We all want to do our best work. We all want to create something of value. But what if you’re stuck? What if the solution just doesn’t show up, the idea just won’t come, the interesting just doesn’t want to happen? Writers sometimes call it writer’s block, but not only writers experience it. Everyone who does creative work knows this feeling of just not being able to make progress.
Whenever we’re stuck like this, it is important to recognize that this is totally normal and nothing to be worried about. Such a creative block isn’t really a blocker, it’s more of a short break. The best way to cope with this is to first of all continue to work. Inspiration strikes not when we sit and wait but when we start immersing ourselves in a problem. So don’t wait for the muse to kiss you. Walk on.
I’m currently listening to the audio version of The Creative Act: A Way of Being, a fantastic new book on the creative process by Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer who not only co-founded Def Jam Recordings but has also worked with artists like the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Slayer, Danzig, Johnny Cash, System of a Down, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Eminem, Jay-Z, The Strokes, and many more.
In his book, Rubin shares one of the secrets of getting unstuck when you’ve hit a wall and your work isn’t getting any better: breaking the sameness. This can happen in various ways. You could, for example, break down a large, seemingly insurmountable challenge into small tasks. Like: write just one line every day, no matter how good or bad you think it is. Soon, you’ll be able to write entire songs again.
What can also help is a change of the environment, or, how we call it in German, a “Tapetenwechsel” (= a “change of the wallpaper”), to inspire a fresh perspective. When the Red Hot Chili Peppers told him that they had enough of recording studios, Rubin took them to a (haunted…?) mansion to record Blood Sugar Sex Magik there. Other artists recorded in the dark, early in the morning, on a mountain playing for the ocean, or even hanging upside down while singing. By creating conditions outside of the normal we increase the surface area for new feelings to arise and new ideas to happen.
Such a Tapetenwechsel might also be a change of context. When a singer doesn’t connect to a song, it can be helpful to add a new meaning or backstory to the lyrics of a song. A love song, for example, might sound different if sung for a long-lost soulmate, a partner of thirty years that you don’t get along with, a person you saw on the street but never spoke to, or your mother. With one artist, Rubin suggested singing a love song written to a woman as a devotional to God instead. (As Rubin revealed in an interview, this artist was Johnny Cash and the song was “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”.)
Another Tapetenwechsel you could try is to change or break the rules of the game. When you intentionally redefine the limitations and constraints of your project, you can break up patterns that hold you back. When you set parameters that force you out of your comfort zone, it is easier to innovate and find a new side of yourself and your work. If you always write on a laptop, try writing by hand. If you’re right-handed, paint with your left hand. If you always write long paragraphs, force yourself to only write short sentences. If you always use small font sizes, go big with your typography. Whatever you choose, it’s of little importance if your work is better. As Rubin writes: