There are people who claim that creative block is nothing more than an illusion devised by the mind. Pushing through and trying anyway yields a surprising and productive result. This is true. We can create even when the whim doesn’t strike us. We can do good work even when we’d rather not do any at all. This is an incredibly human trait. It’s how we survive Mondays.
That being said, I do believe in creative block. True creative block isn’t about lack of motivation or unwillingness to put forth effort. There’s no muscling through or working around it. If you’re among those of us who occasionally suffer from this inexplicable inability to create, I’m here to share some of my personal insights.
STEP 1: GIVE IT A GO
As a rule, I give myself a fair chance to work through problems before diagnosing creative block. You never know when something might click. Giving yourself time to do a little problem solving and experimentation is a necessary part of the creative process. Things not going right the first time or looking terrible halfway through is completely normal.
STEP 2: KNOW WHEN TO STOP
That being said, there are times when no amount of time and trying will help. Attempts result in what I jokingly refer to as an “art fart”, a fun word for something that feels like deepest depths of despair. My tendency is to fixate and keep working until I get frustrated… and then keep working until I get angry… and then keep working until I don’t want to touch that particular project ever again. If it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall, you need to do the smart thing and take a break.
STEP 3: DON’T JUDGE
Setting your project aside, preferably where you can’t see it, is usually for the better when you’re experiencing a dry spell. I am my own harshest critic. It’s a useful trait that many creatives cultivate, but if you’ve been making art farts all day, it’s not helpful to keep staring at your failures. Staring leads to self-judgement. This leads to self-loathing. And self-loathing turns one crummy art day into one crummy day period. Don’t let the thing you’re most passionate about ruin your day. That’s not fair.
STEP 4: DO SOMETHING ELSE
We are so much more than what we make. We have a variety of interests and hobbies. We have lots of goals and aspirations. If creative block is keeping you from self-expression or making progress in one area, choose a different route. I can be productive in a different way, or might decide it’s better to rest up. Either way, it’s best not to be too judgmental about what I “should be doing”. What we ARE doing is what’s actually important.
STEP 5: BE KIND TO YOURSELF
Creative block is different for everyone. Sometimes a few hours are all that’s needed to reset, and other times it can be a lengthy standoff. Here are a few reminders:
- creativity has its ebb and flow. This rhythm is natural, so don’t worry. You’ll be creating again soon.
- feeling guilty doesn’t mean you’re guilty of anything. Don’t judge yourself by your own worst emotions.
- if you’re going to miss a deadline, don’t be ashamed. Be proactive and let your client know. Good communication releases tension and pressure on both sides.
- creativity isn’t the only important thing you can do. Take time to acknowledge the value in other areas of your life.
- you are not better or worse as a creator because you experience creative block. The time and skills you’ve developed are with you for good. A bad day can’t change that.
STEP 6: TRY SOMETHING NEW
If you are a creator, you’re also a natural problem solver. Before you even begin work again, your brain will probably be working quietly in the background to figure out where things went wrong. Rather than fixating on the issues, now you’re doing what you do best: getting creative. Best case scenario, you’ll have a game plan and be ready to pick up the pieces.
If you can’t figure out how to fix the problem on your own, try a different approach.
- put together a mood board on Pinterest
- doodle or take notes in a good old fashioned notebook
- brainstorm out loud with a friend or mentor
- play with a different concept or experiment with new techniques
- change something major, like the colors, era, gender, or genre to freshen things up
STEP 7: A PRODUCT OF STEADY HABIT
I’ve learned from experience that nobody will give you a break but yourself. There will always be deadlines to meet and things to finish, so give yourself the space to be a human being instead of a 24-hour workhorse. For a lot of us, the idea of not working is an anxiety-inducing concept, but taking time off doesn’t need to be a week-long self-care super spa to be effective. Having an hour-long nap doesn’t make any difference on how much work you can do in a single day. Playing video games after dinner doesn’t harm tomorrow’s schedule. Ducking out for coffee with friends before checking work emails is your right. Do what you need to do. I swear nobody will know the difference, but you’ll feel a whole lot freer, happier, and more creative in the long run.
How do you survive creative block? I’d love to hear your advice or experience in the comments!