In January, I entered a profound creative slump. Had I been in a graduate program in which everyone does similar coursework—law or medicine, say—this might have been manageable. But success in my journalism program (and in my fragile field more generally) depends on one’s ability to generate novel insights, ask the questions that no one else is asking, and become a veritable human mill of ideas. Write a profile, an assignment read. Of whom? I thought, panicked. With all the options in the world before me, I could not single out one interesting person to write about.
This was not writer’s block—the writing part, once I squeezed an idea out, came easily. It was instead a problem of stifled thinking. A creative slump like mine can affect anyone in any field that asks you to create something from nothing. In an attempt to beat my creative blues, I read a lot about where good ideas come from; six months later, I can cautiously declare my slump over. Here are a few bits of advice that helped me along the way:
Take the pressure off. Many graduate programs are small, high-pressure environments. It’s easy to feel as if your successes and failures are very much on display. This, combined with the fact that I rely on a steady stream of freelancing income, was causing me no shortage of anxiety. One week I got fed up. On the subway, en route to my internship, I was rehashing story ideas and thinking to myself: I’m tired of feeling like this. I gave myself permission not to think of any story ideas for a week. (I had assignments looming, but none right then.) Immediately a weight lifted; I stumbled across several story ideas and had one of my most productive weeks in graduate school. The story ideas had likely been there all along, but in my desperate searching for them, I had been too frenzied to evaluate them clearly.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, David Burkus emphasizes how taking breaks can lead to insight:
“Eureka moments feel like flashes of insight because they often come out of a period when the mind isn’t focused on the problem, what psychologists call a period of incubation. Incubation is the stage where people briefly step back from their work. Many of the most-productive creative people intentionally set a project aside and take a physical break from their work, believing that this incubation stage is where ideas begin to come together below the threshold of the conscious mind.”
During the week I took off from active story hunting, I realized I had become very risk-averse in my thinking. Idea-generation requires a willingness to follow a path that may lead to nowhere. Taking time to stop thinking of ideas allowed me to turn off the part of my brain that says, “you’re wasting time!” and explore without concern for productivity. Ironically, that made me more productive.
I now try to reserve at least one day a week in which I do not think about journalism at all. One day I walked from the top of Manhattan near the Bronx to the bottom; another day I went hiking; another I went wine-tasting. I do this even if I have deadlines looming—perhaps especially if I have deadlines looming. These other experiences expose me to new sights, sounds, and ideas, which provide fertile ground for creative thinking.
Look outside your area of expertise. Your program and field are tiny niches in a much larger and more diverse world. If you stay within boundaries, you risk impoverishing your thinking. I think farming is a good analogy for this. If you’ve sucked up all the nutrients from the soil where you are, you need to go to some other plot of land on the farm.
Echoing this idea, Jason Zweig recommends in This Book Will Make You Smarter that you read something outside your area of expertise for three hours per week. With this in mind, I began reading more widely, and was surprised to find how relevant the information from supposedly irrelevant fields seemed to my work.
One night, I was working late on an education story. I had spent a lot of time shadowing students in a high school, but the piece felt flat and the angle wasn’t fresh. I wanted to think about something else, so I picked up Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle, which argues that we’ve become alienated from nature in our daily lives. About 10 pages in, it hit me: The reporting I had done in schools had raised important questions about outdoor education. These 10 pages of reading also helped with the profile assignment I mentioned at the beginning of this piece: I landed on a professor who studies our relationship with nature and covered some projects he was working on. I’ve since written several articles on this topic, and it inspired a new angle on my thesis. In the spirit of this, I have decided to take a class outside the journalism institute next semester. (It’s worth noting, though, that NYU will only allow me to do this once.)
Figure out what inspires you. Progressive thinking is dependent on finding sources of inspiration. Recently, I watched Kirby Ferguson’s TED Talk about creativity; he argues that we should embrace the notion that new ideas are just old ideas remixed or reworked. “Our creativity comes from without, not from within,” says Ferguson. “We are not self made. We are dependent on one another.”
This inspired me to think more actively of the kinds of writers and thinkers who nudged my thinking along. Unfortunately, some of the work I was assigned to read for class was not inspiring me, which leads me to my most controversial recommendation: I started deemphasizing my assigned class reading in favor of following my nose. This is a polite way of saying that I stopped doing some of my homework. My professors put a lot of thought into assigned reading, hoping to ignite our thinking, but occasionally, there’s no spark. When this happens, we need to strike out on our own.
Seek out support. During my slump, a classmate and I created a writing support group. We’ve kept it going. We meet once a week and bounce ideas off each other. Some weeks we read and edit each other’s writing; some weeks we meet with other people; some weeks we pool resources by sharing freelancing tips, fellowship opportunities, networks, or story ideas.
The support group often feels like a safer and less rarefied space than the classroom, and it gives us the confidence to explore our ideas more fully. We keep an eye out for articles or reading material that might relate to each other’s work. On days when I feel the slump coming back on, my writing pal has fresh ideas for me and a positive attitude that pulls me back on track.
That could be the single most important lesson about rebounding from a rough patch, creatively speaking: There’s no reason to go it alone!