By the time you finish this article, you’ll be done with writer’s block forever.
I had writer’s block until I learned about David Sedaris. As a comedian, he can’t afford a creative block. He credits his systematic note-taking strategy is the key to his success. He always carries around a notebook. That way, he can save funny stories he notices or overhears.
As he once wrote:
“Everybody’s got an eye for something. The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall.”
His note-taking system is idiot proof. Instead of depending on his brain to remember important information, he relies on his notebook. He reviews his notebook every morning. He types the best ones into a notebook on his computer, where they can be instantly searched for the rest of his life.
When he’s stuck, Sedaris turns to his diaries. Sometimes, he reads a diary entry to his audience. When he speaks, he listens for feedback. If the audience laughs at the joke, the idea gets a check mark. If there’s a silence, he writes a skull. And when a story gets repeated laughs, he adds it to his comedy routine, where he re-writes the joke until he masters the timing, the framing, and the rhythm that’ll shake the room with boisterous laughter.
Congratulations. You just learned everything you need to know about writer’s block. And now, it’s time to break down those principles.
I recommend three strategies: (1) gather supplies, (2) talk it out, and (3) start with abundance.
For years, I thought most of my writing struggles were innate. Perhaps I wasn’t smart enough. Or maybe I wasn’t born with the writers touch. All the while, I tried to make up for my handicap by spending more time at the computer. Instead of implementing a new strategy, I adopted a masochistic strategy. I locked myself to the keyboard and forced myself to type. The more I wrote, the more I hated writing.
Then, I had an epiphany. I had enough good ideas. But I never saved them.
Sedaris does most of his writing away from the page. Instead of locking himself in a room and jamming at the keyboard like a birthday piñata, he creates the kinds of experiences that spark fresh ideas. Then, when an idea leaps into his mind, he writes it down. Instead of essays, he writes phrases.
Kendrick Lamar does the same thing:
“I have to make notes because a lot of my inspiration comes from meeting people or going outside the country, or going around the corner of my old neighborhood and talking to a five-year-old little boy. And I have to remember these things. I have to write them down and then five or three months later, I have to find that same emotion that I felt when I was inspired by it, so I have to dig deep to see what triggered the idea… It comes back because I have key little words that make me realize the exact emotion which drew the inspiration.”
Kendrick’s strategy is simple. The human mind works by association. The mind looks for trails of thought, and once they find one, good ideas create more good ideas.
World-class writers don’t have their best ideas by staring at the blank page in front of them. The more time Kendrick spends meeting people, traveling, exploring his old neighborhood, or talking to children, the better his music.
A fresh insight is a fragile thing, so Kendrick is a prolific note-taker. Ideas are perishable. His pen preserves what his memory forgets. When an idea isn’t saved, it starts to decay. But once his pen stops dancing across the page in front of him, he returns to the activity before him.
Small actions repeatedly done have transformative long-term benefits. Today, I live my life in pursuit of creative supplies. If I save three ideas per day, I’ll have 1,000 by the end of the year.
Talk It Out
When observation doesn’t work, I find new ideas in conversation.
Like a river in high-spring, conversations always flow in surprising directions. Its casual, call-and-response nature is fuel for fresh ideas. Speaking with smart people is a guaranteed way to unlock creative inspiration, and when the conversation is over, I write new ideas down.
Sometimes, I record my conversations. I use an app called Otter to transcribe them. For example, I record and transcribe every conversation with my friend Nik Sharma. Using only the raw material from those conversations, Nik and I write multiple articles per year. Crucially, we never sit down to write. We originate ideas by laughing about cultural trends and dreaming up bizarre ideas. Once our conversations are over, we read our transcripts, bold the best parts, and use those bolded sections as the foundation for our articles.
My best ideas grow in conversation, not isolation. This system for capturing ideas lets me spend more time with people I love and less time in the agony of isolated creativity.
Even as a writer, my goal is to write as little as possible. I want all my writing to happen away from the screen. The less I write, the better my ideas. Books, conversations, and surprising experiences are the genesis of most great ideas. I want perfect alignment between the activities required to write at a high-level and those required to live a meaningful life. The more time I can spend with friends and family, the better.
Instead of creating ideas in front of the computer, I start my writing as late as possible. My fingers only meet the keyboard when I have an abundance of ideas. Once my brain is buzzing like a third-grader in line for their first upside-down roller coast, I know it’s time to write.
Start with Abundance
Start writing once you have so much information that you can’t not write. Don’t write with a blank page. Start with a treasure trove of facts, ideas, and images instead
I use a “Two Screen Strategy.” Once the left side of the screen, I have a standard blank page. On the right side, I have a library of notes. Whenever I’m stuck and don’t know what to write next, I find instant inspiration on the right side of my screen. With nothing more than a quick scroll, I can spark an insight in seconds. If I’m stuck, I simply don’t have enough ideas on the right side of my screen.
Sebastian Junger once wrote: “If you have writer’s block, you don’t have enough ammunition.”
Don’t waste your time spinning wheels. Arm yourself with ammunition, and writer’s block will disappear like a mirage in the desert. Instead of creating new information, you organize the information you already have. It’s like the visual arts. Instead of creating a painting from scratch, you create a collage with photos from magazines in your living room. And once you’re in the trance of creation, you connect existing ideas and let new ones emerge.
Don’t try to be creative at your computer. Staring at a flashing black cursor against a blank white page will never inspire new ideas. Luckily, the pain of writing will plummet once you stop trying to have your best ideas in front of your screen.
Gather supplies, talk it out, start with abundance, and you’ll make writer’s block a thing of the past.