Turning a creative block into your 'dry' sponge' era

6 minute read
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At first glance, the process of creating seems pretty straightforward: sitting down, organising ideas, drafting, iterating, critiquing, reiterating, and hitting publish.

But on some days, it may start with sitting down, then takes off in an entirely different direction: eating cereal out of the box, rearranging folders, scrubbing your desk to get an annoying spot out, et cetera. The process of creation becomes avoiding creation at all costs.

When this happens on occasion, it feels manageable. Just a bad day, probably because of the weather, or the neighbour’s loud music, or the attention-seeking cat.

But when this happens for days on end — and it can — the feeling of existential dread kicks in. Why can’t I produce anything good? Why are there more words in my trash than in my first draft? Does this mean there’s nothing creative left in me? Wait, how does one create again?

Drawing from an excellent WIP essay by my colleague Dhruv, we forget that work doesn’t always mean sitting down to create — it’s also about what comes before it.

But we tend to be terrified of periods of non-creation. It goes against the expectation of being productive and busy all the time. We see the act of creating as work and, by contrast, categorise everything else as “lazy”, “procrastinating”, or “dawdling”.

During a creative block, slump, funk, or however else you dress it up, you might feel like a dry sponge: there’s nothing left to squeeze out. But if you don’t put anything in, how can anything come out?

Being a dry sponge means being open to absorbing new information, sights, and experiences.

To paraphrase ‘Frankenstein’ author Mary Shelley, innovation comes not from a void, but from chaos. Ideas don’t appear out of thin air — they appear after you collect input from every domain that sparks your curiosity, then let them mingle until you have a whole legion of ‘idea babies’.

When you use a creative block as an opportunity to go from nothing to something, your creative stage becomes going from something to something better.

How to embrace your ‘dry sponge’ era

When we break away from thinking of “creative blocks” as taboo, problems, or big no-nos, we see the more hopeful meaning hiding behind it: the chance to replenish our toolkit and improve our creative process. And to take advantage, you need to embrace your ‘dry sponge’ era.

Embracing your ‘dry sponge’ era means doing the work. After all, waiting for inspiration to strike is a romantic notion, not a practical one. It’s like leaving the sponge lying on the counter, hoping it’ll soak up some material and squeeze itself. You have to do the work: the seeking, the absorbing, the extracting.

Seek inspiration

History is full of examples of people borrowing ideas from entirely different industries to make something mind-blowingly new. Nintendo’s Game Boy was inspired by a man on the train playing with an LCD calculator. Henry Ford designed the assembly line by studying the watch and canning industries.

Now, I’m no Henry Ford. I have approximately zero TED talks to my name. But after listening to Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 4 a bunch of times, I borrowed his idea of dramatic pauses and tempo to make my essay readers feel like they were at the mercy of the tide of my story.

I’m one of those who believe that inspiration can be found anywhere, as long as you have a natural curiosity and an open mind. It’s also a rolling process, so feel free to keep hunting for inspiration even after you’ve crossed the creative block stage.

🔜 Coming soon on Looking Glass: Where can we source inspiration from?

Sponge

Absorb freely

This is when you actively begin to take information in and organise them, so they compound in your mind. I try not to approach absorption from the perspective of, “I only need to take in what will help my next article/ podcast/ design”.

Doing this while researching a particular project is fine. Doing this during a creative block is often more pressurising because you actively search for something that will click and despair if you don’t find it.

In my case, I run out of motivation quickly and produce staler works than if I were absorbing everything I watched or read. I also feel frustrated and fall into thought patterns like, “look how good they write. Why can’t I write like this?”

The trick here is to find stuff that you’re interested in consuming out of curiosity. During one creative block, you might like to know how gears actually work. It may not feed directly into your next project, but in time, you’ll find different uses for it. You might start to see gears as a metaphor for life. You might use them as an analogy in an essay. You might use the way gears of different sizes work together to redefine how your multi-talented team can function.

When you give yourself a giant playground, you'll get better, compounding returns.

Extract value

Once you’ve taken in everything you possibly could, you do two things: think about what struck you, then leave these insights to ferment.

Open up a page in your notebook or notes app, and write without overthinking. Meditate on why a particular piece of information struck you as inspirational and what caught your eye. Your notes can be as simple as this one I wrote a while ago:

“Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea: Love the use of lyrical sentence structures and hyperreal analogies. Especially liked ‘...it tastes older than stories. It tastes like myth’. Even though you can’t taste a story or a myth, I know exactly what she means when I read it.”

From here, I might think about: Why did that particular sentence stick out to me? What does it mean to say things without actually saying them? Are there other non-writers, like scientists or illustrators, who have created similar illusions?

The flow of creation (borrowed from here) looks somewhat like this:

Inspo action motiv

Questions like the ones above, and the answers to them, are fodder and motivation for the post-dry sponge era. They’re what light that creative spark in your mind, which you then stoke and tend to until it becomes a massive bonfire crackling merrily away.

Here, too, you don’t want to put pressure on yourself. It’s perfectly alright to step away from ideas just like you would from a puzzle that you can’t figure out. As you go about your day, the ideas are still turning cartwheels and interacting with each other in your head. And then when you come back to your notes, you’ll spy patterns and matching colours that you hadn’t seen before.

Going from thinking of the creative block as a full stop to a pause is liberating because it frees you of any delusions that you can create great work 100% of the time. No one can do that — no, not even the singer you’re listening to right now. Behind the bestselling books and Grammy awards are millions of first drafts, hundreds of random walks, and thousands of hours spent staring into space or curled up in bed with someone else’s book.

So, this is your sign to embrace your ‘dry sponge’ era. To reframe the creative block as a fallow period, take away its scary power and turn it into something valuable. To turn your response to it from “oh, no” to “oh, hi”.

Think about it: A series of days where all the work you have to do is read voraciously, listen to podcasts, browse on are.na, and write short notes to yourself? Sounds like a dream — and we can let ourselves have it.

Illustration by designstripe