Beating blocks with creative strategies

Think:Act Magazine “Art and Business”
Beating blocks with creative strategies

Portrait of Think:Act Magazine

Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
February 21, 2023

How to clear hurdles in the creative process and enhance decision making


by Chris Wiegand
Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan

Read more on the topic “Art and business”

Turning an idea into a fine-tuned vision is at the core of each successful endeavor – yet encountering a few hurdles along the way is often an inevitable part of that process. Here leading creative practitioners share their strategies for moving past those bumps and getting back to the matter at hand.

Who has time these days to sit back and wait for the muse to strike? Among those who make a living in the arts, it's not many. Moments of frustration, disillusionment, confusion and downright despair are an unavoidable part of the creative process and everyone has discovered their own hard-won solutions for overcoming them. A comedian, a choreographer and a composer – plus a short-story writer, a playwright and a director – share their personal tips here on how to beat those creative blocks. From finding a fresh new perspective and favoring flexibility to shrugging off the fear of failure, embracing your inner improviser and listening to all the voices in your head, they offer some learning points if you are stuck in a jam. So ask yourself "what if?," stay playful and prepare to embrace the pause with these expert tips.

An illustration of comedian and actor Pippa Evans.
Pippa Evans, comedian, star of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical and author of Improv Your Life.

PIPPA EVANS: Improv is about working with what is available to you in the moment. Improvisers use the principle "yes, and" which means: I agree with what you've offered me and now I'm adding to it. First, make sure you have agreed on what you're all trying to achieve. Then establish a "yes, and" environment for half an hour when no idea is stupid. You are creating a space where people don't feel failure. You need to let ideas breathe before you cut any down. It's easy to instantly dismiss something but however ridiculous an idea might appear, it may grow useful. Never be afraid of being obvious – what seems obvious to you, may not be to someone else.

For Showstopper!, where we improvise a musical each night, we say "if in doubt, move." If you have a blank on stage, physically changing your position will allow you to respond because our bodies are connected to thoughts and emotions. In a meeting, ask everyone to move around the room. Working at home? Get up and do a little dance in the kitchen. If there's someone with more experience or authority in the room, like your boss, that's great and useful but it can stop new voices coming forward.

Improv is truly collaborative and overrides any power dynamic. At the Comedy Store Players, where I perform as a guest, we remind ourselves it's not a competition – I'm not allowing their greatness to intimidate me and they're not allowing my newness to unsettle them. Levity is always helpful but be mindful of making jokes about individuals' contributions. The best levity acknowledges difficulties we're all facing. Stress will never solve the problem.

For those who work alone, remember you yourself are many people – you can play "yes, and" on your own. We all have different voices in our heads – why not utilize them? But you may well want to find a private space rather than do it in the office …

An illustration of author Deesha Philyaw.
Deesha Philyaw, writer and debut author of the short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.

DEESHA PHILYAW: I started writing a novel in 2007 and have yet to finish it. I lost interest in the book as I had outlined it, but kept trying to force it. A "block" suggests something we have to push through, but it's better to interrogate what is causing us to pause. I realized I had written a character frozen in time. My interests and skills as a writer had changed.

Pauses – as I prefer to call blocks – are an integral part of the process. Things need time to marinate. Give yourself a lot of lead time for a project. Ask "what if?" to experiment with possibilities. Embrace revision. When I started writing, I would try to perfect that first chapter. You'll write that first chapter for years if you do. First drafts are rarely if ever brilliant in their entirety, but get it all down start to finish if you can. For one of the stories in my collection I wrote a 15-page draft and, when I came back to it, only used two of those paragraphs but I don't consider that time wasted. They became the foundation for another story.

I was a stay-at-home mom before becoming a writer. Taking care of kids teaches you a lot about having grace for yourself and others. Children will wreck your plans for the day – build in some flexibility and don't beat yourself up if you don't accomplish everything that you planned.

An illustration of choreographer and artistic director Hofesh Shechter.
Hofesh Shechter, choreographer and artistic director of his eponymous dance company.

HOFESH SHECHTER: Creating is never a smooth process. When I feel stuck or frustrated, that becomes the subject of what I'm making – like my show In Your Rooms, in which a creator tries to understand what they're doing. I bring a light energy to the studio – playfulness keeps people positive and effective. If you're too serious, there is the feeling that you're trying to do something correctly. Through foolishness, you discover interesting things.

Making work is like solving one big problem. Your subconscious keeps trying to make sense of it and knows when the work has to be presented and I believe things will arrive in the right place at the right moment. That is perhaps the only ingredient really necessary for creation: belief that it will happen.

