Ask Unstuck: How do I get past my creative block?

Two notes came to us asking how to follow through on creative impulses. The first was from Jean, a 71-year-old woman who says she’s a good writer but perhaps not good enough. Her letter was thoughtful and mostly hopeful that she would put pen to paper again.

Joel is 18 and calls himself a creative enthusiast. He has all kinds of ideas and is ready to make an impact. But he doubts his abilities so his momentum is fading, despite a recent and totally inspiring trip to Spain.

Each is stuck in their own way, Jean as a Waffler and Joel as an Ad Libber. But at the core for both is a lack of confidence strong enough to stop them in their tracks — it’s just showing up in different ways. So our goal is help to Joan and Joel take action, which will boost their confidence, which will spur even more action. Our favorite kind of loop.

Jean, it sounds to us like your concern for what others think is what’s keeping you stuck. On one hand, you consider yourself a good creative writer, but on the other hand, you worry that you’re not good enough. We have to ask: Good enough for what? For whom? Isn’t it good enough that you want to write and that you do write?

It must be painful to Ping-Pong between your desire and your fear of not measuring up. Especially when it results in a blank page. Put plainly, you’re psyching yourself out.

You asked us for an exercise or affirmation or success stories to inspire you. The best exercise you can do is stop thinking so much about writing so you can start writing. (Wafflers are known for overthinking things to the point of paralysis.) Your mind has “what-if’d” you into serious writer’s block, so it’s time to give it rest.

Write from your gut every day — at first, only for 10 minutes or so. What you write isn’t as important as the fact that you are writing. Start out short and unintentional. A note to your cat, perhaps. Or a quick retelling of the day’s events. Resist cross-outs and self-edits as you write. Let your words hit the paper with what lives in your heart, and let them stay there. Only you are going to see them.

Eventually, you should begin to relax into your daily practice and rediscover the joy of writing. When you feel comfortable enough with writing from instinct, extend the time you write. Maybe even give yourself a purpose like writing one complete story by the end of the year. But whether you compose that story or not, you are reaffirming that you have what it takes.

Joel, you’ll also boost your confidence by actually creating something, but we offer you a different approach. As an Ad Libber, your stuckness shows up in the execution. You may have ideas galore, but you’ve got to have a plan too. And a plan means that you commit to a single idea and then follow through.

But for you, it may be too soon to commit. You told us, “I come up with ideas, but it’s all a question of what I can bring to the table that other people can’t.” Later in your note you write, “whatever creative field I’m put in.” This begs the question: Who is putting you in a creative field if it isn’t you? Is it because you don’t know where you belong on the creative spectrum that you’ll let someone decide for you? We hope you won’t.

We still think you need to make a plan, but the plan could be to explore your ideas and all types of creative outlets. Discover what you like and what you don’t, where your inclinations are, how you want to contribute to the world. And please try to put aside the idea that you need to fill a hole left by others; being authentically you is how you’ll pitch in best. You might realize that you’re an idea guy rather than a doer.

To make your exploration plan, we recommend using Unstuck’s “Get Your Game On” tool, which is a painless way to gather and organize your thoughts (you can download the free Unstuck iPad app here). If you don’t have the app handy, then first make a list of all your ideas. Next, prioritize them into three groups: Try it now, Try it later, Try it much later. And within each group, put your items in order from first to last. Now you have a system to guide you through an exciting time of discovery (we’re a little jealous). Experiment. Get your hands dirty. Listen to your instincts. When you find where you’re confident, you’ll feel it. And when you do, dig in!

Last Week’s Ask Unstuck: What if I don’t know what I want to do?

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