Bathtubs, Lightning Bolts, and
The Myth of Writer’s Block

Lightening Ideas

Let me tell you two stories.

For the first, we go back to Syracuse, Sicily, in the third century B.C.

Archimedes, a Greek mathematician, physicist, and inventor, was called before the throne to solve a difficult problem. The king had ordered a pure gold crown from the local goldsmith. But when the crown arrived, the king suspected the goldsmith of keeping some of the gold and replacing it with silver. The king asked Archimedes to help him prove it.

Later, while thinking about the problem, Archimedes went to a bathhouse, undressed, and stepped into a full bathtub, causing some of the water to spill over the side. Suddenly, Archimedes had the answer: he would take the crown and a weight in pure gold equal to the crown and dip each into water. If the overflow was different, the crown wasn’t pure gold and the goldsmith was nabbed.

Archimedes jumped out of the tub and ran through the streets stark naked screaming, “Eureka! Eureka!” meaning “I have found it! I have found it!”

The second story takes place in the United States a few decades ago.

A chemist, J. E. Teeple, was also working on a difficult problem. While thinking about the problem, he stepped into a bathtub, bathed, stepped out of the bathtub, dried himself off with a towel, shaved, then stepped back into the bath, bathed a second time, stepped out, and discovered that his towel was wet. Although quite clean, he still had no clue how to solve the problem he struggled with.

So he simply found another towel, dried, dressed, and got back to work.

The Myth of Creative Lightning (and Writer’s Block)

Because of the Archimedes “Eureka” story and other tales of scientists, thinkers, artists, and writers, we’ve learned to think that creativity is a mysterious, disorganized “AH-HA” experience, where half-crazed geniuses strap steel rods to their skulls waiting for lightening to roar down from the heavens and sizzle into their heads as fully-formed ideas. This kind of creativity does happen, though about as often as actual lightning strikes. When it does, it’s usually for simple problems for which there is a single right answer. Although dramatic, the image is misleading.

In real life, there is seldom a single right solution to any problem. And for most creations of merit, the hard work leading to the creation generally goes unnoticed. The creative myth leads people to waste time waiting for lightning instead of working hard and relentlessly, like our chemist friend, J. E. Teeple.

The creative myth will ultimately cause “writer’s block,” a “slump,” or “creative burnout.” Whatever the term, the result is the same: frustration, stress, missed deadlines, and poor quality work.

A Practical Creative Process

We need to reorient our view of creativity. We need to think “problem solving” rather than “creation.” So, let me suggest a step-by-step, practical process that works for just about any situation, including those times when you need a good idea for a profitable product, a new blog, an advertisement, or any big writing project.

1. Define your problem.

Decide exactly what you want to accomplish. Don’t just say it or think it. Write it down. If you can, sketch out your problem using doodles, graphs, or other visuals to make it easier to understand. Be specific. Without a specific problem, you will never arrive at a specific solution.

2. Gather information.

Don’t be too selective, just scoop up everything in sight. Read, ask questions, explore, and let your curiosity roam free. You won’t use everything. But seemingly useless information can help you understand your task. The key here is to look at everything and focus on nothing. Get the big picture and leave the details for later. Do your research and start a detailed file on the problem.

3. Talk to people.

Don’t go it alone. You need other points of view. Talk to fellow bloggers, customers, friends, clients, product managers, your hairdresser, the guy down the street, your mom. Stop people in the grocery store. Talk to colleagues, experts, librarians. Listen to everyone. Don’t look for justification of your ideas, just ask open-ended questions and let people have their say.

4. Add order to your information.

The next step is to turn your mass of information into something you can deal with. Organize everything you’ve collected. Boil down what you have into the essential elements. Sort and categorize. Don’t toss anything.

5. Brainstorm lots of ideas.

When you have everything in order, begin to brainstorm. See how you can use what you’ve collected. Don’t try to be practical. Don’t evaluate anything. Work as fast as you can. Write down everything. Try to generate as many ideas as possible, even if they seem silly or impractical.

6. Look for something to change.

Take some of your ideas and look for changes you can make. Ask relentless questions. “What about making it bigger? What if it were smaller? What can I substitute? How else can this be arranged? What if this were reversed? What could I combine this with? Is there another way to do this?”

7. Find a ready solution.

In addition to collecting raw data, look at similar creative efforts. Look at blogs and Web sites. Dive into your sample file. Thumb through magazines related to your subject. Ask yourself, “How have I done this before? How have others done it?” Do this after you’ve come up with some of your own ideas, otherwise you could stifle a better way of solving your problem.

