The Born Freelancer on Achieving “Ah Ha!” Solutions

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. 


It sits there like a landslide, blocking your creative journey and costing you time, energy and temporary sanity.

I’m talking about a creative impasse.

It could be how to proceed from one scene to another in an episodic script. Or how to clarify an obscure plot point in a novel. Or how to edit an interview to highlight a subject’s point of view.

In all cases, there is a particular creative problem to overcome. And as a freelancer there is usually only you to solve it.

Previously I’ve written about “Writer’s Block” which is a more general grinding to a halt of the creative process as a result of inspirational juices drying up. What I’m discussing today is an extension of that conversation but with a tighter focus on specific problem solving.

It’s what I call achieving “Ah Ha!” solutions. If you’ve ever found one you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t yet I hope you will one day soon with the suggestions I am about to offer.


I. Brute force: driving through an impasse

When I first started out, this was the approach I observed in use by more experienced professionals. So naturally I tried it too. Usually it worked, to some degree or another, when fueled with massive doses of caffeine, sleep deprivation and with the threat of ever-impending deadlines.

Talk it out

This is the number one advantage of having a writing partner. When you hit an impasse a partnership really earns its keep. You can talk out the problem, examining it as if under a microscope and throw solutions at it. The sheer volume of possible solutions thrown out should yield a winner. By a process of elimination of all conceivable possibilities, you arrive at the most likely solution. Or, as is often the case, the least unlikely one. This requires considerable patience and powers of endurance. Not to mention a locked room neither of you agree to leave until a solution is found. Or until one of you kills the other out of sheer frustration.

But what if you don’t have a partner? How do you drive solo through a problem?

Diagram it

The trick is to literally map out the problem so that you can look at it from the outside. I find the use of a large whiteboard (or blackboard) incredibly useful. There are programs for computers which enable you to create mind maps that I’m told are also useful in a similar way. However I find dealing with the physicality of a whiteboard/blackboard extremely liberating. I create a flow chart of the creative impasse. Using an admittedly idiosyncratic combination of bizarre shapes, colours and squiggles, I manage to visually externalize the creative situation, enabling me to see the bigger picture and come up with a suitable solution. This method can be used solo or as an add-on technique when working with a creative partner.

Seek inspiration

When all else fails, look to others for inspiration. I do not mean to copy or plagiarize but to allow the work of those who have toiled in the trenches before you to help. When I wrote freelance radio copy and couldn’t find the solution to a problem I would read through files of scripts of successful award winning radio commercials produced around the world. I tried never to emulate whole commercials, just to see how they solved a particular problem similar to mine. I would then try to apply their solution to my own impasse; changing and reshaping it to my own situation. I learned a lot from the best this way.


II. A zen approach: work around it

As I have matured as a working freelancer I have learned to rely more upon my instincts, my gut, my subconscious processing. No, I have not gone all “new agey”. I have simply discovered that there are times for brute force and other times for a more oblique approach.

Talk about anything but

It’s called “free association”. So my creative partners and I would talk about anything except the problem. We never placed restrictions or barriers on any topic. And slowly, bit by bit, as if a log jam slowly unjamming, we’d suddenly realize the relevancy of what we were talking about to the problem we were trying to solve. It was as if our subconscious minds were performing a kind of background processing. Talking about other subjects allowed the subconscious to get on with its business. When it had something, it began to slowly feed it back through our conversations. Usually the “Ah Ha!” moment struck without warning. The trick was to recognize it and not to get too absorbed in our assorted verbal digressions!

Go for a walk

I have written previously about walking. The freedom to do so as part of our work routine is one of the perks of freelancing. It seems every day I hear another report on its merits. I just heard a radio interview with a business consultant who posits that a “walking meeting” results in far better results than a sit down meeting. I agree wholeheartedly – even if it is a meeting of one! Getting out, getting the blood moving around and allowing your brain to reboot almost always results in a solution. You can dwell on the problem of course but I find that by not obsessing on it my subconscious processing can really do its job. When I get back if I do not have the ideal solution at least I always have one that is good enough to let me move forward.

Daydream believer

I am a big advocate of daydreaming. What other business allows you to daydream as part of your work? And justify it? Another perk of the freelance life. I build in time into my regular routine for daydreaming. Perhaps it is time for a coffee break. Instead of gulping it down and zooming back to my keyboard I build in time to just sit and muse. To stare out a window. I love windows! They allow your mind to wander up and down avenues (literal and figurative) which may seem aimless but can end up taking you to an ideal solution. But I find allowing time for regular daydreaming also acts as a catalyst to my general productivity. It gives me ideas and solutions, of course, but also motivation and incentive to knuckle down to do the work. I think of it as a kind of mental deep breathing or limbering up before taking on a short sprint or long race, namely, my work.

Today when I get so tired that I can’t think straight anymore, instead of more caffeine, I prefer to go to the ultimate freelancer’s creative weapon: I take a nap. Naps refresh, revitalize and reawaken creativity. Some of you may think of sleep and naps as a waste of time. Nonsense! Some of the greatest minds in history used naps to reinvigorate their imaginations. Thomas Edison, it is said, used to take frequent naps and from his dreams came his numerous innovative inventions.

I often wonder if he used lucid dreaming?

Lucid dreaming

The ultimate creative tool. It’s being asleep and dreaming and knowing it. You can then consciously influence the direction of your dreaming. It’s like having the best sim game ever – inside your head! When I worked regularly in television there was a never ending treadmill of deadlines. Just as one script was finished, another began. Some writers complained, bitterly, that they even dreamed of the show. As if that were a bad thing! I dreamed of it too but the difference was that I lucid dreamed. I would literally try out actual scenes for future scripts in my head. Then, upon awakening, I would write down the fleshed-out ideas before they were lost to my waking state. And if there was a particular problem, I would go home and plan to dream about it. At least fifty per cent of the time what I lucid dreamed successfully went into a script.

There are lots of books and websites on how to lucid dream. Some of us have done it all our lives without knowing it was anything special. Others have had to learn to do it the hard way. Still others never master it. But don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.


The takeaway

In this post I have shared some basic techniques of how to achieve “Ah Ha!” solutions. In a future post I hope to explore more fully where to look for them. Hint: It’s usually within the problem itself.

There are as many techniques of arriving at an “Ah Ha!” solution as there are creative problems. Which approach you take will depend upon the nature of the problem and, of course, your own personality and style of working. Throughout my professional life I have successfully employed all of the techniques I have discussed in this post at various times on various projects.

Having a wide a variety of problem solving methods ready-to-go in your freelancer’s tool kit will pay big dividends the next time you run into an unexpected creative impasse.



Do you have a favourite creative problem solving technique? Please share it with us in the comments section below.

Posted on October 24, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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