benefits of being a freelance writer is that there is always something else I need to do. A blog post, a Tweet, a book review. A chapter needs editing or a paper needs grading. Or, since I work from home, there’s dish-washing, laundry-folding, lunch-making. When I was writing my dissertation I did a lot of baking and candying. But once I am at my desk I prefer to stay there, so I am more likely to move from one thing to another only in my mind. I leave myself a Post-It each night of what I should do the next day, as if I were my own boss, so I let myself move freely among the items on that list. There’s always something that seems more appealing that the window I have open on screen, and that’s the thing I choose.
Then, while I am doing that second thing, a better idea for the first thing usually comes to mind. I will jot that idea down on my yellow pad, so it doesn’t get scared away by the computer, and go on with the second thing. Because almost all of my work is on the computer, my Post-Its and my yellow pad act as a staging area. Ideas there can be more vague, and later I will go back and annotate them on the page before transferring them to their official window. Because of the superstitious nature of this process, I am very picky about my pads and my pens and the dimensions and color of my Post-Its.
A corollary of this habit is that if I don’t have enough things to do, I get very nervous. That nervousness turns into a rattling-around sort of energy, energy that causes me to throw out old toys, to make up bags to take to the Goodwill and to send too many emails. But some of those emails contain ideas for the next list of things to do, emails I didn’t send when I was too busy. Being nervous makes me bolder about asking people for help and proposing new projects. When everything is humming along, I feel like my work is more ordinary and I don’t challenge myself. If there are three things on the list, why rock the boat? It is when the Post-It is empty that I really get creative.