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Crisis in the Creative Industry: Working Through a Creative Block

Crisis in the Creative Industry: Working Through a Creative Block

Hi. 

You probably don’t know me. 

I don’t like to talk about myself a lot, but I’ll talk about myself now since it’s the key of this series (thanks, past me. I’ll remember this). 

My name is Elise. I edit most of the articles on the blog. I have two cats, a fiancée, a husky dog, a long list of things I love, an even longer list of things I hate, and a list of things that I want to write about. 

My Whatsapp chat is mostly filled with memes. 

I like harassing my bosses with terrible jokes. 

I always have one eye out for the latest longform, and the weirder and more esoteric the topic, the more I’ll enjoy it. I keep an even closer look at the current research, at what other companies are doing, at what’s going on on the internet, and at anything that will make a good story. 

I like writing about sound. 

I love my job. 

I did some of my best work during lockdown. 

And for the greatest part of the pandemic, I’ve barely been treading water. 

The Great Mental (Creative) Health Crisis

My job is solitary. 

I can pick up and carry my laptop anywhere; write at the edge of the beach, in my car, in a cafe, parked in an air-conditioned parking lot. Words are easy to me because they’re malleable, like clay or molten metal or sand just before it turns into glass. You can make anything out of a handful of words, and there are so many to choose from that you can never really stop making things. 

Whole campaigns and brands are built on tiny words. Resilience. Perseverance. Beauty. Zen. Halcyon. 

It isn’t a conscious thing. I can tell you why I chose a certain word, but you won’t like the answer because the reason might only make sense to me. I can also tell you why I didn’t choose a certain word, and it’ll mostly be based on ‘because the sound isn’t right’. My world is built on chords and symphonies and the noise that people make. 

When the office went online, that sound intensified. I could open up any word document, and write as much as I wanted in a single day, and it was never enough. There was always music to catch and pin down, always another chord I needed to capture, always something more. 

I was – and am – proud of that work. 

And then it stopped. 

I haven’t written a single word that I’ve personally liked since. 

Creative Industry, Creative People

The problem with any creative industry is that you can’t really stop creating. 

Shit still needs to get done. 

And you’re the one who needs to do it. 

There’s a myth that creative people will never stop being creative; that it’s something hard-coded into their DNA, like the way their voice curls on a certain letter, or the colour of their hair, or if they’re more predisposed to sensitivity to lactose, if they like cats more or dogs more. 

The truth is that creativity is really just another skill-set. It’s something you hone. It’s as much instinct as it is understanding. 

And it can drain away. 

Making things on demand – and even in the gentlest company, as a creative, you are always making things; always looking for your next idea; always wanting to improve on the last one – nibbles away at you. 

That’s one good thing about the regular 9-to-5 office life: it’s harder for that creative demand to eat you alive and leave behind nothing but bones. 

Working Hard(ly)

Picture winter. 

Dim, long days are my personal favourite; that feeling of being trapped in perpetual twilight, gauzy, hazy light coming in through the blinds, helps me focus. Writing is easier when the hours unspool without a deadline, and dark days make those hours seem like treacle. No beginning or end, only a constant, dripping middle. 

It’s 9AM. I check my work tasks. I open up the documents I need. I research. 

I don’t write. 

It’s 1PM. Lunch has happened. I look at the document I have opened. I tap out a few words, tentative, feeling them out in my mind. 

They don’t look right. 

I delete them. 

I go back to looking at other interesting articles, moving my tasks around. A colleague asks me to edit a caption; it’s five minutes of work, and it goes by too quickly. Those words, written by someone else, needing only a tweak or a comma or a ‘did-you-mean-this-would-you-like-that’, aren’t difficult, and I crave not-difficult. 

Another colleague sends me a task that needs to be finished by the end of the day. It’s a blog – short, only five hundred words, barely 15 minutes of effort on a good day. I know it’s short notice, she says, but can you write it?

Of course, the answer is always yes. 

Pushing through

This is going to be an unpopular opinion, and I’m sorry about that, but writing has nothing to do with whether or not you’re inspired. Writer’s block, creative block, can’t-do-anything-I-like block: it doesn’t mean anything in a creative industry. 

Like I’ve said before: stuff needs to get done. 

And if the dividing line between stuff getting done and stuff not getting done is waiting for inspiration, that line needs to be taken out of the way you think about writing. 

Writing doesn’t ever get easier. It doesn’t start happening faster because you put in one hour of writing a day, two hours of writing a day, three hours of writing a day. You’re going to spout perfect copy one day, the next day you’re going to barely be able to string together a sentence, and the day after that you’ll write the next Maltese novel. 

What makes those days different? 

Who knows. 

Writing just is

Good or bad, finished or unfinished, it happens or it doesn’t. 

And that depends on you. 

When you’re a writer in a creative industry, and writing has to happen, whether you feel like it or not, you have to make it happen. 

Make writing write itself

I know this sounds harsh. 

I know it’s hard to take in, the idea that a creative field can be so patently uncreative, the thought that you can basically just force yourself to make. 

The truth is, thinking about writing in terms of creativity is helpful to no-one, and sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike does nothing except make your time-frame to finish something even smaller. 

Trust me. 

I’ve tried that, too. 

What always helps me is thinking about writing as just something else that has to happen. 

You have to think about it as a task, the same as getting up in the morning. It has to become part of your routine: coffee, meeting, write 500 headlines for a new product, write 2000 words for a blog idea, look at the latest movie, write the blurb for a book you’re excited about. 

Is this going to help you with your task that you desperately need to finish immediately?

Not straight away, but yes. 

When you make writing a normal part of routine, switching the words on and off again becomes easier. When that becomes easier, your writing becomes better. When your writing is better, you’ll find it easier to write even when you don’t have anything to say. 

Will you get creative blocks still? 

Absolutely. 

But they won’t matter as much because you’ll work on autopilot, dig in down to the reserves of what you already know, and make words happen. 

The rest is editing. 

How to write like a machine

It’s not as bad as it sounds. Or as dire.

But if you absolutely have to write something – anything – before a deadline, and you’ve run out of creativity, this can help. 

  1. Revisit your brief, your topic, your client. Read their website until you can recite it backwards, in a different language. Make sure you know every inch of every product they have. Find competitors. Figure out their industry. See what language other blogs use to talk about that industry. 
  2. Start small. How would you explain this to someone who doesn’t know about this product? How would you sell this brand? How would people sell it to you?
  3. Write headlines. Make them stupid. Make them long. Make them useful. 
  4. Keep a list of words that work for you. 
  5. Have sentences you can turn to when you’re stuck, irrespective of industry. 
  6. Read what you write out loud. Find out where the gaps are: content, language, sound?
  7. Copy the fuck out of the best ads. Break taglines. Swap words around. Make it sound like a different industry. Make it sound like your industry. Make it work. Make it fail. Make it yours. 

You are a writer. Your job, like it or not, is words. If those words don’t work for you, you have to find words that do. 

You have to make them work. 

Everything else is irrelevant.