Oblique Strategies: Think quick on the draw

Stuck? Why not pick a card? Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt have made a case for the power of unexpected interventions since the mid-'70s.

In Slacker, the 1990 cult film by Richard Linklater, a woman presents a pack of cards to a passerby in Austin, Texas. He takes one and reads it quizzically: "Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy." This wry aphorism is one of the Oblique Strategies created by musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt – a deck of cards that has fueled creative thinking for almost half a century. Eno and Schmidt were friends who discovered they had independently compiled lists of simple instructions and suggestions to aid the creative process. In the mid-'70s, they teamed up to create a set of more than 100 "worthwhile dilemmas" for others to use. "If you're in a pressure situation, especially in a recording studio where the clock is ticking and it's all very expensive, you tend to get a little bit desperate and lost in the details," Eno explained in a BBC interview. "To be able to step out of the situation and look at it in a bigger way is hard to do."

Originally the strategies were laid out as a list, but Eno decided that plucking a card from the pack provided a more useful, unexpected and often tangential prompt for a new direction. Examples include "Work at a different speed" and "Try faking it." Eno used the cards when recording songs for the album Another Green World. They have since been revised and released in several different editions. The cards can be used separately or, as the woman in Slacker suggests, you can draw a second one to "buffer your last thought – or think about something new."

Five oblique strategies

Look at the order in which you do things


Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Use fewer notes


Remember those quiet evenings


Reverse the tape

An illustration of composer and lyricist David Yazbek.
David Yazbek, composer and lyricist whose stage musicals include The Band's Visit.

DAVID YAZBEK: When people complain of writer's block, it's as if they're constipated. But creative energy doesn't come from within the individual – the entire universe is creative energy, that's what keeps it moving. The question is what is standing in the way to keep that flowing through you. I meditate which is a good way of clearing the decks. Like everyone else, I've done a lot of work over Zoom in the last years. But being in the same room together is much more productive, especially if you like the other person and laugh a lot. There are vibes and all kinds of nonverbal mini-signals, probably even pheromones being exchanged. The quality of other artworks can spark you to do really good quality work. When we were in rehearsal for The Band's Visit there was a Mark Rothko exhibit nearby. Every morning I'd go there and almost have a spiritual experience – then in rehearsals I'd try to tap into whatever that source was.

An illustration of screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne.
Jack Thorne, screenwriter and playwright of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

JACK THORNE: I get very frustrated being a writer but I've never just stopped. It is psychologically cyclical: There is a time when you're happier and a time when you're angrier. Thirteen days out of 14, I leave my desk and am cross with myself. The best writers' rooms for TV have a wide array of people with different skill sets, all challenging the show in different ways. When they work less well is when it's quiet and everyone's very worried and anxious.

Sometimes I have two or three projects on the go in different stages of development. If a TV show is shooting, you might deal with the fact that a four-page scene needs to be cut to two pages. That might happen while I'm writing a play. When I was doing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was also writing a TV show called National Treasure about historic sex crimes. They complemented each other in a weird way because they were so different. Generally I'm doing an eclectic mix of projects and that helps me. When I've had a bad day on one, the ability to swap to another and feel like my palette is cleansed – and that I'm perhaps not as much a failure as I think I am! – is very nice.

An illustration of theater and opera director Katie Mitchell.
Katie Mitchell, theater and opera director.

KATIE MITCHELL: As a director, I'm a secondary artist. Primary artists start with a blank page; I can always hide behind the work of the primary artist that I'm directing. Any blocks will be related to a failure to interpret someone else's material. To safeguard against blockage, I have lots of systems and structures in place. I always apply a rigorous analysis of the original material. Imagine the play as the engine of a car: I take it all apart, look at every component and put it back in. Examining the play is a mechanical task – one of those little components of the material could yield the interpretative concept. You could say the analysis is like welding because all these sparks, which are by-products of the process, come off. A weird spark may come up like "everything should be yellow." I visualize the staging for the whole piece through that idea which requires a lot of drawing, maps and diagrams.

I'm very curious about things. That keeps me going. Blockages can come because feelings – fear, for example – get attached. Marguerite Yourcenar's book Memoirs of Hadrian is a life-changer – one of her observations is that whenever there is a tangle or problem or difficulty, you ask yourself: "What is the advantage of that?"

About the author
Portrait of Chris Wiegand
Chris Wiegand
Chris Wiegand is the stage editor of The Guardian newspaper, responsible for theater, comedy and dance coverage. He has worked for The Guardian since 2007 and also written extensively on cinema. 
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Munich Office, Central Europe