How to get unstuck on any creative project

Morning. Something was different. The room was the same. A stretch found the usual resistance and release throughout my body. Hmmm. The difference was within; I was…buoyant. Inexplicably so for my night-owl self at that time of day.

Ah, yes, I remember now.

Humming Queen’s “Find Me Somebody to Love” while making the bed; the hum turned into song, which quickly segued into my version of “We Will Rock You”. (My version included gibberish lyrics… “Da-la-da-da big man some day! You got mud on your face, big disgrace, la-di-blah-blah, all over the place, singin’…”).

Bed, done; down the stairs and swinging to the right (“…We will, we will…”) I grabbed my favourite aqua-coloured mug from the cupboard, dropped in some green tea (“…rock you!...”) and began stomp-stomp-clapping as the kettle boiled. 

Ignorance of the words was no barrier to my enjoyment. My out-of-character floor thumping and green tea Zen, at delightful odds.

I looked out to the ocean, still humming. A flywheel of possibility whirring somewhere in my chest. A whip-shot of adrenaline.

It was just a film. 

Yes, but oh. So. Good. Still with me, 4 days later. The music… It still makes me feel like I could fly.

As my tea brewed, I thought of the ways in which a handful of Queen's hit songs have been occasional but powerful backdrops in my life. 

One time (not at band camp, but similar): in 1992, my 14-year-old self became hoarse from barrelling out “We Are The Champions” on the school excursion bus, homeward-bound, into the coastal country night. Even the teachers joined in. We were united as fresh victors at the regional Rock Eisteddfod championships in Coffs Harbour, Australia.

For an anxious teen, the song felt like a precious anthem of inclusion. And for a small school, with zero budget for creating 8-minute rock dance extravaganzas, and 6 months of after-hours rehearsal, winning was a big deal.

We soared that night. 

Back in Sydney 2019, I stared out the window, smiling, mug-in-hand but seeing nothing. 

Re-immersed in the world of Queen’s evolution, I replayed how deftly the movie Bohemian Rhapsody had invoked the wonder-terror of walking onto the stage in a vast stadium, with a crowd set to sing every lyric of every song performed. 

Roaring. Clapping. Swaying.

With unbridled glee.

I want to know what that feels like.

Then, a disastrous thought broke my reverie: Queen could so easily have never been.

Before it all, Freddie Mercury was Zanzibar-born Farrokh Bulsara, studying graphic design in London and writing songs between his shifts as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport.

Farrokh was a fan of the band Smile, and as Bohemian Rhapsody shows it, one night after a Smile gig, he sought them out. Moments before he found a dejected Brian May and Roger Taylor sitting at the back of their van in the carpark, Smile’s lead vocalist and bassist had told his bandmates he was off to join another group. Called Humpy Bong.

“They’re gonna be big!” he said, as he took his guitar walked away. 

Huh! You have no idea…

So Brian and Roger weren't much interested in the stranger who’d found them at that moment, or his mention of writing songs. They told the young man what had just happened, then laughed at his offer to fill their new lead vacancy. 

Until he sang.   

Farrokh backed himself and went for it — in front of people he admired, right after they’d allegedly ridiculed him.

What if he’d walked away that night and lost confidence, or had believed the slurs he encountered daily? 

Equally, what if Brian and Roger hadn’t taken a chance on the plucky guy, or years later, along with their new bass player, John, hadn’t allowed a rift between Freddie and the band to heal?

Think of all we'd lose, how impoverished we’d be, if all the artists we admire had never been relentless enough to make what was in them. 

Imagine your beloved books, plays, art, movies and songs: vanished. 

(In a quirky dark irony, my mind flicked to the riff: da-dum-dum-dum, Another one bites the dust… It’s important note here, too: creative work doesn’t need to be best-selling by any definition, to be treasured.)

So, I silently thanked Farrokh for stepping up and embracing Freddie Mercury; I thanked Queen for enduring. Then walked by the sea and decided to write this to you. 

A letter more than an article, really.

Sometimes we don't create what we yearn to because we don’t know how, or we are afraid — fear buried and apparent in many different ways. Perhaps we are amid difficult times.

But here’s the thing: 

We can never know all the ways in which what we bring to the world will touch others. Or, indeed, how it will shape our self. 

It’s our task to foster our gifts — to give them our time, attention and care — and share them; not to worry about how they’ll be received. 

7 questions to ask yourself when stuck on a creative project (with bonus insight for authors)

These questions may guide you when you’re unsure or overwhelmed about making something important to you — and are categorised to provide the opportunity for reflection from varied standpoints.

  1. What ideas about yourself do you need to release — or embrace — in order to do what you want to do? [Self-image]

  2. Is there a gap between what you want and what you think you deserve? [Self-worth]

  3. Try the thought experiment that removes everything from your life so you’re starting with a blank ‘canvas’: how much do you want this project to be part of your fresh start? [Importance]

  4. What is the real challenge for you here? (Hat tip to Michael Bungay-Stanier for this one.) [Specificity]

  5. Who has already solved the problem — discovered in #4 above — that you could reach out to for resources or advice on how they did it? [Community]

  6. How will you stop yourself from procrastinating or ignoring this problem? [Inertia]

  7. Given your answers to all the questions above, what are the next 2 steps you can take to renew your momentum? [Action]

A book-related note about being stuck

It’s normal to want to hide from your manuscript dozens (okay, hundreds) of times during the writing process. In my experience, the desire to flee walloped me hardest near the end of the final (5th) draft of GO

You see, the closer to finishing, the bigger a writer’s fear usually becomes. 

Steven Pressfield talks about this in The War of Art, but I first heard this concept as discussed by Peter Shallard, The Shrink for Entrepreneurs. Basically: it’s easier to be writing a book, than to have published a book that turns out to be, at worst, ignored.

The ego anticipates this potential calamity, so it stalls. It stalls hard.

You probably already know what this looks like, whatever stage your manuscript is at.

One minute you’re at your desk, next you’ve cleaned the oven, run for a while (even if you’re a walker), re-potted 3 plants, scrubbed the shower, watched a movie, re-organised your filing system, made it to inbox zero, outlined a whole new business idea, and booked an impromptu weekend trip out of town… 

Instead of writing your book. Sound familiar? 

Practise catching yourself in this avoidance behaviour; notice. Look for your own personal tendencies and plan for eroding those habits. Your ego doesn’t get to ‘drive’ — or, more accurately, refuse to do so. Not if you want to finish what you started. 

Fear is an inherent part of the creative process. It’s not something to avoid, but to practise allowing while you’re making.

Keep the 7 questions above handy. Revisit them as often as you need.

If you genuinely just want a break, prime your neck muscles, rally those vocal chords, and turn up the volume on the dextrous wonderland-song that is “Bohemian Rhapsody”. 

If that’s not for you, pick a song that is and kick up your heels.

Then: back to it.

Someone, somewhere is waiting for what you make, in ways neither of you know yet.

Looking for a book coach while you write?

Excellent! First, get my notes from the studio, sent monthly to a community of smart nonfiction readers and aspiring authors making time for what matters. (This is where you’ll be the first to know about coaching places when they become available.)

Also, GO: A memoir of wanderlust and anxiety is available now. As one book lover put it, “Start this book to read the author’s story; finish it to find your own”. Check it out and see where to buy it, here.