Seth Godin

6 steps to demolish writer's block

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As someone who makes her living as a writer, it's very tempting to trot out the excuse of "writer's block" whenever I don't feel like working. 

Today I started thinking: no other profession has a built-in escape clause. Nothing called "neurosurgeon's block." Or "accountant's block." Or "electrician's block."

But surely those people have days where they'd rather scour the internet for hours for the perfect shade of white to paint their kitchen cabinets (hint: it's Benjamin Moore China White) than go into work and mess around with someone's frontal lobe or their knob-and-tube wiring. Is it that they don't have a title for their malaise? Or is the work of a writer so special, so very hard, that it demands a form of sanctioned relief.

OF COURSE NOT!

But that doesn't stop us writers from whining. From going down rabbit holes on Google. From filling up our Amazon cart. From wandering into the kitchen to wash the morning's oatmeal bowl. 

Seth Godin: the only man alive today who's never had writer's block.

Seth Godin: the only man alive today who's never had writer's block.

So let's call a spade a spade: writer's block is just a fancy term for garden-variety procrastination. I am guilty. Oh so guilty. At some point, though, I'm staring at a dangerously close deadline and I have no other option than to GET IT DONE.

Sometimes this is a good thing. Miraculous things can happen when you've got your back to the wall and minutes to spare. Musicians talk a lot about how the best songs get written in minutes or come about while they were doing something other than staring at the keys of the piano. Paul McCartney woke up hearing the entire melody of "Yesterday." The Beastie Boys wrote "(You gotta) Fight for your Right (to party)" in 5 minutes on a napkin. David Bowie heard the tune of "Life on Mars" in his head while buying shoes one day and then came back home and wrote the whole song that afternoon.

But usually, the best writing isn't the first writing. At least not in my case. It's taking what comes out at first and revising and honing (and getting input from others) until it goes from serviceable to sparkling. 

So what to do when you feel tempted to give into writer's block and take a nap? Here are a few ideas.

1. It's okay! Go ahead, take a nap.

Research shows that short naps do enhance creativity. Even Arianna Huffington is on board. Just keep it in the 15-20 minute range.

2. Get the first sentence or paragraph written

I find that often a lot of my block comes from the fact that I was trained as a journalist, which means I still think of beginnings as ledes. That is: the first thing that gets read has to contain at least the basics of everything that happens after, so that someone can read just the first paragraph of a story and move on if need be. Even though I don't do journalism anymore, I am still telling stories. And if you're telling the story of a product or a company or whatever, you still need to make sure you're setting the story in motion correctly. So if I can get that first sentence or paragraph down, the one that has the big picture nailed—what's the problem and what's the fabulous solution I'm getting ready to unveil for the reader—I find that writer's block disintegrates, and it's actually hard to stop the train of writing that comes after that (which feels magical every time it happens; it's these moments I live for).

Note: this is a hard step. To nail that first sentence or paragraph you really do need to have given some serious thinking/research time to the project at hand. But the benefits are so worth the effort. 

3. If the beginning isn't happening for you, pick something in the middle

If you're too paralyzed to get that first sentence down, take the pressure off and start in the middle of what you're working on. The middle must be strong, sure, but it's not carrying the weight of those first words that need to grab hold of the reader by the lapels. Just take a section (a product detail, for example) and get it down and move on to the next and the next. This will give you both momentum and hope.

4. Do not go looking for similar work samples just to "get you started"

Inevitably, looking at work that's about the same thing you need to write about ends up influencing your own writing way more than you think it will, without you even knowing it. I know that all great artists steal, but when you're trying to nail a headline about, say, how good an artisanal potato chip tastes, you don't go trolling around the Frito-Lay site. If you do need something to jumpstart you, try snooping in other territories to see if something peripherally related to potato chips might spark an idea: urban farming, kid's favorite songs, etc.

