Liza Monroy is the author of the novel Mexican High, and recently completed her second book, The Marriage Act: a memoir. She lives in Brooklyn and will be the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio in October 2012.
Could it be an opportunity?
Sometimes a creative block arises because you actually need a break. Take one—and use it. Read in your favorite chair. Go to a bookstore or the library. Attend a live reading or performance. See an improv show. Check out that art exhibit you’ve been meaning to see. Or try something a PhD student in computer science once described to me as a “lost art”: doodling. Zone out to ambient music and let your mind wander. With so much over-stimulation, distraction and our artistic compulsion to work, a block or plateau can actually be an opportunity to take time to be where you are. Maybe there’s some mysterious subconscious growth process, and you’ll come back to the work refreshed.
Reading inspirational work by favorite authors often helps me during “blocked” periods.
I like “Why I Write” by Joan Didion and the essay of the same title by George Orwell. Rereading that Didion’s masterpiece Play it as it Lays began with a simple line that came to her: “Maria made a list of things she would never do”
Every work of genius begins with a simple impulse, a thought, a sentence—and probably not even one that made it into the final version!
Shake it Up
This ties in to the previous tip. If the work isn’t flowing, you might just be in a rut. As important as routine is to forming a creative habit into a career, the flipside is that routine can be an enemy of creativity. Do something to shake things up. Try something new: take a trip to a country you haven’t visited before, give a new fitness routine a whirl. My personal favorite resulted from going to a capoeira class during a time when I wasn’t producing—now I’ve been training regularly for over two years. It’s a constant reminder that you can’t get results without sticking with it.
Another constant-reminder favorite from personal experience—get an inspirational tattoo. I chose a quote from Georges Perec. It reads, “One day I shall certainly have to start using words to uncover what is real, to uncover my reality.” The ‘one day’ makes me feel like I need to get cracking now, and the ‘uncovering reality’ part perfectly describes the reason why I write, too—to peel back the layers and see the world differently, distilled in a story. Seeing it indelibly on my arm means I had better be committed. It’s like a wedding ring for writing.
Okay, so your leap into action needn’t be as extreme as tattooing or skydiving. Maybe it’s a long bike ride on a Sunday afternoon to a part of your city you haven’t explored yet. Whatever you choose, an adventure that takes you out of your daily routine and tickles your endorphins will leave you ready to hit the page (or canvas or stage) with renewed energy.
Ask yourself, “What am I resisting, and why?”
Sometimes there’s a reason, and knowing can be the first step in eliminating the block. Freewrite to this question and see where it leads.
Your art is not a luxury activity (aka, “Who Else Is Going to Fill the World’s Libraries?)
When I was in an MFA program, I’d often hear my cohorts lament that they weren’t sure their work was worthy, that maybe it would be better to get a real job that could pay bills. What if Jonathan Lethem had become a dentist? If Jennifer Egan decided to go to law school? Sure, they’d be making a solid contribution to society, but don’t you prefer having their books?
My canned response came to be, “but who else will fill the world’s libraries if not us?”
This is real work, people!
That said, it’s also a lot of fun.
Remember (and write down) why you do it in the first place!
You probably got into creative work in the first place because it’s a job that feels like—and is more akin to—play. The more fun you have, the more willing you are to play and be playful, the less seriously you take yourself, the better it’s likely to flow.
Artists often feel pressure to say something of great meaning, something profound. Remember it’s often the whimsical that gets the most desired audience or reader reaction. Look at Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or the films of Czech surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer.
Retain your sense of humor.
Write (or draw or paint or perform) your way through it
My former journalism teacher and fellow author Susan Shapiro has a really great way of putting this: “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block.”
Do you ever get creatively blocked up? How do you deal with it?image by megan matsouko, for sale here