My seven cures for creative block

More than once, in the midst of a creative block (which for me is truly just a baby step away from full-on existential crisis), I’ve been told by well-meaning writer friends that my block isn’t real. “It’s all in your head,” they say, as if that’s helpful, as if the fact that my blankness resides in my head (where, incidentally, my imagination, my creative writing skills, my ability to link disparate ideas together in meaningful ways also reside) makes it any less real.

Part of what makes creative block so hard is that, despite an absolute dearth of ideas, the urge to create never really abates. It becomes instead an ache, a disheartening, self-esteem-bashing sadness that permeates the rest of our lives and makes us feel lesser. Creatives who aren’t creating are among the saddest humans around.

It’s been a while since I experienced a creative block that lasted more than a day or two, and the reason they’re so short-lived now is that I’ve developed some strategies that really work. Today, I’m sharing.

Seven Cures for Creative Block

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    1. Experiment with an unfamiliar art form.

      If you’re a writer, knit a scarf. If you’re a painter, join a drum circle. If you’re a jewelry maker, compose a sonnet. Stepping (or bounding puppylike) out of your comfort zone is freeing. Unfamiliarity opens you to a sense of play and experimentation that is sometimes hard to accomplish within your normal medium. Let’s face it, it’s hard to be a perfectionist when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Being a beginner forces you to focus on the process of creation rather than on the outcome, which is good because it’s there, in the act of creation for creation’s sake, that real magic can happen.
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      And the best part? Creativity begets creativity. Work on something utterly unrelated to your art, and you’ll find one endeavor feeds the other. Maya Angelou says, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” (And seriously,who among us wants to argue with Maya Angelou?)

    2. Go outside.

      There’s nothing like a change of scenery to recharge the soul, and right outside your door there’s a whole, big, perpetual-motion-world full of beautiful, surprising, crazy, sad, breathtaking inspiration. Step outside, look around. Plug into your world.
      x
      PlugIntoYourWorld-resize

    3. Play with books.

      You can read them, of course, that would be the obvious (and best) thing, but I love this advice from designer Debbie Millman: Color code your library. Stack your books, alphabetize them, arrange them by theme or size or degree of undying devotion. Whether it’s the autopilot nature of organizing or the irrefutable magic of the books themselves, I can vouch for their power to inspire (even unread) strange and wonderful acts of creation.

    4. Doodle.

      You knew I had to say it.

      DoodleTree

    5. Incubate.

      Some creative projects take a while to flesh themselves out. I carried “Me and My Body” around for almost a year before I could actually write it down. I’m about to start a big writing/illustration project that I first conceived of more than two years ago. Back then, it was just a writing project because I didn’t know doodling was part of my creative arsenal. It wasn’t until I reconceived the project, all this time later armed with new information, that I felt it light me up inside. I’m convinced that creative inaction, however uncomfortable it might be, is very often part of the creative process, and the best thing we can do for ourselves is to try and make peace with it. In Breakthrough!: 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination, writer Douglas Rushkoff writes:

      The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

      That’s an outrageously gorgeous way of saying INCUBATE.  Trust that something’s happening just below the surface of your worried, frazzled over-achieving consciousness.

    6. Play.

      Creative output takes energy, so you have to, in the words of Julia Cameron, “fill the well” from time to time.

      In filling the well, think magic. Think delight. Think fun… Do what intrigues you, explore what interests you; think mystery, not mastery… In filling the well, follow your sense of the mysterious, not your sense of what you should know more about… Ten minutes of listening to a great piece of music can be a very effective meditation. Five minutes of barefoot dancing to drum music can send our (inner) artist into its play-fray-day refreshed.

