In her insightful advice columns under the pseudonym Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed (author of the about-to-be-a-blockbuster Wild, in theaters tomorrow) helped her readers through major life changes, career fears, love, marriage, death and divorce. Like your best friend telling you when you’re being ridiculous and need to get your stuff together, Strayed’s advice is kind and warm, but pulls no punches.
She also dispenses guidance infused with personal experience and universal truths. When a woman writes to Dear Sugar complaining about how she “writes like a girl” she gets the side-eye in prose form, complete with this mic-dropping nugget of wisdom:
“Writing is hard for every last one of us—men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
As anyone who’s worked on a creative project knows, trying to make your idea a reality can be painful. Sometimes it’s like trying to get water from a well using a colander—frustrating, impossible and crazy-making. But the most prolific creatives know that you just have to keep on keepin’ on. You plug away at something until it feels finished. Like Michelangelo carving a masterpiece from marble, you just keep going until all that’s left is something you’re proud of.
Writer’s or artist’s block can make you feel like you’ll never put out great work again. Don’t let it get the best of you—get digging again with one of these tips.
Get on the ground
Strayed points out in her answer that humility comes from the Latin words humilis and humus, which mean to be “down low” or “of the ground” (respectively). While she may have found literary Nirvana while on the cool tile floor of her bathroom, her analogy goes deeper than that. To be creative is to be in the trenches, doing the work. On a recent episode of Mad Men, Don is given the grunt-work task of writing taglines for Peggy’s campaign. After procrastinating via vodka for a bit, he saddles up to his typewriter and starts banging away. There, he finds why he got into advertising in the first place.
The lesson? Stop making excuses, stop feeling sorry for yourself and definitely put down the bottle if you’re Don Drapering right now. Your room is clean enough and you have already had PLENTY of coffee—so just get started on your work already! Set a timer for 30 minutes and GO. You’ll be surprised how much just some progress will lead to more (and better!) work.
Walk it out
There is something transcendent about moving around. C.S. Lewis would enjoy a daily walk, Mr. Rogers would swim every morning and countless other great thinkers would exercise as a way to wake up the mind, not to mention get a new perspective.
Some movement and a change of scenery are like dynamite, blowing up those walls keeping you from your best work. Pop in your earbuds and take a stroll around the block or cue up the Daily Burn and sweat for 30 minutes. Getting your blood pumping gets the creative juices flowing.
Many times, creative people get stuck because they’re trying to be someone they’re not. Your voice is the product of your talent, experience and unique perspective, not something to be squashed into someone else’s mold. Use your own viewpoint and your work will start flowing more easily.
Strayed’s blockbuster novel about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail started as a merciless beating of a “second heart” inside of her and was painful for her to write. She pushed through anyway and did the work she was meant to do. Was it like David Foster Wallace? Was it Joan Didion’s voice? Nope. It was her own, and it’s brought with it not only personal satisfaction, but literary acclaim as well. Find your voice and let it shine.