One Simple Way to Cultivate Creativity and Banish Writer’s Block

Do you want to improve your creativity? Start by asking yourself why you write. Here’s how the answer can send your creativity soaring, friends.

Do you write for love or for money? To express your innermost thoughts or to compete with others? Because it makes your heart sing or because others sing your praises?

Maybe you’ve never really thought about what motivates you to write before; maybe the answer is very important to you. What you may not have realised is that the force that drives you to pursue your work, be it writing, crocheting or topiary sculpting, can affect how creative you are. And for a writer, creativity is fundamentally important.

Arthur Schawlow, the winner of the 1981 Nobel prize in physics, said that love and curiosity were motives of the most successful and creative scientists. What motivates you to write? Can you use that answer to boost your imagination and banish its nemesis, Writer’s Block? Can you learn how to nurture your innate sense of creativity? Today’s post takes that first step in doing just that.

Researchers in the field of creativity, such as Teresa Amabile, like to group motivations toward work into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations. Which are you?

Do you write primarily for the sake of writing, because it’s satisfying or interesting or simply because you love it? Then you most likely have an intrinsic motivational orientation. The way I see it, you write for yourself.

Do you write primarily for the sake of a reward, such as money or recognition or to win a competition? Then you most likely have an extrinsic motivational orientation. I see this orientation as writing for others.

Think about what writing really means to you. Don’t feel pressured to go with one orientation or another because of what you think is the best one. Be honest with yourself, because if you aren’t, you’re only cheating yourself out of a way to address a potential problem or amplify a potential asset. Then, once you know your motivational orientation, you can use it to take down one of the biggest demons in the literary world.

Fear and Writer’s Block

The scariest phrase known to novelists: writer’s block. Several factors can stop the flow of words, depending on the individual writer and the situation. One common one is fear—fear that your writing isn’t good enough, fear that it will be judged harshly, or fear that it won’t be as good as your previous works.

As someone who’s felt this way before, I understand how paralysing it can be. Your inner editor shoots down the words that come to mind before they even make it onto the page, curling its lip as it compares your prose with that of your writing heroes. “This isn’t good enough,” that inner critic says. “Who will ever like your writing if you keep coming out with rubbish like this?” And eventually, the words stop coming at all.

Basing your story’s value on how well others receive it or how well it sells—in other words, basing its value on other people’s judgements—is a fast way to stall yourself out. If you write because you want to earn money or gain prestige or compete with others, then the fear of being judged negatively by other people can cripple you. An extrinsic motivational orientation could be the cause of your block.

Getting over writer’s block like this can be especially challenging because it involves changing your mindset. Instead of writing for others, write for yourself. Easy enough to say, but harder to do in practice. Letting go of that fear, locking up that voice of doubt, is one of the biggest difficulties writers face. How can we make it easier?

Write what you want to write first. Think of others second.

This novel is yours. Your time and your effort go into it—why not your heart too? Dedicate yourself to a project, heart and soul, and you will notice how much more you enjoy writing it. Because you’re writing the story you want to write, not just because other people want it, you’re free to try new things, to experiment and revel in the story. That in itself fosters creativity.

Write what you love and your readers will love it too.

Readers can tell if your heart isn’t in a project. Write with passion, because the subject makes your soul sing with joy whenever you think about it, and your readers will sense that. They’ll connect with that passion, with your story, and with you.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

When you do, you make the writing process about them and meeting their (sometimes unrealistic) standards. If writing is something you love, it should be about you.

Give yourself permission to be imperfect.

Don’t let yourself be shackled by the need for every sentence to be award-winning as it hits the page. Do you think your favourite author’s book was perfect when they wrote the first draft? Or did they work at it with love and dedication, transforming it from a rough piece of writing or a polished piece of literature? By giving yourself permission for that first draft to be imperfect, you give yourself the freedom to express yourself and promote creativity.

Fear and Creativity

As you probably gathered, banishing the fear of not being good enough doesn’t just help with writer’s block; it also makes you more creative. In 1985, Teresa Amabile conducted an experiment that demonstrated just this.

Amabile asked 72 creative writers to write two poems. Before they wrote the second poem, one group was given a questionnaire that reminded them of the intrinsic reasons for writing (e.g., because they enjoyed expressing themselves, they found it relaxing, etc.), one group was given a questionnaire that focused on the extrinsic reasons for writing (e.g., because they wanted to impress people, the market for freelance writing was growing, etc.), and one group wasn’t given a questionnaire at all.

What happened while writing the second poem? The writers who had answered questions about their extrinsic reasons for writing were significantly less creative than those who had answered questions about intrinsic reasons. This suggests that merely being reminded of the motivation to write for reasons other than your own sake can make you less creative. Imagine how your creativity might be affected if your only reasons to write were extrinsic!

Interested in the science behind creative thinking? Check out the three-part series on maximising your creativity, starting with Step 1: Expertise.