Breaking through Creative Roadblocks

pen, paper, writing

“Pen” by Anna Langova

I wish I had a push-button Muse. I could prop her in the corner, over by the vacuum and the cobwebs. I could feed her pennies and collect ideas like gumdrops from her spout.

Instead, I find plot twists in the dishwater, characters in the cemetery, story fabulations in the backseat chit-chat of my kids. These burst of inspiration are unreliable at best. They cannot be bought or bribed or wheedled. I go for days convinced that I will never write a decent paragraph again.

Sometimes, words get stuck like slimy frogs in mud. They will not come clean. They will not come loose. They will not come at all.

The standard cure for writer’s block is hard work and determination. Sit and write. Sit and write. Push through. Be persistent.

I worked that way for years. I know the value of a hard sell.

But persistence doesn’t pay when you’re recovering from a concussion.  My brain needs rest. It won’t be tricked, bullied, cajoled or fooled.

Of course, a creative roadblock doesn’t always take the form of a knock upon the head. Obstacles come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. A family illness. A job loss. Kids going off to college or coming home. A divorce or a new marriage. We all get stuck, derailed.

Whether you express your creativity through writing, teaching, cooking, or playing with your kids, you’ll have days of mud and frogs. You’ll stumble in creative funks. Life will cast up roadblocks. And then, you’ll have some options.

Ultimately, we live the lives we tell ourselves. For years, I saw myself as competent and self-reliant. When that was no longer my tale to tell, I had two choices: find another story, or go silent.

I chose the path of reinvention. I began collecting pathways like pennies in a jar. They are my back-pocket resources, dusted with a bit of lint. They are nothing tidy, but perhaps they’ll come in handy on your days of mud and frogs.

~ Don’t go silent, but do go quiet. Listen. When I couldn’t read for months, I turned to audio books. I immersed myself for days in the lush sentences of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. I let Neil Gaiman‘s stories unbox my imagination. I took a chance on other genres, varied tales. I widened up my scope.

I joined, which you can try for free by visiting their site. They have over 100,000 titles, in a wealth of genres. I also subscribe to podcasts like On Being, This American Life, The Moth, Freakonomics and The New Yorker Fiction. Listening to other voices, I discover new ways to reinvent my own.

~ Go back to the beginning. Children believe in everything. They live inside a world of magic, of wonder, where it is possible for animals to talk and stars to fall. They thrive in fairy tales, where anything can happen. And it usually does. That’s a liberation.

When a roadblock looms, it easy to only see the shadows. Close your eyes, instead. Go back to the beginning, before you were you in solid, adult form. Read a fairytale. Imagine. Kiss the muddy frog.

~ Forget the shape of words. In my months without clear language, I turned to images instead. I watched the snow fall out my window. I traced the outlines of the trees. I fell in love with photographs.

The best of the best of these come from my fable partner, Brenda Gottsabend. Her photographs split the world into new and different angles, reinventing light and shadows. The ordinary becomes something magical, pristine, waiting for rediscovery. Waiting for your eye.

Pinterest is another favorite resource. With millions of images to explore, from history to science to tattoos, Pinterest is a visual feast. Outside the shape of words, I relearn the art of seeing once again. New spaces open up. New ways of being blossom.


There is value in hard work and persistence. Sometimes, it’s good to push on through, headstrong and deliberate.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to let go. Forget your self. Find another story, another vision of the future. There is no push-button Muse, waiting in the corner. But there are powerful voices to discover, beginnings to re-remember, a world outside the script you know. Sometimes, the best place to reinvent ourselves is in forgetfulness and unknowing. Sometimes, there is time and necessity to simply be undone.

What roadblocks have you encountered? How have you found ways around them? For more in the Be Inspired series, click here

20 thoughts on “Breaking through Creative Roadblocks

  1. I know you know I’ve struggled lately to keep it fresh, Lisa. These are great tips. In a way, I’ve latched onto one of them. I went back to the beginning.

    I was so caught up in the language, in getting it right, that I’d fallen out of love with my story and the changes I’d worked hard to outline. I wanted (and still want) my opening to be amazing. But I had to let it go. You’ve heard of KISS, right? (Keep It Simple, Stupid). This week I vowed to TTSS (Tell The Story, Stupid). I started at the beginning, but I quickly moved on, not worrying about the mechanics, but just in telling the story. I’ve had several good days in a row. For the last two days, my muse has awoken me at 4:30am, just to hammer me with story details. I can’t complain about the hour (she’s not a push-button muse, after all). I just have to be grateful.

    Best of all, I’ve learned to love my story and my characters again this week. This is truly a lovely and helpful post. I’m glad you’ve given yourself the space to let it go. I wish you much success in capturing the magic when it appears!

    • Thanks Vaughn — you know I’ve been going through similar struggles with my novel revisions too. I’m going to have to try the TTSS method! Maybe I’ll fall in love with my story once again.

      Though I hope my muse doesn’t wake me up at 4:30. I’m extremely cranky at that hour. (Guess I should take what I can get though, shouldn’t I?)

