Taking a break from committing suicide with food, Mike Pfeiffer will absolutely answer your questions on anything you put in the digital mailbag of firstname.lastname@example.org. Regardless of whether or not you think Mike is a mature adult, this column is probably best for Mature Adults. As a Mature Adult, you accept responsibility for any actions you take after reading this column. Just Dandy is intended for entertainment purposes only, and we’re sort of required to warn you not to try any of this at home.
So I got a message that just read:
Even other Deadshirtists are troubled by related feelings of an existential lack of traction:
@ModDelusion, What’s your trick for getting around writer’s block? #JustDandyDS
— David Lebo (@leboism) February 25, 2014
And then as I read the “last modified” dates on a bunch of half-finished screenplays on my computer as if they were tombstones (Here lies Highway Stars, unfinished but not un-unforgotten) I realized there must be something in the air. Let it be known that I’ve been asked a couple times lately if I write questions to myself for this column and I hope this proves that I don’t, because solving existential boredom ain’t exactly a softball that you’d throw yourself to try and look smart. No, if I had a foolproof fix for the pillow-wrapped-around-your-head-who-gives-a-shit-it’s-all-been-done feeling that softly smothers us all into unfulfilling compromises in our lives then I don’t think I’d give it away for free.
Ennui and Writer’s Block live in that same grey neighborhood where you look at everything around you and wonder why you should give a fuck. They’re tough spots to think yourself out of, I’m a graduate of the DeFries school of faking it until you make it (as evidenced by how my hair looks in pictures vs. if you’ve seen the back of my head in person) and often that just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes the problem is downright chemical; boredom proneness is measured on actual psychological scales and gets linked with depression and attention deficit problems, and if it’s really that bad then involve someone with a degree that he didn’t print at the library and misspell his own name on. If there’s a Michael Pepper reading this, I have a prescription pad you can have.
But it’s not that bad yet so you’ve stepped into my office/masturbatorium and I have some ideas that will be hard to turn into arrestable offenses. There’s two basic steps here:
- Decide if you’re happier bored or taking a risk.
- Do the thing you like better.
The basic advice is to try something new. Something scary, if you can manage it. I know I’ve already called bodies factories in this column, so imagine your brain is a… meat rendering plant. Yeah. Its job is to process incoming stimuli as if it’s live horses and then grind up and package and sell the delicious horsemeat to Taco Bell, which in the case of us creative-types means writing a song or a review of the new Taco Bell chalupa with the gamey taste. The workflow goes Absorb => Interpret => Create, and then in the process of creating sometimes you have a new experience that you get to absorb and interpret into another creation and so on. But if you’re out of horses then you can’t make tacos, buddy.
Alright, I’m abandoning that metaphor. The point is if you’re bored then you have to actively seek out new stimuli to keep your brain in business. Start there, even if you don’t know what it’s all going to turn into. Bring in the fresh horses. You have to feed in as much information from diverse sources as you can and then it’ll start interacting, and that natural human predilection for finding patterns in things (even when they’re dumb theories about how all the Pixar movies are one thing) is going to kick in and before you know it your apartment is going to be covered in threads and corkboard as you plot out your masterpiece. Being a person who makes a daily choice between spending money on food and drinking to forget how hungry I am, I totally understand that not everyone can just throw up their hands and go on an Eat-Pray-Love excursion around the world or change cities or even try a new restaurant. Here are some alternative methods for you:
Make up challenges for yourself
If you don’t create stakes and a condition for success or failure then really you can never achieve anything. You’ve got to strive. Weirdly, if you have all the resources and time in the world it’s almost impossible to make something good. Just look at all the artists who had infinite time and money and tried to make their masterwork and fell on their goddam faces- George Lucas with Episode I, Axl Rose with Chinese Democracy. Their art was strong because they were challenged and they had to fight and find ways to justify the things that they did. If you get put in the Garden of Eden you’re never going to get shit done, but if you get locked in a cage it’s astonishing how fast your mind is going to repurpose the banal into methods of escape. Try giving yourself a deadline (or having Dylan give you one!), or maybe you’re trying to write an advice column that doesn’t mention genetic engineering or delicious chili. Wait, fuck. Well better luck to me next time, either way: you’re Houdini, baby. Put on your straitjacket and jump in the river.
Use the tools that help other people.
There’s a lot of these floating around for every discipline you could imagine. You could start with the Pixar Storytelling Rules that can get applied to a lot of situations. If you’re a musician, learning music theory is like getting a connect-the-dots book. It’s always going to sound good to go I-VI-IV-V, the old “Stand By Me” chords, but the best part about knowing the rules to what you’re doing is that you know just how to subvert them at the right moment. Inspired by William S. Burroughs, David Bowie used to cut up his journals and rearrange the jumbled phrases into new combinations, which is new data, so you get new interpretations and find patterns and you’re back in the horsemeat business. Bowie’s producer and collaborator Brian Eno worked with visual artist Peter Schmidt on a deck of occult-sounding cards called “The Oblique Strategies,” over a hundred phrases and directions of varying degrees of impenetrability that you can randomly select from to find a way to complete your work, and they’re available in digital form if you don’t have the cash for a physical copy. Of course, you won’t always agree with what the card says, but sometimes the most important part of a coin toss is that moment it’s in the air when you realize what side you want it to land on.
Pull from media that you don’t normally work in
David Bowie never published a book and Stephen King’s film work is better left unwatched, but those dudes pulled in experiences from the works of Burroughs and Lugosi and recombined them in new forms that strengthen their art. Actually, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem performed a song about this, check it out and read the lyrics:
Of course I could just be imagining that connection because I’ve been listening to that song nonstop, but finding connections in the lyrics to that song helped me break through writer’s block about this article so maybe you’re starting to grok what I’m talking about here.
Anyway, these strategies may still leave some ambiguity surrounding the idea that there’s nothing new under the sun, but I have good news: that’s objectively wrong! We live in an age where all creativity is preserved forever and passed around infinitely and it can be weirdly demoralizing to see jokesters on Twitter and TV Tropes codifying everything that you want to make into repeatable building blocks and why fucking bother if it’s been done before? The Vulcans believe that there is Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, how there are 26 letters in our alphabet but through judicious use and repetition you can express nearly anything in the universe, but it’s also okay to do stuff that isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel. Sometimes making art is about stitching together your interests into a quilt that really only needs to keep you warm and as long as you don’t try to smother other people with it then you’re in the clear.
Personally, when I’m bored or have writer’s block then I take a lot of naps but I think my boss is starting to catch on. Hope you all find something that puts some napalm in your streetwalking cheetah-hearts!
That’s all for Just Dandy this week! Pfeiff will return next Wednesday to answer your questions about sex, pizza and rock n’ roll, or literally any topic you can think of. Shoot him an email at email@example.com or tweet @ModDelusion using the hashtag #JustDandyDS.