Q: How do you solve a problem like Maria?
A: You mean, how do you catch a cloud and pin it down? First, get out of your own way.
Okay—full disclosure here—no one has ever actually asked me how to solve a problem like Maria. I’ll pause for a moment while you get over your shock that problem-solvers sometimes invent their own problems to solve. And before we resume, let’s credit Oscar Hammerstein II for asking both of the questions above in his lyrics for The Sound of Music.
But the answer—yes, that’s real:
Get out of your own way.
Or as writer Soman Chainani put it, “When I trust myself, that’s when the great stuff happens.”
How do you get out of your own way?
One way is to stop waiting for the Muse and just write every day, whether or not she arrives. It’s the law of averages: the more bad writing you get out of your system, the more likely you’ll produce some good writing.
Embrace creativity not as some magical thing that falls from the heavens but as a muscle you exercise regularly (preferably daily). Anyone who exercises regularly will tell you that some days are harder than others; some exercises hurt more than others. But they keep going because they recognize that the result is worth the effort.
Eventually, a daily practice gathers enough momentum that it powers itself. All you need to do is stay aware of it and stay committed. I know a little bit about that. While I struggle to exercise my physical muscles daily, my creativity muscle always gets its workout. As of yesterday (when I wrote this), my own streak of writing for at least 15 minutes a day stands at [drumroll]:
Problem — But what do I write about?
Who cares? It’s not like you’ll be showing this to anyone. I mean, you might eventually, but never start out with that particular end in mind. Chainani has amassed a tidy sum from his best-selling books that are soon to become movies, a Game of Thrones for the tween set. But in the interview with Tim Ferriss that I wrote about yesterday, he says:
“I don’t like depending on my art for income, because then I start to think in a mercenary way.”
Once you let go of the idea that every word you write has to pay your mortgage, you’re free to write about anything you want. Take the lyrics of “A Problem like Maria” and add some more questions. Or answer the questions the lyrics pose:
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down”?
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
That doesn’t float your boat? Write about your favorite nun. Or pretend you’re a creature from another planet sending a message back home. You’ve just seen some creatures like the ones in this video. How would you describe them? What purpose do you think they serve?
Ideas are all around us. Finding them isn’t a problem. The problem is being open to them. Or, as Oscar Hammerstein II might have said, it’s not a matter of catching the cloud; it’s a matter of allowing ourselves to believe that we can pin it down—if only just long enough to describe it.
Start your own daily writing practice. I’ll have another five-day writing challenge starting soon. See The 5×15 Writing Challenge for information.