14 July, 2018

Ask Al: Creative Un-Blocking!

Dear Al,

Do you ever get creatively blocked? What do you do to find fresh inspiration?



* * *

Hello Blocked!

Whoa, boy have I absolutely been there. You claw at your eyes. You rumple up pages because you've seen someone do that in a movie once. You put on The Bathrobe of Shame. You throw a typewriter.

No, but seriously, practically I do a few things:

1. I return to some of my original sources of inspiration.
     For After Anatevka specifically, I drew from several sources of inspiration you’d likely never even imagine—Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead inspired my writing of the “scenes between the scenes,” and the J.J. Abrams TV show LOST was on television when I first began the novel, and directly inspired the “flashback” structure of the story-telling. The prose of John Steinbeck and Boris Pasternak (particularly East of Eden and Dr. Zhivago, respectively) as well as Russian literary greats Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And of course the great stories of Yiddish oral tradition, and other Yiddish writers (in addition to Shalom Aleichem) such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Shalom Ashe.

     Essentially: I return to the masters and pray for a jolt by “praying at the altar.”

2. I “phone a friend.”
     I also have a small circle of (very) trusted friends that I will call and talk through the troubles with. That can be anything from story, plot, conflict, to trusting them to comb through the words themselves and tell me if I use too many italics. Or Whatever.

     Sometimes I scream into the phone while this friend talks me off the proverbial ledge. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we do victory laps. The best part is, I always enjoy returning the favor. To give the two most important credit: I have been bouncing ideas off of and with Santino Fontana since we were teenagers, and I don’t know where I’d be creatively without Bobby Steggert. Which is why both are thanked in the acknowledgments of my book by name only, without any need for explanation.

3.  Change your environment / Do something to get your blood flowing.
     Personally, I walk. Everywhere. Until I drop.
     Sometimes I need to get the heck out of my “space” and walk and walk and WALK. Anywhere. Often co-mingling #1 and #2 whilst power-walking my way to publication.

     Have you ever seen the episode of The West Wing where CJ can’t sleep so she exercises on a stationary bike until she sweats out her spleen? Yeah. It’s like that. With less political consequences.

4. I’m always prepared for the un-blocking.
     Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, among others) speaks so perfectly about how the ancient, Jacobean, and early modern world viewed genius in her 2009 Ted talk. To quote David McMillan on his analysis of Gilbert's talk for Thought Catalogue:

“For nearly twenty minutes, Gilbert argues that (1) artists since the Renaissance have been under the belief—or more accurately, the delusion—that they are the source of their own genius; and (2) that this delusion may in fact be the root cause of much of the suffering, madness, and self-destruction that characterize the lives of creative artists in the modern, post-Renaissance era.

Gilbert goes on to explain that that this modern view of genius is starkly different from the Greco-Roman view; for the Greeks and Romans, creativity didn’t come from human beings, it came to human beings. This view served as a “protective psychological construct” that kept the artist both humble and sane. Humble, because the artist could never entirely take credit for his or her work. Sane, because if the work wasn’t good, it wasn’t entirely the artist’s fault—he or she could blame it partially on having a “lame” Genius.”
     Briefly: Gilbert reminds modern society that once, a person was not “a genius” they possessed a “genie”—they were fortunate enough to own an actual talisman that they believed was directly connected to the heavens. Today we see it in reverse— the person themselves possesses the inspiration, they are as we now call it: a “genius,” and they are exclusively responsible for the content they create—for better or for worse.

     Gilbert tells a wonderful (possibly apocryphal) anecdote in her book Big Magic about Tom Waits being hit by the “genie” whilst driving in his car along the highway. He had to pull over and write it all down lest it escape him utterly. He’s a real servant to the “genie.”

     I personally like to think of it as something somewhere mystically in-between. I imagine that the majority of my creativity belongs to me, but sometimes I am absolutely struck by an inspired just-right sentence, a voice, a plot point, a storyline or sometimes an entire character that feels as though it has come to me from nowhere.

     A very specific example of "the genie coming" to me—the character of Dmitri Petrov in my novel After Anatevka appeared to me fully formed—almost as if he knocked on my front door, asked if he could come in, made tea, sat me down, handed me a pen and recounted his entire life story to me in one sitting. I allowed it. I allowed Dmitri to take me over until Dmitri was "done," dutifully taking notes on his story and listening to “him” until "he" was "finished."  I honestly don’t feel even remotely responsible for his creation. In some ways, I feel Dmitri just chose me to tell his story.

     So! In that vein, always always have a pen, something to write on, or have some device that can quickly record your voice. You never know when the “gods” are going to bless you with inspiration, and when they do (even at an inopportune moment) you better be ready!

Philosophically, I try to keep the four worst enemies of creativity at bay:

5. Timing
   There is no perfect time to write. Just start. Do. Make. Go. Anything. Now.

6. Distractions
     Eliminate distractions (a lot of people use Ommwriter to focus on just writing). I also tend to turn off the internet and put my phone on airplane mode.

7. Fear
     Don't be afraid. Many writers struggle with putting their ideas (and themselves) out there for everyone to see and critique. Guess what? Life is full of exposure and judgment, and fear is a major reason some writers never become writers, some actors never become actors, some humans never become their greatest and best selves.
     You have to do your own rumbling with your demons, but the first step is recognizing that you are afraid, and then making the choice to overcome those fears and share your stories anyway. It would not be courage if you were not afraid.

8. Perfectionism
     You want everything to be juuuuuuuuuust right.  I know. I understand.
     Just as there will never be a perfect "time" to write, there is also no perfect writing, no perfect writing environment, no perfect pen, sentence, paragraph... nothing is perfect. If you are waiting for perfection you'll never even begin. Again, rumbling with perfectionism is everyone's own cross to bear, but in my experience, perfectionism kills more good work than any of the other demons combined. Be brave. A messy draft is better than a blank page.

Happy un-blocking!


You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Jack London



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