Sometimes, writers get out of the groove. They lose their voodoo. This isn’t just writer’s block — hell, you might even still be writing. But it feels hollow, unrewarding, like it’s not just giving back what you put in.
You need your creative mojo back.
Which means, another list of 25, comin’ right up.
(Some of these, I figure, also work toward writer’s block, if that’s a thing you believe in.)
1. Read Outside Your Comfort Zone
By “comfort zone,” I mean that room inside your head where it’s all pillows and chocolates and footy pajamas, with gamboling puppies and a vending machine that dispenses only liquor and cupcakes. On the wall of our comfort zone is a shelf of books and these are the books representative of the many categories we already prefer to digest: “I read: presidential autobiographies, graphic novels about talking animals, and the genre of ‘paranormal bromance.’” Comfort, however erm comfortable it may be, is not a great thing for creativity — so, escape this mind-realm of plush luxury and go read books you’d never ever read. Wouldn’t ever pick up a book of travel essays, or one about food culture, or a young adult novel? New books mean new input — and that means new inspiration. By the way, dibs on ‘paranormal bromance.’ HANDS OFF.
2. Re-Read A Book You Love Utterly
Fuck it. Instead of escaping your comfort zone, let’s nest deep within its pillowy folds. Grab a beloved book off your shelf and re-read it. Re-discover why a book like this made you want to be a writer in the first goddamn place. Let it fill you with its power (worst pick-up line ever) as it did many years before. Let it bring you back to center. Books you love are like a flashlight in dark times.
3. Read Something Utterly Shitty That Somehow Got Published
I read a script recently. It was a script that had been optioned (though never made), meaning, it was a script that someone out on the Leftmost Coast paid good money for. Like, probably more money than I’ve ever made in a year. Or ten years. OR MY WHOLE SAD INK-FINGERED LIFE SHUT UP. Anyway, point is: it was not very good. I mean, I won’t go so far as to call it genuinely shit-tacular, but it was… well, you know how fast food is often wildly mediocre? Yeah, that. Its mediocrity enlivened me. It told me, “I write better than this. I will write better than this.” It was a horse-kick to my motivational centers.
4. Achieve Narrative Conclusion, Gleefully Shellacking Your Brain-Pants
Take a teeny tiny project — a poem, a short story, a flash fiction challenge, a series of tales told in ten tweets, whatever — and finish it. I’m going to make up some science now, so, put on your Reality-Defying Goggles. Ready? Finishing any creative project releases a chemical in your brain called Hopamine (pronounced “hope-a-meen”), aka “Triumph Squeezin’s” or “Victory Fluid.” By stimulating the gland that releases this creative hormone, you further stimulate the rest of your brain to want to seek that feeling again and again, like a drug addict chasing a high. Meaning: the more projects you complete, the more projects you complete.
5. The “Just For You” Project
That sounds like a really weird euphemism for masturbation. “Hey, what are you gonna do now?” “Gonna go upstairs, initiate a just-for-me project.” *grabs a box of Kleenex and a soup can filled with ballistics gel* Anyway. Sometimes creative lockjaw happens when you’re too busy doing work for everybody else and you’ve saved nothing for yourself. Pick a project, small, large, whatever, that’s something you want to do. Doesn’t matter if anybody else thinks it’s a good idea. Fuck the naysayers. Completing work that’s satisfying to you will tickle your creative muscles. And hey, there’s another masturbation euphemism if you want it.
6. Write Outside Your Comfort Zone
Remember your “comfort zone?” Cuddly unicorns and that Carly Rae Jepsen poster on the wall? Let’s just set fire to the whole place. Ignore the unicorn screams. (And shit, do they ever scream.) Earlier I advocated reading outside your comfort zone, so now it’s time to write outside of it. Pick something you’d never write, and try it. Don’t worry about finishing it — this is an exercise, not a job. Write romance, or hard sci-fi, or a film script or the marketing materials for a new drug called “pink meth.” Whatever. Sometimes you have to come at creative logjam from a whole different angle to break it apart.
7. Public Lewdness, I Mean, “Public Creativity”
Put your work out there for all to see — probably online, but somewhere, somehow in the public space. Which is to say, get a blog or whatever, and start writing so that the world can see. It’s a stunt, of sorts, and normally I don’t advocate this as a way to exist normally, but here’s what this does: writers are used to performing behind the curtain. We sit in our offices, completely nude. We drink a can of Red Bull, kill a goat, powder up with some Gold Bond, then we write. Nobody’s watching. But you start writing in public, it’s the equivalent of getting on stage. People are watching what you do more closely. It feels like walking across a tightrope without a net. While high on really weird drugs. Anything to drop-kick creative ennui.