  2. “the days of mud and frogs”–Lol! Elusive thoughts are squishy little varmints, sliding in six different directions and never the one I root for. You list some wonderful ideas for rejuvenating the soul of our muse–remembering to view the world through a child’s eyes is a value I believe in.

    Lovely writing. 😀

    • Thanks for the lovely comment. I like your description of the “squishy little varmints”. They never go where I want them to either.

  3. Yes, I definitely come from the school of hard work and persistence. I push through – because that is what I do, what I have always done, what I am supposed to do. Even now, in retirement, when the “suppose to’s” are all devices of my own invention. It is good to be reminded to take time to “kiss the muddy frog.”

    And I pinch myself on a regular basis that we are fable partners – that you find something incredible in my images; something that fuels your imagination in unbelievable ways. And am exceedingly grateful for the luck of finding each other, here, in cyberspace.

  4. Mud and frogs – that image will stay with me. I tend to recoil from both. My love of order, cleanliness – in short, perfection – runs counter to that. So I get frustrated and give up when perfection fails me (which is most days) or complain, complain, complain. I think I need to go silent more often. And by that I don’t mean ‘not write’, but listen more to myself, to what is around me, become a less self-centred observer.

    • Oh, how I love order! It drives my family crazy.

      I definitely need to go silent more often. I love what you say about becoming a “less self-centred observer.” A goal I will definitely aim for. Thank you.

  5. I’ve done it both ways, too, Lisa — for my nonfiction writing (especially under deadline) there was no choice but to just push through. It was something I’d never tried with fiction, though, until this past summer. I have to say I was pretty shocked when I could actually “force” hours of writing. That said, there are plenty of days that words cannot be forced, no matter what, and those days I like to read, sometimes for hours on end… and I’ve also started listening to audio books too while I exercise. It’s so great to hear the words in voices other than my own. I also have come to love reading different genres. I love the other ideas you’ve given me too — thank you!

    • Yes, I always, always pushed on through. I wrote through anything — illness, vacations, whatever. Given that, it’s been interesting these last few months to find new ways of fostering creativity. Reading is tops! Thanks, Julia.

  6. As usual, I finish a post here and feel inspiration surging in me, newfound dedication to the creative and to art, and a will to return to the page. Thank you. xox

    • Thank you so much Lindsey — I feel the same way about your blog posts (and they make me try to be a much better mother too. My kids thank you 🙂 )

  7. Lisa

    This post is so poignant given that illness has proved to be a stumbling block for me the past year. First with facial neuralgia and now with a bum knee that requires surgery. I can often be found cursing my muse, angry at her for deserting me but I now realize that it’s ok to have those periods when she’s absent for there is a time for everything. I can’t say I’m always happy about it but I’m trying hard not to berate myself or my muse when the creative button seems stuck on pause. Wishing you love, laughter and good health and all the wonder of childhood fairytales.

    • I’m so sorry to hear that Kathryn. I knew that you were struggling with knee pain, but not about the facial neuralgia. I hope you have your new art room set up soon — maybe the muse will take up residence in a corner. I hope so! And I wish you an equal measure of those lovely blessings.

  8. I love this (no surprise there–I love all your writing. I’d read your grocery list if you put it up *grin*). I haven’t had any roadblocks that I feared would be permanent. I’ve had busy seasons of life in which writing got crowded out, but I knew the stories would be waiting for me to return to them. Moving was one such season. So were my pregnancies.

    Sometimes, though, I get so tired of words, I find an outlet in an activity that doesn’t require them. Doodling. Embroidering. Playing piano. Using my hands for something other than as a conduit for my verbalized thoughts.

    • You are too sweet–and my grocery list is beyond boring.

      I like your phrasing of “busy seasons”. I think I tend to go to the worst case quickly, imagining roadblocks when I could rethink the situation as a change of pace. A busy season. I do need to remember that the stories will still be there — ah, faith. Such a challenge for me.

      I always wanted to learn piano. I tried for a bit when my eldest daughter started lessons, but my practice sessions quickly got crowded out. Now, she’s way, way past me. Perhaps I’ll go back to knitting — there are a host of unfinished projects there.

      As always, Rabia, you’ve given me a ton of great ideas. Thank you. 🙂

  9. Wow, Lisa. You are a true inspiration. Words do not appear to us, the readers, to come with any difficulty as evidenced by your fluid prose, wonderful frog/mud analogies, and lush descriptions. I’m sorry you’ve faced such struggles…

    And how kind of you to impart such a wonderful message in the middle of all of this adversity — that pushing through and persevering AND being still both play their own important roles in the creative person’s life — in ANY person’s life.

    Truly inspiring post, Lisa.

    • Thanks Melissa — it’s often a battle at the desk, so I’m glad the scars don’t always show. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Cheers!

  10. Yes yes yes to everything here. So sorry you’re still feeling the after shocks of the concussion. Love what you said here: “Listening to other voices, I discover new ways to reinvent my own.” I do that too–not listening (for me) but reading words, seeing the sentence structure. Helps me get out of my little ruts.

    • Thanks Nina. There’s nothing better than finding a sentence, a cadence that just stops me in my tracks. I read those again and again, write them down sometimes. Savor them.

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