8. Forget about your problem for a while.

Tired? You should be. After a while, set everything aside and do something else. Take a walk. Golf. Nap. It’s hard to do when you’re fixated on finding a solution, yet it’s an important part of the process. The break will allow your brain to sift and organize subconsciously. You may get your best ideas when you least expect it – sitting in traffic, in your sleep, even in the bathtub!

9. Evaluate your ideas and keep only the best.

When you’re fresh, go over the ideas you’ve generated. Now is the time to play critic. Give thumbs up or down to each idea. List the pros and cons. Be merciless. Weed out all but the best. If you don’t like anything, or think you can do better, go back to brainstorming for a while. For a time, you might alternate between creating and evaluating.

10. Dissect your ideas to find flaws.

Go beyond mere evaluation. Attack your ideas. Use the scientific method of purposely poking holes in any idea to find weaknesses and inconsistencies. No idea is perfect, but if you find too many flaws, throw it out and move on.

11. Act on the best ideas.

Eventually, and perhaps painfully, you will have to choose a single idea. This can often be the most difficult part of problem solving because you’re afraid you might miss the “big idea.” Your instincts will tell you to keep brainstorming, but listen to your head, not your gut. If you’ve given the creative process a chance, it’s time to act.

In particular, you must avoid losing your objectivity by mulling over the problem too long. Sometimes, too much thinking will cloud your judgment. Creativity can be like a watercolor. Too many brush strokes will only produce a brown, ugly mess. Knowing when to stop creating and start acting is one of your most important skills.

About the Author: Dean Rieck is a leading direct marketing copywriter. For more copywriting and selling tips, sign up for Dean’s FREE direct response newsletter or subscribe to the Direct Creative Blog.

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Comments

  1. Love the advice: especially point no. 11 – ACT ON YOUR BEST IDEAS.

  2. I like the term “creative lightening”!

    I agree there’s seldom one right answer. Sometimes the best insight is about what “not” to do (the anti-patterns).

    There’s a lot we can learn from Disney’s imagineers. Michael Michalko (former imagineer) put together a collection of patterns and practices for creativity in his THINKERTOYS. One cool lesson was that Edison used an idea quota to keep his creativity flowing.

  3. I wish I could remember who said it, but I once heard a writer say that kids playing on the beach do not get “sand castle block.”

  4. This is a good set of practical steps for “creativity.” Many top novelists say they wrote their best works by simply sitting down to write every day — not by waiting for that one moment of inspiration. The same holds true for copywriters like us!

  5. There is definitely something to lightning bolts of creativity and water. So many ideas strike while I’m in the shower!

  6. I confess – I was deleting emails and yours was next but the title got me. I HAD to come see where you were going with it. Great article, for the record, but the title ROCKED!

  7. I’m with Glenda – the shower is definitely the place for being struck with ideas. I even wrote a blog post about the shower phenomenon. But . . . “stop people in the grocery store”? Not so much.

  8. Dean,

    I really like the way you broke down the creative process here, for when you need to step-by-step drag yourself out of a creative block, or when you’ve got a big project that looks insurmountable in front of you.

    Most of the time, though, I think this could be overcomplicating things. Following the example of J.E. Teeple can get you out of most ruts with only one step: Just do what needs doing.

    That’s the lesson I like best here.

    Regards,

    Kelly

  9. Creativity is such a “precious” word – it’s just problem solving with attitude!

    I think writer’s block is either simply a lack of preparation for the project you are working on or just being too demanding on oneself.

  10. I had to come back to add I love Alex’s definitely of creativity: problem solving with attitude! Thanks, Alex.

  11. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “Good is good enough.”

    This comes from the make it happen captain Dan Kennedy.

    He’s a huge fan of speed to market over perfection.

    When writing for the web we can make improvements to our copy we stumble upon after we’ve published our sales letter and it cost us nothing.

    Perfectionist is a term used by chickens. “Too Busy” is another wuss term.

    When we claim to be too busy or a perfectionist we’re prettying up our cowardly behavior. No one likes to admit they’re scared of failing but this is what I’ve found at the core of my clinging to either of these blankies.

    We fear looking bad in the eyes of others and as long as we use these softeners we never put our ass on the line. We never accept the greatness waiting for us.

    I believe fear lies at the bottom of all writers block.