8. Stop, Collaborate And Listen
Writers are traditionally loners. Like Pee-Wee Herman, and serial killers. (Actually, would it have surprised anyone if the character of Pee-Wee turned out to be a serial killer? That talking Playhouse Chair probably eats the fucking bodies.) A writer is used to operating in a lawless, non-reactive land. Change that. Collaborate with someone. On a story, script, comic, whatever. Engage in an act of creative agitation. The give-and-take of collaboration constantly forces you to bat back new ideas and reactions — it’s not always easy, but it’s frequently productive. Even if just to retrain your brain to be all arty and stuff.
9. Gun Down Your Creative Routine In The Streets
You do things a certain way, right? Wake up. Eat a bowl of Yummy Mummy cereal. Get dressed in jammy-pants and a FUCK YOU t-shirt, then go to Starbucks with your laptop and pretend to write as you stare hatefully at all who enter. Then: lemon meringue pie, and finally, bed. Your status quo needs to change. This is emblematic of how narrative works (a story is often born from the disruption of status quo), and so it is emblematic of how the writer sometimes must work, too. Change it up. Write somewhere different. Write in a new way (on a new word processor, with pen and notebook, in your own fluids). Do something different. Shake lose the barnacles you’ve gathered while floating inert in the murky harbor of your undoing.
10. Have A New Experience
Spontaneous generation does not exist. Fruit flies are not born out of thin air, nor is our creativity. We need fuel. We need stimulus. Like Johnny-5, we need input, motherfucker. Part of what fuels our creative expression is the life we live and the experiences we have, so there comes a time when you need to have some new experiences. Moroccan food, ziplines, mountainous ascent, bar fight with strange people, sex with strange people, Mezcal bender, civet-shit coffee, BDSM, ride a deer, kick a robot, something, anything. Have new experiences. Adventures both big and tiny. It’s all paint for the palette, man.
11. Get Out Of The Goddamn House, You Mumbling Shut-In
“Locked-in syndrome” is where your body can’t move but you can see and experience everything going on around you, and metaphorically, writers are like that. We get locked in to our offices, our homes, our lives. (Don’t tell me you haven’t thought at least once about trying adult diapers. Because you are a liar-faced lie-bot from a future made of liars.) Sometimes, to build off the last entry, you just need to get out of the fucking house. Like, with some regularity. Though one supposes an entry featuring the word “diaper” should not also feature the word “regularity” in a different context, but whatever. I’m a rebel, Dottie.
12. Get Some Class, You Surly Miscreant
Wait, no, sorry, I mean, “take a class.” As in, go learn a new skill. Doesn’t have to be related to writing — in fact, better if it’s not. Learn Photoshop. Or wood-working. Or robot-taming. Imagine if you will that we are characters in a role-playing game and we have an unlockable “skill tree” where new new avenues of experience open up by completing sometimes unforeseen challenges. This is like that. You learn something new, it opens up new pathways into your creative life you did not expect.
13. Exercise Your Indolent Sloth Carcass Of A Body, You Indolent Sloth Carcass
While you’re out, maybe move your body around. Jiggle your sludgy flesh in a way that simulates “not dying from sheer torpidity.” Sometimes our mental shutdowns are related to physical concerns. Maybe you just need some fucking exercise. Walk. Run. Bike. Swim. Lift something heavier than your iPad. Fight a mountain lion. Hunt your fellow man. Whatever. Just move that ass.
14. Also: Stop Eating Like A Drunken Goat
I’ve advocated this before and I will do it again, right here, right now: stop eating assily. Not a word, “assily,” but I said it because I’m allowed to make up new words because I have my Pennsylvania Writer’s License. To repeat: sometimes mental shutdowns are related to physical concerns. And physical concerns can come from diet. Maybe you’re eating too many carbs and not burning them off (contributing to “brain fog”). Maybe you’re allergic to something and yet you still keep eating it (OH GOD I LOVE EATING DONUTS DIPPED IN CHOCOLATE MILK AND SNAKE VENOM WHY ARE MY LEGS NUMB). Change that diet.
15. Address Mental Health Concerns
To get serious for a moment, a lot of writers suffer from various mental maladies. This is entirely common and writers suffering under such afflictions are in no way alone. Problem is, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees in just such a state and it’s harder to differentiate what’s a problem with, say, a story and what’s a problem with, say, your own psychic and psychological landscape. Trying to fix creative problems when you have larger concerns is like trying to fix a plumbing problem by headbutting a toilet. It will be painful and frustrating so always address your own mental health first. This is easier said than done, but that doesn’t change the fact that it needs to happen before anything else falls in line.
