As writers, we treasure creativity. Whether we write fantasy, non-fiction, or concrete poetry, we are driven by the act of creation that is putting words on a page and gathering them into a cohesive whole.
But creation is difficult: the creative impulse can be finicky or sometimes evasive. We may go through periods when we hit a wall — when the ideas don’t come, when the so-called creative juices aren’t flowing.
Sometimes, the only option is to find the courage and the strength to write on. When things get tough, staying in motion is the only long-term solution to overcoming these difficulties. But in these times, there are also ways you can stimulate creativity and encourage your brain to think outside of the box.
In this article, I hope I can share with you some of the ways that I stimulate my creativity when I get stuck.
Exploring other mediums
If you’re like me, you may feel most comfortable writing in a few specific ways. Based on our interests and perhaps our own reading diets, we specialize in certain forms of writing. I know that for me, as a writer of literary fiction, writing fantasy or romance feels like a huge step, and poetry a whole other world!
But when we step outside of our creative comfort zones, we can feel liberated and refreshed. While it may sound like a frivolous distraction for a nonfiction writer to spend time experimenting with fantasy, I believe that these forays into different creative frameworks can stimulate us and cause us to grow.
Sometimes when I feel at a loss for words, I experiment with poetry. I don’t read a lot of poetry or interact with it very often, so I go into it knowing that I’m not going to become the next Walt Whitman anytime soon. But I would say that’s part of the point – it’s exhilarating to explore a new type of artistic creation, where you’re not so bound by the parameters you’ve unconsciously set for yourself in your daily routine. I think it’s precisely this playful element that can give you the rush necessary to get you back on track.
Exploring other mediums, though, doesn’t always have to mean as a creator – sometimes, it’s consuming new types of creative expression that can cause us to think differently. You can think of this goal of expansion as a stretching with both vertical and horizontal components: vertically, you want to expand what you consume within the medium you’re most comfortable with. Horizontally, we can look towards other types of artistic expression outside of writing.
As writers, we often explore vertically by reading: we try out a new genre, pick up a book a friend recommended to us outside of our typical reading choices. But I am more interested here in the horizontal stretching: how we as writers can gather excitement from other mediums. I am not a huge film buff, but when I take the time to watch something eclectic, like a David Lynch film, I often come away from the experience with new creative energy flowing.
So, the next time you need creative stimulation, try picking out an artsy film to watch, or taking a trip to a nearby art museum. You may find it’s just the spark you need.
Raymond Queneau’s famous Exercises in Style is renowned for its commitment to the same artistic idea expressed in various permutations. Queneau takes the same paragraph, about an experience on a bus, and rewrites it in a myriad of different ways – all in all, 99 times! Each version represents a particular technique or style, such as haiku, exclamation, or even passive speech.
Can you imagine writing an entire novel, just to rewrite it nearly one hundred different times to refine your technical range? It’s clear that this idea has its limits. But as a warm-up or creative etude, I think it offers a lot of possibilities.
I remember a middle school art class where our teacher taught us to do shading exercises. The idea was, if you learned to control your pencil and make increasingly larger distinctions, you could expand your drawing technique. I think something similar can happen here – by reframing a paragraph, writing it according to a different idea, you can extend your artistic capabilities.
To sum up, rewriting a paragraph according to an idea like passive speech or a haiku may not only help you to get out of a creative rut, it may also help you improve your writing craft!
If that doesn’t sound like your thing, rest assured — there are other ways you can take a new approach to your writing. When I was working on the cover for my novel, I hired an artist friend to design it. She asked me to give her an idea of what I was looking for by using some short phrases to create images in her head. It was kind of a bridge between my language-centered brain and her image-focused brain. When I finished the exercise, I felt I understood the essence of my work on a deeper level.
So, if you’re looking for a way to stimulate your work and relocate your creative center, try this exercise – do a brainstorm where you use short, visually imagined phrases to describe your vision. This can also take a form of a mind-map where you use bubbles and lines to connect the ideas. You may find that this kind of exercise will spark new connections in your brain that stimulate your creative energy!
Change your writing method
Sometimes, our feeling of creative blah might be rooted in an uninterrupted routine. While establishing a consistent writing routine is key to progress, it can be fruitful to try different techniques or rethink your process. One way to do that is by changing your writing input method.
Have you ever tried writing through voice dictation? You can read about it in more depth here, but the basic concept is that you take an audio recorder and “write” orally with the words you speak out loud. It may seem strange or unorthodox, or for someone like me perhaps even slightly blasphemous, but it can be a great way to release the words more easily and up your word count.
Writing through voice dictation means to be unbound by wi-fi, untethered to your desk. You can write from the park, write on the go, write just about anywhere! Writing through voice dictation also means to be unbound by hesitation: without the opportunities for doubting and deleting that typing implies, you can write with fewer inhibitions. Perhaps it’s just this sort of inhibition that will mean a breakthrough in your creativity.
If writing through voice dictation seems like a step too far into the future, you can also think of stepping into the past – when’s the last time you wrote by hand? There are in fact a lot of benefits to writing by hand, not least that of increasing your creativity!
You may be hesitant to write an entire novel by hand, and I don’t blame you. But experts say that, when you write by hand, your brain is much more active than when you type. If you’re looking for something new to try, take some time to write by hand – a page or two may just be exactly what you need.
Write in another language
As a language lover, I was fascinated when I first read Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. Lahiri, born speaking English and Bangla, began to learn Italian as an adult on a whim. The language consumed her, it took control of her — so much so that she decided she wanted to write in the language. Her language learning took her down a path of developing a new writing identity and even earning a name in the Italian literary world. How cool is that?
She notes in In Other Words that some writers looked down on her project: they doubted the value of writing in a language you don’t dominate like your mother tongue. Lahiri, however, saw her learner’s Italian not as an impediment, but rather as a boost to her creativity. Because she was limited in her expression, her writing became more sparse, more raw: she could no longer hide behind flowery expressions that masked her more base feelings. She has since published a novel in the language, Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts), the English version of which she translated herself; it has since received positive praise for its “stylish and therapeutic release.”
I have recently begun my own project in this vein. When I decided to write a short story about my time in Spain, I did not immediately decide that I would write it in Spanish. Interestingly enough, it so happened to be in a writing by hand exercise that I took a shot at writing in the language of Cervantes. And when I did, my writing changed – the One Hundred Years of Solitude that I had recently reread in its original language inhabited my words and caused my style to transform. And that’s when I knew that this was a project I wanted to undertake, as a way to expand my writing world.
The obvious disadvantage to this approach is that it is not an option for everyone. In any case, if you have knowledge of another language, whether fluent or just conversational, it’s something to consider. No matter what level you have, you may find that the expressive limits the language puts on you ignites a new vigor in your writing.
I hope at least one of these techniques can be helpful for you in finding ways to put a kick in your writing routine. If you have any other suggestions on ways to stimulate creativity, leave a comment and let us know!
“Matthew Anderson is a writer originally from Dover, Delaware. He is an alumnus of the Fulbright program, where he taught English to elementary school students in Taiwan. An avid language learner with more than five languages under his belt, he is a contributor to the famous language learning blog Fluent in Three Months. His creative work has been featured in the Eunoia Review, Otoliths, and CafeLit. His debut novel, Love in Doom and Secession, is available here: shorturl.at/dlHTY. He currently lives in Taichung, Taiwan, where he plans to study a master’s degree in Chinese literature.”