Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


When I’m feeling “blocked” and new ideas are as rare as water in Death Valley, I think back to my days working in the creative department of an advertising firm. This large department spanned an entire floor in an office building and was geared to nurturing creativity under tight deadlines and high stress. One ad campaign for a well-known doll­­—who shall remain nameless although her boyfriend’s name is Ken—caused the Senior Copywriter to suffer a heart attack, the Junior Copywriter to have heart palpitations and the Art Director to be so tired he accidentally dropped a small, short bladed knife, impaling his foot. (Good times.)

Despite working in a pressure cooker atmosphere there were things we routinely did to promote creativity and fresh ideas. Some of the following ideas worked well for groups but could be adapted for solo writers.

Talk to People
We were encouraged to talk to a wide variety of people to gain new perspectives. At the office, the unwritten rule was to get up from our desks, walk around and speak to co-workers for about thirty minutes a day. There was even an open staircase leading from the creative floor down to the account executive floor to encourage face to face communication. (Trivia alert: This wide, carpeted stairway with glass sides was used in several scenes of the movie, “Beverly Hills Cop.")

Create a Stimulating Atmosphere
There were toys available for our “inner child” to play with, including a basketball hoop. They were good distractions while ideas marinated. On Fridays we could wear extremely casual clothes like shorts and bring in our children and pets.

Share Rejected Ideas
I remember a large board displaying images and slogans that clients had not approved. It wasn’t meant to shame anyone but to show that while the ideas were creative they weren’t the correct ones for a particular client. However, they might be useful for another advertising campaign or give someone an idea. I’ll never forget this memorable, although rejected, slogan written to advertise a restaurant/bar—“Eat, drink and meet Mary.”

Brainstorming sessions took place almost daily. They were relaxed and informal either in a scheduled meeting, people bouncing ideas off one another, or alone. There was only one rule —no criticism while brainstorming because judgments at an early stage shut down creativity. Also, write down all ideas, even the crazy ones, and then evaluate them at the end of the process. If an idea looked weak, it was pumped up to see if it would work or if it was over the top, then it was taken down a notch.

There were additional guidelines for large group meetings. Give people time to come up with their own ideas ahead of a meeting and don’t follow the same train of thought for too long or let one person take over. Otherwise, it could lead to group think.

Creativity Boosts
There are many ways to kick start creativity ranging from simple to elaborate. Some were as easy as writing with crayons instead of using a computer. I enjoyed “thinking cards” like Roger van Oech’s “Creative Whack Pack,” which is a set of cards with questions or advice to “whack you out of habitual thought patterns.”

Use Your Subconscious
While walking by the Creative Director’s large office I’d often see people sitting around a table working on a project and someone napping on the couch. The theory was if you are stuck, ask your subconscious a question then sleep on it. The answer or useful direction usually appeared upon waking. At the very least, you woke up refreshed.

Know Your Limits
One copywriter refused to write ads for a particular toy because he thought it was inappropriate for kids. He stuck to his principles, and I don’t remember anyone criticizing him for doing so. I think he was a more effective writer because he believed in the product.

Celebrate the Wins!
There were always parties and celebrations after winning a new client or receiving an award. I think the appreciation, fun and sharing war stories incentivized people to face future hurdles (and there were many).

How do you overcome creative blocks?


Linda Rodriguez said...

Excellent post, Kara! These are all techniques and ideas we can use when trying to solve the creative problems we run into as we write.

I know I use brainstorming quite a bit, alone and with my critique group or my husband. I also get out of the house and go to libraries and coffee shops to write at times (sometimes not by choice, as in recent severe heat waves here). I also have been known to set a thorny question and sleep on it. And I'm big on celebrating wins.

Two things I do that are not on your list are timed and untimed freewriting in a journal and doing something creative with my hands, such as knitting, spinning, weaving, or sewing. Both of these, I've found, will knock loose stuck thought processes.

Kara Cerise said...

Good ideas, Linda! I love the idea of doing something creative with my hands to dislodge ideas. That way I can knit a scarf for a friend and free my mind at the same time.

Gloria Alden said...

I like your ideas, Kara, and yours, too, Linda. Sometimes taking time out to let an idea perk works. I used to do sewing, crocheting, painting and even spinning, too, for a short time. Now it's gardening that serves that purpose. Of course, in the type of job you had, Kara, you wouldn't have had the freedom of putting an idea aside for very long, I would imagine.

Jim Jackson said...

For me it's a long walk in the woods or on the beach or a bicycle ride. I'll set the question in place and let my subconscious go at it.

~ Jim

Kara Cerise said...

Gardening is a great idea for letting ideas percolate, Gloria. I think the fresh air and sunshine would also help clear out any cobwebs!

E. B. Davis said...

I have no idea when, where or how ideas strike me--it seems as if out of the blue.

Now about this job from heaven and hell, Kara. Was this before you became a lawyer? What made you move on?

Kara Cerise said...

I agree that nature is inspiring, Jim. I'd love to be writing at the beach today :)

Kara Cerise said...

That was my first job out of college, E.B. I learned how to keep calm and my sense of humor under pressure, expect the unexpected and think outside the box. Very useful skills to have when I later worked in the legal field. (I wasn't a lawyer but lawyers were my clients.)

While I enjoyed the craziness and fast pace of advertising, I wanted to work with issues that had real world impact like toxic waste litigation.