5. Don't beat yourself up.

The worst thing you can do when procrastination/writer's block hits is beat yourself up about it. Seriously, you're just digging that big hole of shame deeper. Accept that procrastination happens to all of us (except, as noted above, Mr. Godin), give yourself a pat on the back, and move on.

6. Just write something. Any little thing.

One of my favorite sayings is "Action absorbs anxiety." (I've had it on a Stickie on my computer for about 14 years). If you can get even one little part of your writing task done and checked off, it will help you stop obsessing and get back in the groove.

If any of these tips helps you demolish writer's block, I'd love to hear about it!


5 ways to generate genius (because brainstorming sucks)

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The always brilliant Seth Godin made my day recently by going public with the fact that brainstorming doesn’t work. I know, I know. Other important people have outed brainstorming. The New Yorker. Fast Company. CBS. But I think it’s been proven that an idea doesn’t exist until Seth proclaims it so.

Anyway, I was thrilled to read his post because I’ve always hated brainstorming. Maybe it’s because I think best staring out the windows, my fingers hovering over my keyboard. Or maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Whatever the reason, the quickest way to get me to seize up like a busted engine is to email me and say, “Hey! Let’s hop on a call and do some brainstorming about the [insert latest cool thing I get to work on] campaign!”

All of the ideas that flow just fine while I’m working, hiking, bathing, and procrastinating skedaddle when I’ve got my phone cradled on my shoulder and four people straining to hear each other on a free conference line.

So though I’m happy to hear that I’m not alone in this syndrome, the question becomes: what’s the best way to create something genius-y?

With a caveat that the only research I have to back these up is the testing done here at Story House labs, here are some ideas. Your mileage may vary.

1. Ask yourself: what’s really going on here?

Let’s say you’ve been charged with launching a fantastic new product–awesome! Instead of rushing out and going full bore on the tactics—Facebook campaign, check! Blogger outreach, check!—stop and think: what is it that I’m really trying to do here? Get people to buy my product (yes of course, but really, no). Or solve somebody’s problem (ding!). 

Another always brilliant soul, Clayton Christensen, uses this language to get at the same thing: “What’s the job to be done [by this new product]?” To quote him directly: “The jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: Why did she do it that way?” 

So does your customer really need another new pair of black sandals? Probably not. But does she want to look really hot and not have to walk with a fake smile plastered on her face because her toes are killing her? Ah, now that’s what’s really going on here. And that’s what’s going to get you to genius.

2. Ask somebody else what’s really going on here

Preferably someone completely unfamiliar with your business or your product, but someone who might use your business or product. Warning: this is not market research!  This is genius idea research. Ask her, “Hey, what job do dressy sandals need to do for you?” If she looks at you like you’re crazy, say, “Okay, what’s the biggest problem you have with dressy sandals?” 

3. Get out of the office already

No matter how packed with creative mojo your office is, it can be really hard to come up with fresh ideas if you spend day after day cooped up in there. Here’s your assignment: get out of there. Grab your notebook and go find a bench somewhere. Sit down. Look up. Watch the world go by. Focus on details. Or even better, find a gallery or museum to wander around for a bit. A bookstore will do in a pinch (maybe a title will spark something?).

4. Take a nap

There have been lots of recent studies that show that a good nap can spark some genius ideas. Get out your iPhone and set the alarm for a max of 30 minutes; sleep much longer and you’ll go into a deeper sleep (and feel groggier getting up). Make sure when you’re done, you head right back into the project that needs the most creative juice.

5. Let it be

Sometimes coming up with a good idea is a lot like chasing down a naughty puppy. The harder you try to grab him, the more elusive he gets. Then as soon as you give up and go sit down in the grass and ignoring him, he’ll come running to you, tail wagging. If you’re trying to wrangle an idea and you keep hitting a brick wall, one idea is to just stop. Leave it alone. Work on something else for a few hours that’s not creative at all (I find sending out invoices is always a nice diversion). If you can leave it for a whole day, even better. 

Would love to hear what works in your studio. Tell us in the comments!