16. Create Story Maps
Pick a book you love off the shelves — or, if you’ve got a wild hair (wild hare?) up your ass, grab one you hate. Whatever. Read it. But read it critically. (“Critically” does not mean, “Look for the bad stuff.” It means, read beyond entertainment. Apply critical thinking skills to your book-absorbing process. The Internet has separated us into FUCKITY-SUCKS or SHITSTORM OF AWESOME camps, and that is not critical thinking, that is base level Neanderthal tribe-making. Er, rant over.) Map the story. Outline it. Figure out what’s happening inside the tale. Track character arcs. Look at the narrative from a sky-high height. Get a measure of the mechanics. Sometimes just seeing how a story comprises all these interlocking pieces helps stimulate your own grasp of the task at hand. Also, wait, do you have a rabbit up your ass? Can we address that?
17. Bucket Of Book Titles
Go the Ray Bradbury route: just start writing out awesome-as-fuck book titles. One after the other. Ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred. This bizarre-o menu of non-existent books will almost assuredly start filling your head with stories connected to them.
18. Cavalcade Of Characters
Sometimes stories are too big. We just can’t get our minds around them and we fritz out, sparking and hissing like a broken Roomba clogged with Chinese food containers and jizz tissues. Breaking stories into pieces and playing with the pieces first has the fun of, say, playing with action figures. So: just create some characters, almost like in a roleplaying game. Don’t worry about larger stories, just start making names and some personalities to go with them. Some will stay supporting characters, others will emerge as bigger personas. And soon, stories will emerge from the pile: order out of chaos.
19. Open Defiance! The Flames Of Anarchy!
Middle finger extended — now point that gesture-of-anarchic-defiance toward All The Rules You’re Supposed To Follow. Write something that exists as a contrarian’s rebellion against What You’re Supposed To Do. Like, if you write a romance novel, there’s all these rules and tropes, right? So: break ’em all. Or, you’re not supposed to write in Second-Person-POV, or no Epistolic Novels, or, Don’t Break The Fourth Wall, or, or, or. Gather up as many rules as you care and execute them in the town square. It feels good to break the rules. “Should Not, But Fucking Did It Anyway” is a powerful creative aphrodisiac.
20. Art Harder In A Whole Other Direction
Sometimes we unlock creative potential by performing other creative tasks. Photography or music or macrame or crayon drawings or amateur porn movies or whatever it is that makes your grapefruit squirt. For me, photography kickstarts my visual and metaphorical centers, which helps my writing.
21. Write Your Life
Take time, dig deep, and write about things that actually happened to you. Trust your gut — the stories and events and characters that rise up first are the ones you should go with. This isn’t for anyone else. This is for you. This is like creative mining, just digging down into the loamy 8-bit soil of your Minecraft Mind, not sure if you’ll find iron or diamonds or empty out into a vast and unexpected cavern of possibility. Our creative lives come from somewhere, a culmination of who we are and what we love, and this is exploring the former part. This is opening up the who we are portion of the experience. Sometimes you need to tease it out. Sometimes you blow open the mountain with suicide-bomber bighorn sheep. Open the way, even if pain lurks there. Hell, especially if pain lurks there. Pain is our bread and butter.
22. Tell A Story In Images
Take images. From online. From in magazines. From advertisements. FROM INSIDE YOUR OWN DISEASED SKULL. Wherever. Cut ’em out and collect ’em and, one day, gather them up and try to use them to tell a story. String them together. Find a narrative. Finding narrative in unlike places — those unanticipated narrative connections — is a meaningful exercise in terms of getting back on the creative horse. And a “creative horse” is, of course, a pegasus.
Failure feels like an ending, but it’s not. I will continue to assert that fail is profound. It is both deconstructive and instructive at the same time. If you look at failure just the right way, failure is no longer a wall, but a door. Actually, hell with that metaphor: failure is a bottle rocket gooey with Icy Hot shoved deep into your no-no-hole and lit on fire with a signal flare. Failure can create in you the drive to do better, to go bigger, stronger, crazier — and the simple act of failure can realign your creative stars.
24. Quit For A Little While
Walk away from the creative life. For a week. Maybe a month. However long you need. I don’t advocate giving up easily — so, let’s just call this a vacation. We put upon ourselves undue pressure and sometimes the best way to vent that pressure is to pop the lid, let the steam out, and go do something else for a little while. The creative tapeworm will one day start coiling and roiling within, taking little nibbles here and there to let you know it’s time to get back to it.
25. Quit Moaning And Mount Up, Motherfucker
At the end of the day, here’s the best way to get your groove back, creatively speaking: work your tailbone to a rounded nub. Shovel story upon story, smash words into other words. Quit worrying, cut the bitching, and do what needs to be done. We sometimes feel like our authorial voodoo is flagging — but work begets work, and effort (even when it feels like you’re pushing a fold-out couch up a craggy mountain pass) will beget creativity. Work is in many ways like the act of planting a seed: tilling the hard earth is no easy task and the time it takes may seem like it’s wasted, thrown into an earthen hole, but one day that little motherfucker starts to sprout, and then the hard work gives way to the natural processes that are blessedly inevitable.
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