Writing is one of those things that either feels fluid, or like you’re pulling teeth.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that writing takes practice—just like everything else in life. Some days its easy. Some days its hard. Some days, the ideas just keep flowing. And other days, you couldn’t come up with one good idea if your life dependent on it. That’s just the way creativity works.
The key though is to learn how to manage the droughts that come with any creative profession, and find cues and subtle ways to “jumpstart” your creative juices again.
If you want to know how to get yourself to be creative again, here are 6 things you can do when it’s hard to write:
1. Play (or take up) a musical instrument.
I started playing classical piano when I was about five years old.
Up to the age of 23, I played the piano almost every single day of my life. When I was younger, those hours were much more deliberately spent practicing scales and mastering Beethoven pieces. As I got older, and realized I had no real aspirations of becoming of professional pianist, I spent more time composing and playing pieces I had already learned and simply enjoyed playing.
Today, piano and music in general has become a way for me to recharge when I still want to do something creative, but for whatever reason am burned out from writing. (In fact, I’m writing this at my desk, right next to my keyboard, right now.)
The reason music is so effective for jumpstarting your creativity, especially in regards to writing, is because it is a different language entirely. Music’s words are notes, and sounds, and feelings. And asking yourself to play in those constructs, as opposed to verbs, adjectives, and coherent sentences, can be a helpful way to “reset” the language muscles in your brain.
If you aren’t a musician, or have never played a musical instrument, then I highly recommend sitting quietly and listening to some classical piano—Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Bach being a few personal favorites. For pleasure listening, sure, indulge in your favorite genre. But for deliberately resetting your mind and getting yourself back into the flow, there’s something about classical music that is both enjoyable to listen to and difficult to fully comprehend (which is what makes it so great for sparking new ideas).
Although I would never call myself a visual artist, I’ve been drawing and doodling since I was a kid.
When I was in elementary school, I used to post up and try to trace Star Wars and Lord of the Rings characters into my sketchbook (while watching the coinciding films on the TV in my next door neighbor’s living room). And then in middle and high school, I would fill the boring hours of my day (math, science, history, just about every class, really) with drawings in my assignment notebook. Even in college, I would often draw shapes and patterns in my notebook while I sat in 4-hour-long creative writing workshops.
But it wasn’t until I recently bought this book, Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, that I realized drawing has always been one of my alternative creative outlets to writing.
Again, the purpose here isn’t really to pursue a second craft or call yourself a “professional sketch artist.” If you want to become that, by all means—but drawing is just another way for you to engage with your ideas without calling upon language. I’ve always found drawing can help me think through story components, or organize my disjointed entrepreneurial ideas, simply because I’m able to see them in a more “visual” form.
Give it a try. You’d be surprised what a few stick figures can help you realize about whatever it is you’re working on.
3. Walking meditation.
Going for a walk can be a helpful way to step away from your desk for a moment. But I’ve found that unless you give your mind something else to focus on, a walk can very quickly turn into an unproductive fifteen minutes of obsessing over what you were just working on.
Instead, go for a walking meditation.
I have this exercise I like to do, usually around 4:00 p.m. when I’m starting to lose steam from earlier writing sessions, where I slowly walk around the block while staring at the trees in my neighborhood. I pay attention to the way their leaves and branches look with the blue sky right behind them. I watch them sway lightly from side to side. I try to notice as many different types of trees as I can on my street, and I see if I can calm my mind down enough to observe as many details as possible: the color of the bark, the thickness of the branches, etc.
The first few minutes of this exercise are almost always aggravating and difficult, further confirming for me where I’m at for the day. But I’ve found that after 5 minutes or so, the trees have a lot to say. And that’s when I start to listen.
4. Read (obviously).
The most commonly recommended solution for depleted creative energy, for good reason, is reading.
To put it simply: if writing and the act of being creative is output, then reading is input. Especially if you’re a professional writer, reading isn’t just about studying other writers, or being entertained. Reading is also one of the best ways to get out of your own work and take in someone else’s instead.
That said, what you read is arguably as important as the act of reading itself. For example, if you’re burned out from writing and working on business-related material, then I wouldn’t suggest sitting down and reading a business book. That’s only going to end up stressing the same muscle. Instead, I recommend reading something that’s completely opposite what you’ve just been laboring over: a work of fiction, for example.
The more opposite, the better.
5. Go to the gym.
I have always been a big fan of complimenting intellectual pursuits (writing) with physical challenges (going to the gym).
Reason being, the act of writing can be very mentally exhausting. Which is why so much of what we’re talking about here is how to get out of your head and, even better, into your body. I remember reading a few years ago about how chess legend Bobby Fischer would prioritize daily fitness activities, especially during tournaments. In his words, “The mind simply stops working.” Which is the whole goal.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming stigma surrounding successful writers is that we’re introverts that sit by rain-pattered windowpanes sipping red wine at nine in the morning, smoking a cigarette, and wearing a chapeau while writing about the pains of society. If that’s you, no problem. But trust me when I say: your writing will be a hell of a lot better if you can get yourself to the gym every once in a while.
6. Interview someone.
Here’s an unconventional trick, and one of my personal favorites.
When I was working on my first book, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer, I went through countless periods where the writing simply wasn’t happening. To be fair, I re-wrote the thing 3 times, front to back, so I was definitely struggling with burnout. But still, there were plenty of times when I wanted to write, I just wasn’t exactly sure how or where to start.
So, I reached out to some of the characters from the book—people I had played World of Warcraft with years ago—and asked if they’d be game for a phone conversation.
In almost every one of these instances, going back and either catching up with friends or interviewing people from that chapter in my life, led to an explosion of creative ideas. I’d spend 30 minutes to an hour talking to them on the phone, and immediately after would start writing a million miles an hour. Something about talking to another person, and hearing the story from their point of view, gave me ideas for days. I vividly remember writing some of the chapters of the book, nearly in full, right after interviewing someone from the story.
This same technique can be used for almost every type of writing: you can interview someone in your industry, your peers, people you look up to, other writers, etc. I’d even argue that interviewing people on a consistent basis can be an incredible way for you to continue your own personal education, build your network, AND create amazing content online in the process.
Don’t underestimate this technique.