Example Loveday’s Letter

Dancing in the Dark – and the Light

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Hello all.

This winter instalment of Loveday’s Letters is about the B word – feeling Blocked and how to move beyond this dreaded condition. First, I talk a little about Bruce Springsteen (Bear with me! The relevance will become clear…), then afterwards I list some strategies for overcoming blocks, before finishing with some notices related to teaching, editing and mentoring offers. If you’re in a rush today, just skip down to the section ‘8 Top Tips for Dancing Past Creative Blocks’ for some handy tips about overcoming writer’s block / creative blocks.

1. ‘Dancing in the Dark’ as a Metaphor for the Creative Process
2. Searching for a Hit Song
3. Eight Top Tips for Dancing Past Creative Blocks
4. Notices 

1. ‘Dancing in the Dark’ as a Metaphor for the Creative Process

Recently, I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen a fair bit (I know, I know! Sometimes called the thinking person’s Meatloaf. But let’s not knock his songwriting – he’s a tireless gem – an inspiration for any creative person). And in the past couple of weeks, I experienced a revelation.

A writer on social media (I can no longer find out who it was), pointed out that Bruce Springsteen’s most famous hit single of the 1980s, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, is actually about a writer experiencing writer’s block.

This fact startled me – but it’s true. Perhaps I should have paid better attention.

If the opening verse doesn’t actually give it away explicitly –

I get up in the evenin’
And I ain’t got nothin’ to say

I come home in the mornin’
I go to bed feelin’ the same way
I ain’t nothin’ but tired
Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there, baby, I could use just a little help

Then the third verse does indeed spell it out –

I’m dyin’ for some action
I’m sick of sittin’ ’round here tryin’ to write this book

[Note – If you want to enjoy the song again (and check out Bruce’s rather constipated dancing), the video is on Youtube here, although possibly after a dreaded Youtube advert. 

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Dancing in the Dark’

[It’s doubly noteworthy for featuring a very young Courtney Cox, later famous as Monica from Friends, who’s dragged on stage to help Bruce with his dodgy moves at the end of the video – watch from 3 mins 20s].


2. Searching for a Hit Song

Apparently, Bruce had drafted about 80 songs for the album that became his biggest commercial success of the ’80s, Born in the USA. (Let’s just think about that for a moment – 80 songs for a 12-track album. That means a staggering 85% of his creative output didn’t make it onto the album.) When he submitted the final chosen songs to his record label, they complained of a lack of a hit single. Bruce left the meeting deflated. How could he possibly dredge up more creativity than he’d already given to this record? He wrestled with his muse, and eventually came back to the record company with ‘Dancing in the Dark’, one of the songs that cemented his success –

You can’t start a fire
You can’t start a fire without a spark
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancin’ in the dark.

A tired writer (singer) with nothing to say, trying to write a book (a hit album). “This gun’s for hire,” says Bruce, “even if we’re just Dancing the Dark.”

We can hear melancholy and resignation in the words, and yet…

I also think of someone dancing without being seen, without anyone watching, dancing for the sake of it, for the sheer pleasure of dancing itself. Hell, dancing on stage in a global hit video without even being able to dance particularly well.

Wouldn’t it be good if we could harness that spirit of freedom when we are creating? So often we can feel too inhibited or reluctant to produce any creative work at all.

3. Eight Top Tips for Dancing Past Creative Blocks

Here are some of the strategies I have used at different times to overcome feeling creatively “blocked”:

1. Lower your standards for “shitty first drafts” (Ann Lamott’s phrase – see her excellent article here. As a writer, my willingness to confront the blank page is directly proportional to my willingness to write badly and my absolute trust (while I’m writing this unreadable drivel!) that I can, in time, rescue virtually any piece of writing into something that bears reading by me or (occasionally) someone else. Give yourself permission to be a bad writer/painter/dancer/cake-maker, in the first instance. The second, related step then is to develop over time a very strong connection to your practice in terms craft and editing (see 2 below). But giving yourself permission to do it badly is my number one tip for any form of creativity – just play without judgement in the first phase of creating something!

