If you work in advertising as a copywriter or art director, or you aspire to a career as one, a word of caution: You cannot afford writer’s block. (For the purposes of this article, I define “writer’s block” as any impediment to creating an idea. It’s not just for writers.)
In my nearly 30 years in the business, first as a copywriter, then as a creative director, I never experienced this phenomenon. Never. The concept is foreign to me, and I would say to all seasoned creatives.
I’ve heard every form of explanation for how to tap into your creative ether, from voodoo to mysticism to consuming large quantities of illegal drugs. They’re all a cover for something more basic, probably as a hedge against having one’s talent reduced to the formulaic.
Creativity is not about a formula, but it does follow a pattern. It is a journey with specific stops along the way. When you recognize the pattern and know where you are at any given point, you begin to take ownership of the process.
Memorize this information. Make it part of your consciousness. Your brain does this whether you know it or not. Understanding what transpires on a subconscious level will only help you call upon it. If cognition is the act of thinking, metacognition is the act of thinking about your thinking. That is exactly what I want you to do: think about how you think so that you can become a better thinker. That, fellow creatives, is how you can banish writer’s block from your world.
As you read this, you may find that it sounds familiar. It is nothing new. Its author captured this information in a book more than 75 years ago. I made it required reading for my staff at every agency and corporation where I worked for the last 15 years of my career.
I call it the Pathway to Connecting Things In New Ways.
1. Gather Raw Material
Here, at the earliest stage of the creative idea-generating process, is where inexperienced creatives take their first nap. Rather than do the homework necessary to learn about the subject matter, and thus wield powerful tools that will deliver new connections between old elements (the best definition of creativity), they procrastinate and hope for inspiration.
The insatiably curious creative resists this temptation. She becomes the intrepid seeker of knowledge. Her watchword is “curiosity.” Nothing escapes her interest. Boredom is not a word in her vocabulary.
2. Digest the Material
Call this the Jigsaw Puzzle moment. You engage in a kind of touchy-feely relationship with all that you have discovered and uncovered in the Raw Material Gathering stage. Here is where you examine facts and begin to consider new connections. If you skip step 1, step 2 is impossible and you short cut your creative thinking.
3. Unconscious Processing
It’s time to walk away. You have filled your brain to the brim with Raw Material. You have turned this information over in your head countless times, playing with possibilities. Now, it’s time to let your subconscious take over. Clear your head. Take a walk. Cut up an apple and eat it. Watch a Golden Girls re-run. Go to sleep. You’ve done the heavy lifting.
Your hard work is rewarded. As if out of nowhere, an idea appears. It is no magic moment, even if it seems that way.
This is where you must test your idea. Run it by your partner. Your spouse. Your mother, if you’re really brave. If it survives your best BS detectors, the idea may have life.
Do you recognize these five stages? Their author is James Webb Young. His book, still in print today, is A Technique for Producing Ideas. A new copy will cost you about $7 on Amazon. Used is about $3. It’ll take you a couple hours to digest if you’re like me and you read word for word. I’ve given away more copies than I can recall.
Everyone in the creativity business, I’d venture to say, has read it. If you haven’t, get a copy today. (If you have, it may be time to read it again.) You’ll soon begin to recognize the pattern when you’re in its midst.
At which point you can say farewell to writer’s block. Forever.
Howard Ibach is a college English instructor in Los Angeles. For almost 30 years, he was an advertising copywriter and creative director. He leads a half-day workshop on writing inspired creative briefs, and writes about briefs on his blog. He is the author of the critically acclaimed graphic textbook, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief 2nd edition. It is available on Amazon, BN.com and other online retailers. It is now ranked #1 on About.com's "Ten Advertising Books You Absolutely Must Read." Visit www.howardibach.com for more about the Inspired Creative Brief Workshop and how to purchase the book.