Despite the brooding and romantic spin that movies put on their main characters who soon go on to make an incredible painting or write the next New York Times bestseller, the middle of a creative block is a terrible place to be.
Sometimes, the block comes on slowly, creeping up on you like the fog from Lost. Other times, you’re in the middle of a project and the words just stop clicking. Everything sounds bad. And they look even worse. You read through your past works in the hopes of inspiring some kind of magic up out of you but instead, you feel like you’re reading a stranger’s words.
The creative block sucks.
I’ve brought up my struggle with artist burnout and creativity blocks in the past (briefly in a couple of Instagram captions), mainly in how I picked up printmaking. Four years ago, I was a writer–I’m still a writer but back then I was only a writer. Sure, I’ve always painted and drawn but “artist” felt like a label reserved for…anyone other than myself.
Anyway, I was in the middle of editing a poetry book and found myself struggling to finish. In reading each poem over and over again, it all seemed to blend into a steamy pile of shit. It was shit. And words didn’t look real anymore. And I wanted a manuscript I could be proud to pitch. I’d come home from work to my 400 square foot studio apartment in North Park, brew a new pot of coffee, and sit at my writing desk for hours, scribbling out words then rewriting them in the margins.
Then, I decided to do something different: not work on the poems.
That went wonderfully since I’m not sure what I was doing was actually working on the poems. Instead, I’d pop open a bottle of blonde ale, run the bath, and eat ice cream…in the bath. It was weird. And, in retrospect, sounds kind of sad. But it was healing.
Then one day, I went to Blick on a date. He said, “oh I knew a printmaker. That stuff is so cool.” And I bought a starter kit on the spot. If we weren’t married now, I probably wouldn’t disclose this part of the story.
After a few months of band-aids on fingers, shitty carvings, and dried out pieces of linoleum, I was able to start working on my poems again and finished the manuscript within a month. Trying a new art form really helped me work on my creativity until I was ready to return to my project.
But not everything works for everyone. I know that–I tried a lot of other methods to overcome my creative block…let’s explore those.
- Question everything
Why is the sky blue? What if it wasn’t? Why does that sign even exist? What’s the story behind it?
- Keep a running list of ideas
Many creatives that I’ve talked to seem to run into the same issue: they have so many ideas that they don’t want to lose, so they chase them all. Or maybe they’re too busy thinking about another idea while still working on one. Regardless of the case, keeping a notebook or a Google Doc of ideas that you can brain dump into is a great way to get everything out of your head.
There’s a reason that the Renaissance man is called “Renaissance”–he’s in the past. People today don’t need to be a master at everything. Find your niche, art style, or genre, and focus on that.
- Forget about the end result
I still run into this problem from time to time, but despite what whatever algorithm says, not everything that you create has to be shared or even seen by anyone but yourself. Give yourself permission to make something ugly and remember that it doesn’t matter if you create something bad, as long as you’re still creating.
- Go all-in on your worst idea
What could be the worst idea you’ve ever had may be considered genius to others…it’s all subjective, especially when it comes to art.
- Study the classics
Take a look at the classics…then try to make them better. The classics are classics for a reason: they resonate with a lot of different people. See areas where you can improve, and even discover missed opportunities within the classics that can be expanded on.
- Be a kid
I’ve always thought that if I was a teacher, I’d choose to teach first grade or kindergarten and make them paint and write stories. There’s something different about the ways that kids create; They create without fear, hesitation, or judgment: they create to play and discover.
- Step back
I’m not suggesting that anyone eat ice cream in the bathtub but some kind of space can give your mind enough time to sort itself out or recoup on its overuse. There’s a reason you got burned out in the first place!
It’s totally okay to leave a project to explore at a later time…or even not at all. Rest, rejuvenate, and try something new.
- Welcome inspiration with open arms
Inspiration can be fleeting–jump with it. You probably shouldn’t clock out and leave work in the middle of the day but a fresh stack of sticky notes can be helpful for scribbling down inspiring imagery that pops into your head throughout the day. This also means that hopping out of bed at 2am might even be worth it, if the muse is calling.
- Keep track of your goals
Goals can change over time. So, consistently check in with yourself: what do you want? Where do you want to be? Does what you’re doing align with where you want to be?
Re-set your goals once or twice a year, or whenever you start to question if you’re doing the right thing, to give yourself clarity.
Have you ever been in a creative block? What’d you do to get out of it?