It seems there are two types of creativity — conduit creativity and brick-and-mortar creativity.
Conduit creativity is that inspired flourish, the start-to-finish momentum that uses you from lightning strike to polished conclusion. It’s like being possessed by your own muse. Sometimes I am but a humble robot pecking on this keyboard after an entire article appeared to me in full. We all love metaphysical moments when a great piece writes itself. But it’s rare.
Brick-and-mortar creativity requires labor and talent whether you’re inspired or not. It takes dedication, commitment and, above all, consistency. This is the ass-in-chair, HOKBIC uninspired toil of those who are committed to their craft.
My two favorite quotes on sustaining the uninspired work ethic during the daily grind come, not surprisingly, from bestselling authors.
Gillian Flynn said, “I could not have written a novel if I hadn’t been a journalist first, because it taught me that there’s no muse that’s going to come down and bestow upon you the mood to write. You just have to do it. I’m definitely not precious.”¹
Similarly, the prodigious literature factory that is Stephen King famously said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”²
But what do you do during those desolate but inevitable stretches when the muses go mute and no matter how hard you work you can’t seem to hammer anything out? When you are neither conduit nor construction worker nor craftsman?
Step away from the easel. Close your laptop or put away your notebook. When you can’t produce — start consuming. Stop agonizing over the blank canvas or blinking cursor and go in search of color and texture and music and experience.
Anything Sir David Attenborough does is a gift to the senses. Treat yourself to The Blue Planet, Planet Earth or Frozen Planet for some serenely blissful cinematography and a profound homage to the natural world.
But also push yourself to learn about topics outside your wheelhouse. If you’re “just” a writer explore topics from other disciplines — gothic architecture or Tesla’s feud with Einstein or the mathematical applications of the golden ratio. I loved Building the Great Cathedrals and American Experience: Tesla. And I highly recommend The Code, which over-features its host but is inspiring nonetheless. If you’re a painter watch a documentary about sculpture. Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary on little known Polish-American sculptor Szukalski was an unexpected shock worth anyone’s time, regardless of their field.
Go to Museums
Some people think of museums as “just” repositories of old paintings and sculptures. But the staggering talent housed in any museum can strike awe in anyone who beholds the color, the craftsmanship and the texture likely on display at literally any museum near you. If money is an obstacle, check out the website of a museum you’re interested in. Many offer student discounts, free first Fridays or free first Sunday admission. And most galleries are admission-free. Many cities host First Friday Art Walks whose collective energy can inspire you.
There are also cultural museums, museums of natural history, aeronautics, industry, science and industry, local history and modern art.
Travel If You Can. And if you can’t find some gorgeous documentaries about the places you plan on visiting. Notice I said plan on visiting? Not dream about visiting? Intention is a powerful force. There are even more fabulous travel docs on YouTube than there are on Netflix and they can all help you strategize around your next adventure.
Now remember, travel doesn’t automatically make anyone interesting. It does give you the opportunity to explore the interesting things other people have done and the fascinating places you haven’t explored yet. Letting your eyes get punch-drunk on the unknown can only be uninspiring to the grinch-iest among us.
Hike or Walk in Nature
The benefits of getting back to nature are well documented and doctors in Scotland are even prescribing nature for patients suffering from diabetes to mental health issues. The combination of fresh air and physical activity are necessary reprieves from the concrete jungles most of us inhabit.
Talk to your doctor if you have any knee or ankle problems that might require a track or treadmill but if you don’t have any physical limitations that would prevent you from running along the river or paths like the Amazon Running Trail, do it.
Instead of in a studio, most of which are lovely, try doing yoga outside. The waiting lists are long for sessions of goat yoga, (yes, it’s real), all over the US but many classes are available outside.
And if you know your own routine well enough you can always do it yourself in a park, by the river, on the beach or at the top of your favorite summit — whichever outdoor space you have access to.
