Five Tools to Unlock Your Creativity

Paucity of inspiration hits us all sooner or later. We hit a tricky story problem, labyrinthine chapter, or a mood-killing piece of dialogue that we’re sure reveals us for the insufferable hacks we are. Advice to simply bear down and power through is all well and good, but sometimes we all need a little boost to help get the creative elixir flowing again. Here are a handful of tools (some free, some merely cheap) I’ve had luck with in the past.

1. Oblique Strategies

Originally a series of cards created by musician Brian Eno, Oblique Strategies is a set of context-free remarks and questions designed to break through creative deadlocks. (Eno was the guy who composed the original “Microsoft Sound.” if anyone knows how to work within limitations, I guess it’d be him). The original cards run from the expensive to the ridiculously expensive; fortunately, there’s more than one random Strategy-dispensing website out there, and even a Twitter feed.

2. The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers

I like to think of the Observation Deck as Oblique Strategies’ more accessible cousin. This set comes with a deck of cards bearing various questions, recommendations, and strategies, most of them more specific and external than Oblique Strategies. The Deck also comes with a booklet explaining the meaning behind each card and brief anecdotes about writers who have used those strategies successfully. I’ve had my set for ten years now, and it still comes in handy every so often.

3. Rory’s Story Cubes

Rory’s Story Cubes are nine dice imprinted with random icons and symbols. Roll them, rearrange them, make up a story based on what the cubes depict. They’re simple and fun. Story Cubes probably won’t help you unlock specific creative problems, but they do make a fun distraction and a handy brainstorming tool. I sometimes break them out when I’m trying to break out of my linear thinking.

4. Seventh Sanctum

Seventh Sanctum is a free site featuring dozens of random generators. They have an entire section devoted to writing, making it a terrific go-to for story ideas, character names, and writing challenges. I visit it when I get the hankering to write a short story but don’t have a compelling idea ready.

5. The Freewrite

In some ways, this is the simplest tool of them all: just write for ten or fifteen minutes without stopping. I first ran across this concept in Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power. Elbow recommends warming up with ten minutes of just writing without pause or backtracking for ten solid minutes. If you can’t think of anything to write, put “I can’t think of anything to write” down on the page. Just don’t stop. The object is to overcome your writing inhibitions and generate words, regardless of their quality or purpose. I’ve broken through more than one creative block with this technique; it’s amazing what you can come up with when you have a short deadline and no particular agenda.