How to Overcome Creative Blocks and Distractions

Last Updated Mar 7, 2011 5:54 PM EST

You're on your second cup of coffee, but you can't get past the first sentence of your pitch to your boss. Or, perhaps you're struggling to meet deadlines because you're so preoccupied with your son's problems at school.

In a new book called Spark: How Creativity Works, author Julie Burstein-who is a producer of the radio show 360-- reworks the radio show's interviews with leading artists to shed light on how to make creative leaps and accomplishments happen. In a fascinating interview with BNET blogger Laura Vanderkam, Burstein elaborated on how artists get their ideas. In addition to the book's insights about creative inspiration-Spark is also laced with useful tips on how to overcome blocks and distractions, even if you are not a so-called "creative."

Some tips include:

  • Have a warm-up ritual. The hardest part for many can be just getting started. Rather than diving headlong into work, cellist Yo-Yo Ma takes a few minutes each morning to play long, slow notes on his cello he's nicknamed Petunia. Writer Isabel Allende starts a new book every year on the same exact date even if the previous work is unfinished. That routine is her way of ensuring she always starts a new project.
  • Look for ideas in ordinary places. Stuck in a cubicle? There may be something on your desk, or down the hall, that could inspire your next great idea-if you look beyond the surface. Many artists find that even banal materials can be a potent source of inspiration. Sound designer Ben Burtt combined the hum of a projector at his night job with the feedback buzz of a broken microphone in his house to create the sound of the light sabers in the Star Wars films. Artist Richard Serra's steel and rubber sculptures often begin with industrial materials he finds on his travels.
  • Discover the power of two. Partnering can make for big results. The key is to allow yourself to be challenged by your collaborator. Burstein notes that bluegrass icon Alison Krauss and ex-Led Zeppelin star Robert Plant made collaborative gold in their Grammy-winning partnership forRaising Sand. How? They allowed themselves to be challenged by their partners, rather than defending their egos. Plant brought no pride of authorship: "I wanted to work with people who were going to push me, and...challenge my whole capacity to be a really proper singer." Filmmaker Ang Lee and his partner James Schamus reveal a similar ambition to push boundaries- Schamus fearlessly immersed himself in Chinese culture to "create compelling stories" for many Lee films and both filmmakers had the guts to rewrite each other's work while keeping their eyes on the prize at the end-a great film.
  • Use the negativity blocking your creativity. Many people have difficult family relationships-creative artists use painful memories or experiences to propel their work. Actress Patti LuPone, for instance, let go of some unhappiness with her mother through her Broadway performance as Gypsy Rose Lee. Screenwriter and director David Milch dealt with hard memories of his brilliant but violent and abusive father through dark portrayals of characters such as Sipowicz in NYPD Blue and Swearengen in Deadwood -- flawed, foul-mouthed heroes with anger management issues. Are you fretting over your elderly mother or learning disabled child? Perhaps these situations can yield metaphors for a speech-or more compassion for a colleague.
Do you think you could use any of these tips to improve your work? Why, or why not?

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise. Herb has served as editor-in-chief and publisher of McGraw-Hill business, and senior editor at HarperCollins.
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.