As a writer and speaker, I am often asked about writer’s block. This question seems to be top-of-mind for new authors–even experienced ones. People are usually surprised to learn that I, along with a great many other successful writers, do not believe in writer’s block.
I have pretty much determined that so called “writer’s block” is nothing more than a failure to respect the true creative process. This is true not only in the writing world, but in the corporate world, as well.
Some years ago, in a role where I was responsible for helping leaders build high-performance teams, I discovered that people in general, no matter what their line of work, often fell short of true creativity on the job, and for a very simple reason: they left out the most important step.
These were teams that couldn’t wait to do a brainstorming session. These were leaders who knew that inventiveness would be amped up once everyone was gathered in a room surrounded with flip chart paper and magic markers…maybe even crayons. Oh, yes…the mere scent of Crayola would stimulate the child-mind where true creativity seems to be stored. It all sounded so promising. And it should have been, but for one problem.
There are generally considered to be a few well-defined steps in the creative process
1. Quickly generate as many ideas as possible
2. No idea is a bad idea
3. Jot down everything…no editing
4. Select the most promising ideas without favoring the familiar
5. Allow time for ideas to incubate
What I noticed over time was that teams were pretty good at the first four. It was energizing. It was a fun morning out with teammates. A welcome break from the office. A free box lunch. Excitement. Enthusiasm.
Afterwards, of course, there was no time to accomplish the critical fifth step, incubate. Incubation is about letting things simmer in the consciousness for a while. You’ve put in a lot of good ingredients, but it just ain’t soup yet. It needs some time.
We’ve all heard of people whose creative idea or solution came to them while they were in the shower or out riding their bike. I find that breaking away from the computer and going into the kitchen to cook something frees my mind to do its task, while I’m busy doing something else.
The great writer John Hersey knew how to honor the creative process. Right in the middle of a novel, he would go fishing so he could do what he called his “back-of-the-head work.”
But in the corporate world, it’s usually all about business. There are timelines and deadlines, fiscal pressures, workloads and the all important performance appraisal. That brainstorming session can be a fun bonding session, but what did it actually accomplish?
When I sat down with Web Schott, Hallmark’s Editorial Director, the day I was hired to join the staff of greeting card writers, I had a very important question that I was actually afraid to ask.
“Let me guess,” Web said. “What do you do if you suddenly can’t come up with any ideas? Is that it?”
“Yes, how did you know?” I was amazed.
“Because we all have those moments,” Web said. He had been writing book reviews for The New York Times for years. “Here’s what you do–you go read a magazine or sharpen pencils or something.”
I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine a boss saying this to an employee. But I was twenty-one; what did I know? Well, what I learned was that it worked. Stepping away and distracting my mind enabled me to come up with a flow of creative ideas.
All those years later, I strongly encouraged my brainstorming teams to do the same. The teams that committed to actually doing it became the highest performers.