Getting Unstuck Creatively

“I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.”

Shelby Foote


System of a Down’s Chop Suey! is widely recognized as the band’s signature song, and also, one of the most popular memes in heavy metal music. 

The song is known for its intense and frantic verses, which build up into a surging, hauntingly beautiful climax. The song throws you off guard early on with its lyrics, “I cry when angels deserve to die”, as it criticizes how we, as a society, tend to judge people differently based on how they pass. Particularly, in the case of this song, someone who dies by suicide would automatically be judged harshly. 

Of course, we should be led to understand, or at least sympathize with the complex factors that would likely drive a person to suicide. And we should remember that at the end of the day, every one of us deserves to die.

Writing the song wasn’t an easy process, as the songwriter Serj Tankian couldn’t come up with a good enough way to end the song. 

To help him get unstuck, the band’s producer Rick Rubin invited him to his house for lunch. Rubin later invited him into his huge home library, and asked him to pick any book, open a random page, and find inspiration in wherever his finger landed on the page.

Tankian was skeptical at first, but followed his instructions nevertheless. And in that moment, Tankian felt as though the stars had aligned, and he had found the missing piece of the puzzle that would later make the song as an anthemic as it is now.

Right where his finger was on the page, was the line “Father into your hands, I commend your spirit”, which, according to Christian view, were among Jesus’s last words on the cross. Suddenly, the song evolved into something much bigger and biblical. In line with this Christian view, the song would then argue that even Jesus’s death was technically a suicide. 

“(The line) just lent itself, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, the universe literally wrote those lyrics'”, Tankian said in an interview. “It’s beautiful.”

Whenever you feel stuck, it’s worth taking a step back and remembering that inspiration can literally come from anywhere. 

You never really know when you might get an a-ha moment — it could come in your sleep, or when you’re watching a movie, or when you’re at the art gallery, or when you’re doing whatever else that’s unrelated to your work. 

When Jimi Hendrix was asked about where he got his ideas from, he said, “From the people, from the traffic, from everything out there. The whole world influences me. Everybody and everything is music. You don’t plan songwriting. You don’t get into a certain groove to write a song. You can get inspiration for a song any time, because music is just what you feel. The ideas come very easily. It’s just getting the song together to where it’s acceptable.”

Just as Rick Rubin taught Serj Tankian to find inspiration in a random book, you can use a similar strategy. Deliberately get your mind to wander in the most unexpected places, as you randomly pick your destination.

Randomness is the key.

Personally, a huge source of inspiration for me nowadays is comic books — a childhood love that I have recently rekindled. Whenever I feel the need to take my mind off my work, I love to go through the pages of comic books I’ve read and look at the images and words that still have a strong effect on me. Whether directly or indirectly, I would have ideas on tackling similar themes in my own writing. 

You might feel skeptical about doing this — and rightfully so, because it is pretty counter-intuitive. But the more you do creative work, the more you realize that plenty of our best ideas can come from the most unexpected, and sometimes, even unexciting places.

As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in one of his essays, “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

So try seeing things with an open mind — you just never know how they might help your work. 


  1. Neil Gaiman says that ideas come from a confluence of varying experiences, and I have to agree. I also believe that we’re like radio transmitters, and we get our ideas from the radio waves that constantly travel through the ether. Love it when you say how they’re random.


    1. Izzat Zailan says:

      Very well said!


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