    Re-evaluate the labels you’re giving for not writing and like me you might realize you’ve been wimping out too.

    Once we change the language we use to hypnotize ourselves into unproductive trances we can then correct it and lead ourselves to consciousness.

    One program I’ve found that does this magnificently is by a man named Robert Dilts. It’s called “Conversational Magic.”

    Dilt’s is one of the pioneers of Neuro Linguistic Programing and this is a recorded 3 day seminar he did on the power of our conversations with ourselves and others.

    Anyone who hopes to influence any person including yourself would be blessed by having this program at their finger tips.

    Check it out. It’s amazing chicken soup for the writers soul.

    Note Taking Nerd #2
    http://www.mynotetakingnerd.wordpress.com

  12. Your blog/emails have become the fav read on my work account. Looking forward to more in 2009! Thanks.

  13. Writers block is never easy. The funny thing from what I hear is that you always right more, just you never think its good. Change the scenario, pace, something to just get out, relax and the ideas will naturally come from life itself.

  14. Free writing has always been an effective way for me to get over any kind of writers block. Just sitting down and writing anything and everything that pops into my head, as fast and furious as I can, and when I get stuck I just keep writing the same word over and over again until an new idea hits me. This sort of “brain purge” usually leads to 90% garbage, but it gets me writing and gives me 10% good stuff as well.

    Matt

  15. Every writer should take the steps you are talking about when they are going to write a post.

  16. Very interesting ideas Dean! Thanks for sharing them with us!

  17. I find that when I am tired I get block on everything.

    Then when well rested I start to focus but asking questions of everything from everybody is something to ponder.

    Might have to do a mini question period to get the same hard work answers you eluded to in your post.

    Thanks definitely a post worth reading again!

  18. Free writing is one solution to writer’s block. Just let the words flow without editing or thinking of structure. That usually solves it for me. If necessary, write about a different topic. Something you love then return to the held up topic.

  19. Thank you for taking the time to “act on your best ideas”, they have inspired mine.

  20. Yes, you have to continually recheck your ideas and find flaws. Test all angles and see to it that you have tested all possible tests.

  21. I love step 5 about brainstorming. I have always loved this step. However, many people (in my opinion) are scared of putting everything down on paper for fear that their free-flowing thoughts become permanent. This behavior is detrimental in allowing the most creative ideas to come alive.

    -Melissa
    MyMochaMoney.com

  22. Good tips. I like your analogy and story approach, although the scientific process is a little different from the creative writing process. Keeping an open mind for the flow of ideas, I call it “yeasting” and getting out of my head by reading a lot and writing something, anything, usually works for me.

  23. I find that either people neglect #8 or they neglect #1-7. :) Cycles of working and resting are tremendously helpful in creative work. As you put it, sometimes the answer is just to get dressed and go back to work.

    One addition I might make is that while you absolutely have to prune out ideas in step #9, don’t outright throw them away. Keep them in what I call a “compost pile.” Sometimes there’s an idea that you aren’t ready for today, but that will bear wonderful fruit later.

  24. My pattern for overcoming writers’ block is this: search and research ideas – brainstorm – choose the best idea – start working. Usually, this pattern produces enough writing ideas that I can look over a list of previous, but unused, great ideas and use them for new topics.

  25. “Talk to People” is good for human interaction. I would take that section a step further though: for those of us who are a little less sociable, or have an extensive network of friends on the net, you can get a lot of inspiration from blog commenting.

    That’s all I ‘m going to say on that. Just try it out.

  26. I recently encouraged writers on my blog to ‘abandon their muses’ for some of the reasons you outline here. I believe we should try and approach our writing as a process that sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t.

    There’s no, as I put it in my post, ‘…celestial literary overlord hovering above your brain-box, all dressed up like Big Willy Shakespeare, throwing ideas into your head via your ear holes.”

    Basically, don’t wait for lightning bolts. Just write.

  27. I do really like # 10 as a way to organize and choose which idea is best (#11). I’m also a fan of #3, talking to others. This one is quite interesting though, because if more people at agencies stayed true to this, you’d think that more account management people be included in creative brainstorming sessions. Maybe it depends on the agency?

  28. I keep a list on my Blackberry of every little idea that comes to mind for blogging. Once a week I’ll transfer them to my blog as post titles and then pick 1 or 2 that get my juices flowing and begin to write.

  29. Yes, you have to continually recheck your ideas and find flaws. Test all angles and see to it that you have tested all possible tests.