Read fiction. If you are normally a non-fiction reader maybe you need to suspend your disbelief and give your mind a creative break. If you really want to stretch your imagination try sci-fi or fantasy if you haven’t explored those genres. The key here is doing whatever is outside of your routine and past experience.
Interview Someone You Admire
This can be a loved one with a heroic life or a stranger you must heroically cold call to contact. Be brave! Be willing to graciously thank someone for a No, thank you. And be prepared for the more likely non-response. Don’t take it personally. But if you do get to sit down with someone whose story you’d like to learn about or photograph or write about make sure to buy them coffee (or more). Arrive early with an open mind and an eager heart.
Read Classic Literature You’ve Never Read
Is there a weighty tome from the cannon of Great Literature that you’ve never read? The Iliad? The Odyssey? War and Peace? The Epic of Gilgamesh? Now that you’re an adult with the myriad experiences you’ve had since high school and college you might also find it interesting to revisit classics you loved or were underwhelmed by. Full disclosure: I will likely never reread Catcher in the Rye but I do want to reread Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy.
If that feels too academic spend some consistent time on Duolingo or Rosetta Stone working on learning that foreign language you want to improve. Keep trying. Consistency is everything.
Summarize the Teachings of a Great Writer/Philosopher/Poet
Can you give an elevator pitch on St. Augustine’s teachings? Would you love to be able to explain how Sartre and de Beauvoir’s existentialism influenced each other? Challenge yourself to do an old-fashioned book report on the thinkers you admire. You don’t have to do a dissertation on each of the world’s greatest minds, or even a thesis. But refreshing your research and data synthesis skills can inform your writing as much as the great works themselves.
Type or Write Out Passages from a Favorite Work
This suggestion comes from Writing Excuses. This podcast is no mere weekly dalliance. They are an illustrious band of do-gooders who are also industry experts on world-building, story arcs, character development and guest hosts from all literary genres. One of their many fabulous suggestions for channeling your inner creativity or pushing past writers block is the physical act of typing out great writing that someone else wrote. Delete or keep these documents in a folder somewhere you don’t need. This exercise isn’t for posterity or plagiarism, but rather to form synaptic connections — building a neural roadmap and forging creative pathways between different regions of your brain.
If you’re a praying person but have perhaps fallen out of your own habits maybe it’s time to revisit this most spiritual practice. You can ask for clarity, for grace or you can just listen.
Eckhart von Hochheim was a 13th century Dominican whose reflections are still quoted today. You can likely find inspirational memes of his words all over the gram but my favorite is this:
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.
Go to Church
If you’re a church-goer — or mosque or synagogue or Hindu or Buddhist or Bahá’í temple —whatever your faith, worshipping with those who share that soul-defining conviction can fill your heart with joy and renew your soul with purpose. Revisit the teachings that resonate with your calling.
If you’ve never meditated before guided meditations can be a helpful introduction to the practice. Ask your friends or mentors for practitioners they recommend. I’m very much a beginner and still searching.
Have Coffee or Wine with a Confidant
Talking with your best friend or your mom or your favorite uncle can be just the kind of distraction you need — while it centers and grounds you. The people who love you and know you best can be quiet pools of reflection. And they are also likely your greatest champions. They believe in you even when you don’t. Talk to them about your lack of inspiration. Or talk to them about everything but that, trusting that your creativity will return when the time is right.
Getting outside your own head and giving generously with your time and energy can transform your perspective almost instantly. Volunteering at a food pantry or an animal shelter or whichever mission-driven organization is dedicated to work you believe in can almost automatically hit a reset button in your mind because it opens your heart. Steer clear of poverty porn traps and savior complex indulgences. Remember that the dignity of others will always be more important than swelling your feelings of do-good-ery.
Remember that acts of service require you to be a servant. Give from a place of humility with a desire to be useful. Connecting with others while meeting genuine needs is restorative.
And at the very least it will remind you that a lapse in creativity is not the end of the world.