How to Get Creatively Unstuck: A Lesson from Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer

How to Get Creatively Unstuck: A Lesson from Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer


I think very often when people refer to being
stuck, or this is certainly my own experience and I’ve talked about it enough with friends,
some of whom are writers, some of whom are other kinds of artists, some of them do other
things with your life, often times when people refer to being stuck they don’t mean like
creatively blocked, they don’t mean that they don’t have any good ideas, they mean that
they don’t have any ideas that they care about; that nothing they’re making feels important
to them. When you don’t care about something you just
don’t do a good job with it. Maybe you can for a while. It’s possible to fake it for a bit or it’s
possible to have incentives to do things like I have a deadline or my boss is going to be
looking over my shoulder if I don’t, but for most of us we do our best work when we care
about it. So when I teach if a student will say something
to me like I really love this but I know it’s not going to be a good book or I actually
have a friend who also teaches who was telling me about an experience he had were a student
came up to him and said, “I wrote all these notes for this book I want to write but I
find that I never write the book, I just really love working on the notes for the book.” And my friend’s advice was, “Well, probably
the notes are your book. If that’s what you love and that’s what you’re
drawn to and you’re imagination wants to go there then just let it go there. The worst that can happen is it’s a book that
will be for nobody but you, but that is actually a much better fate than writing a book that
lots of people like that isn’t for you.” So when something draws my attention, when
something feels important or even just pleasurable to me, I work on it even if it’s off the track,
even if I’m already 60 percent of the way into what I thought was the book I was going
to write if I suddenly find that one of the little voices in it is appealing to me more
than it ought to, this person I thought was a side character suddenly like elbowing into
the middle of the room and just wants to stay there and wants to be the center of attention,
I will make that character the center of attention despite it being a very efficient way to work
because I know that I have become unsuccessful, I’ve become stuck, I’ve become unhappy when
I’m working on something that I know isn’t really what I care about. The most successful students I’ve had, the
ones who have published books are the ones who have actually had to change midway through
long projects. Students who came to class with 300 pages
and we had a discussion not about how those 300 pages could be the best form of themselves
but rather why are you writing these 300 pages? Are these the 300 pages that best express
the thing that makes you a singular writer? You are a writer in this way. Here’s the thing about you that is different
than other people. Here are the things about your experience
or your voice or your imagination your fluency, whatever it is. I think each writer has something that makes
him or her singular and I try to guide of the feedback toward like repeated examinations
of the question what makes you singular not how can I make this sentence as good as it
could possibly be. With the case of these very successful students
we had difficult classes where the answer was maybe it’s not. Maybe there’s something else that will better
express your singular quality. And sometimes those are very, very difficult
classes because it can feel one can get sort of swept up in the what is lost like in the
moment. Like I’ve been working for six months on this,
I’ve been working for nine months on this sort of forgetting that one need only write
one really good book to have an amazing career as a writer. How many writers have written two great books? Not very many. Three great books you’d be hard pressed to
name more than a couple so there’s plenty of time. One disadvantage of a writing program is that
it creates this kind of like pre-professional attitude. Like you go to a writing program so that you
can get an agent, so that you can get a publisher, so you can be a published writer so da, da,
da, da, da, da as if there’s this long string of cause and effects that you want to be on
as quickly as possible. As opposed to like this extremely long process,
which is going to be inefficient and arduous and challenging in any number of ways, but
that the goal at the end is not to make any one piece of writing as good as it can be
but to make yourself the writer who doesn’t stop.

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