2. In order to make further progress as a creative person, find other writers/artists/creative people with whom you can share your work and get serious about giving each other considered, kind but constructive feedback on your work-in-progress. If you’re a writer, print the pages out, type up thoughtful comments and give each other questions (about craft) to think about. We learn so much about successful creating this way. This tactic (finding trusted pals with whom to share creative work) also helps us feel more connected to a larger community. It’s good for the soul as well as for the creative work itself. Connection to other active/devoted creatives helps us unblock. Sometimes, to get out of a creative trough, we need to talk to other creatives about it. But you need to find the right people – people who are kind and yet want the best for you creatively. That way you’ll develop that essential, strong connection to your practice and feel most supported.

3. Tell yourself you’ll “just do 5 minutes” on a creative project – 5 minutes is better than no minutes. Sometimes creating is like exercising. Some days, we can’t bear the prospect of sweating through a 40-minute session. But a 5-minute walk is better than no walk. And usually, those 5 minutes stretch into something more, once we’ve taken the pressure off ourselves.

4. Give yourself permission to create somewhere else in the project – if you’re stuck on a tricky chapter of your novel, try switching to write a scene much later in the book. If a sequence of still lifes won’t come together, try experimenting for a short while with painting a completely different subject. Sometimes trying to force things too wilfully only compounds the problem. When you encounter real “stuckness”, maybe it’s just specific to a part of the project (or process) you’re working on. So be smart and move forward but in another way.

5. Take a timer, set it to 15 minutes and follow a creative prompt that has nothing to do with any topic you’ve been working on previously. Don’t expect a masterpiece. Just play. For some people, a “deadline” like a 15-minute timer forces out the spark of creativity. This is deliberate practice. Don’t look at what you’ve produced for at least one month. Then treat your work kindly and see if you can salvage some part of it, even if it involves moving that part into a different context. Almost always, something of value can be found. Now you are devoted to creating.

6. Whether or not you’re a writer, try “freewriting” (see Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, and many others who champion this) – write in a stream of consciousness, don’t think, don’t judge, don’t lift the pen from the page, write big, write wild, ignore the margins, just see what surfaces. After 15-20 minutes of freewriting, usually some shift will have taken place – even if it’s just unearthing one a new idea or revelatory sentence. You could even try a daily “first-thing-in-the-morning” habit of freewriting – what Julia Cameron calls “morning pages”. Morning pages can be a powerful tool for “unblocking”. Check out Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

7. “Clustering” – this gem of a writing technique can be transformative for all forms of creativity. In the middle of a blank page (ideally, a completely unlined page), put the name of the creative topic you’d like to focus on. Free-associate words, phrases, sentences, memories and ideas randomly in a cluster (or “word cloud” or “spider’s web”) around the central subject. Make connections between ideas, let your mind move laterally, and (especially!) let strange, incongruous ideas enter in to the mix through more random leaps of association. After 15-20 minutes (or more) you will have a truly rich page full of interlinked ideas and it’s so much easier to get going creatively from there. Clustering is “writing without really writing” – very approachable when you’re feeling blocked.

8. Allow fallow periods. These periods are essential to sustaining a creative life in the long run, and a healthy way to unblock is to give yourself official permission to rest. If you’re dealing with a serious, long-term drought in your creativity, over time you can gently “fill up the well” (Julia Cameron) a little with enriching experiences – films, music, art, nature, walking, leisure (plus rest), and let your enthusiasm and devotion to creativity bubble up again eventually in recovery. Practising kindness to yourself is key. 

So, those are my 8 top tips. I hope at least one of them chimes with you. 

Please do reply with your news of your creative projects and successes – it’s always good to hear from you.

May you all Boogie and Tango in the Dark and the Light,

Michael

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