Feeling Stuck? Good Ideas Hide in Plain Sight, Says Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer

Over a year ago

Here are two things you never thought a writer would need – agility and stamina. American author Jonathan Safran Foer (the literary talent behind works such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Everything Is Illuminated, Eating Animals) knows writing and therefore he knows writer’s block. The feeling of being stuck can strike in any creative field. Safran Foer points out that often it feels like it’s because of a lack of ideas, but that's a red herring. You do have ideas, you just don’t care enough about them enough. Nothing you’re making feels important to you. You think ‘Who would want to read this?’ or ‘This will never sell.’

But Safran Foer urges writers to stop thinking about the publishing process so much. It's face-palming, obvious advice but sometimes we need to be told: focus on the actual writing. If there’s something you care about, write it. “The worst that can happen is it's a book that will be for nobody but you, but that is actually a much better fate than writing a book that lots of people like that isn't for you." Writers have written about such nuanced, strange, unassuming things that millions of people have found a way into and loved intensely. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief? Who cares about flowers, right? Well, she made orchids seem like the most fascinating thing on the planet. Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp is about nothing more than whale excrement. And it's brilliant. Enthusiasm is contagious – we all know and have felt that.

Safran Foer’s advice is that if something feels important or just fun, even if it’s a deviation from your plans, follow it. If a background character elbows their way to the foreground, let it. You have a new protagonist now. Be agile in your practice. Even if you’re 60 percent into a project, if the voice of a new idea or pathway can’t be silenced, then you should probably follow it. When you work on something you don’t care enough about, stuck on a set course to finish it, it can make you incredibly unhappy, he says.

Find what makes you singular as a writer. Find what is unique about you that no other writer could offer – a story, a character, a voice, a style, a form. According to Safran Foer, the way to become a successful writer isn’t to agonize over one idea for the perfect book, but to write constantly, even if no one will ever see it. Cultivate stamina. Hang onto the comet tail of good ideas, even if it means abandoning a previous idea. And always be ready to latch onto the next comet. Be the writer who doesn’t stop.

Jonathan Safran Foer's latest novel is Here I Am.