      swing

    7. Just start.

      Sometimes we get blocked before we’ve even begun. (And by “we,” I definitely mean me.) I (almost) always have good reasons for not getting started on the creative project I inwardly long to do. It’s too big or too frivolous. It’s selfish or silly or vague or outrageous… or yes. “I’m not a “real” artist,” I tell myself (even though I don’t know what that means and I would never let someone I love say it about themselves). “I don’t have the time or support or bandwidth to do what I want to do,” I say. But really, that’s all bullshit – excuses to keep me safe (if not entirely happy or fulfilled) in a largely unexplored life. Which,  of course, is not where I want to be. Anais Nin said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
      X
      And Step 1 in the pursuit of expansion: BEGIN.

~~~~~

Okay, your turn. What do you think? Are creative blocks real? Have you experienced them? Do you have some block-busting strategies to share? I’d love to hear them.

xo

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32 Responses to My seven cures for creative block

  1. Amy March 28, 2013 at 5:12 am #

    Nothing seems to knock me out of a creative slump then 1) to completely unplug for a few days and/or 2) taking my dogs for a long walk… #2 ia always easier #1.

    • j March 28, 2013 at 10:24 am #

      Funny you should mention the need to unplug. I’m doing that next month for a few days, and I agree. It’s the most effective kick out of a slump there is. Even when you’re not in the midst of a block, it’s good to do that periodically, I think. Just to recharge, reprioritize… dream in peace. :)

      As for taking the dog for a walk, I find that is invaluable for specific-project block. I don’t know if you do this, but sometimes, right after committing to a project I feel excited and energized about, I’ll go completely blank. Everything that made me say yes is gone, and I’m left wondering what the hell made me think this was a good idea. (In fact, I have that problem right now on a parenting essay I said I’d write. I think I’ll grab Lexi and head outside.)

      • jillsalahub March 28, 2013 at 10:55 am #

        Taking a dog (or two) for a long walk fixes anything :)

        • j March 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

          I know. I feel sorry for anyone without a dog (or two) to walk.

  2. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) March 28, 2013 at 7:24 am #

    Oh, I love this list! I absolutely think creative blocks are real. I think sometimes we exaggerate them for effect, but the mind is a wonderful and mysterious thing, and we can’t always control how (or when) it works. I agree with every single one of your tips, but #1 is my current obsession. When I get stuck on a novel, I’ll write a poem. When a poetry collection gives me fits, I try a picture book. When a picture book stalls out, I write a short story. When I feel totally dead-ended with all different forms of writing, I do a painting. Since I have no idea what I’m doing, it always feels more like a treat than work, and that brings my creativity out to play. Great post, j!

    • j March 28, 2013 at 10:32 am #

      Yes, exactly! And I’m amazed at how often when I’m doodling, I’ll suddenly recognize the solution to a problem in my writing. Or I’ll be reading and suddenly a card design (or even a whole package of designs) will occur to me out of nowhere. Maya Angelou is absolutely right that the more you use, the more you have. It’s a perpetual motion kind of thing.

  3. Ann Marie Gamble (@amgamble) March 28, 2013 at 7:55 am #

    “Just start” is why I like NaNoWriMo: you and a million other people are flinging ourselves off the creative cliff together to see what happens.

    A good one for me is “hang around with kids”–but in a participatory way, not just cooking them dinner or taking them to soccer practice. They’ve got questions and procedures that have never occurred to me, and it totally breaks open my thinking.

    • j March 28, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      Why I like NaNoWriMo, let me count the ways! I haven’t done it for a few years, but NaNoWriMo is amazing for how it can bust open the floodgates on your creativity.

      So true about kids. It’s almost startling to me sometimes, how they see and approach the world. It’s like getting to borrow a new set of eyes.

  4. terrepruitt March 28, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    I think blocks are real and your strategies sound like ways to get past them. You know I really love the dancing barefoot part! And the doodle associated with play warms my heart!

    • j March 28, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      Yay! That’s just what the play doodle is supposed to do!

  5. Pam March 28, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Great list. I do think creative blocks are real.

    One thing that isn’t on your list but would appear on mine: cook. By this I mean, walk around, imagining a meal, then stop at the store and try to buy the right things to make the meal I imagined. Often my cooking is more of a rote activity, but when I make a food idea happen, it’s just like making a cool collage.

    I also think about the scene in the movie Bright Star (about Keats) in which the poets say to someone who stops into their house & observes that they seem idle: Looking out the window IS working.

    • j March 28, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      Yeah, cooking definitely does not spur my creative side… I can’t relax about it enough to approach it as a collage (but I LOVE that analogy).

      I do A LOT of looking out the window. :)

  6. paulalharvey March 28, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Very good ideas! I especially like “Go Outside” and “Play”. A lot of times I think, “Oh, I’ll just watch TV to get some ideas”…and no, that’s a horrible idea, lol. It’s much better to go outside, every second there are billions of tiny stories happening around us, so sometimes we just have to open the door, go outside, and find them.

    Thank you for these awesome tips!!

    • j March 28, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      Recently I listened to the interview of a journalist who’d just written a piece about how attached we’ve become to our devices. He said, at any major city intersection, you’ll see everyone waiting to cross the street, staring at their smart phones. He said, “They’re looking online at pictures of happy faces and puppies and funny people. I want to say, ‘Look up! There are happy faces and puppies and funny people all around you!'”

      I do think you can get inspired by great television or a great movie or great music (as Lance says below). But I think we underestimate the power of the real live 3-D world to provide nothing short of art every single day.

      Thank you for the comment!

  7. Lance March 28, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    I’ve been on a creative roll for about 3 years. I published my first book in February. I’ve found four things help me keep writing.

    1) music. On my blog http://lancemyblogcanbeatupyourblog.wordpress.com there’s a song/video with every post. 9 out of 10 times that song inspired the post. I even host a weekley meme called 100 word song where fellow writers get inspired by a chosen tune and write 100 words accordingly. I listen to music every day. In the car, in the shower, in line picking up my kids from school, and at the gym. I also am a lousy guitar player. When I feel blocked or frustrated, I plug in my blue and white fender strat and strum something and apply words I want to write to the strumming/picking.

    2) read. I try to read a book a week, sometimes two. I also read a lot of online articles about various subjects whether it’s something wikipedia frivolous, cracked.com ridiculous, or heady like religious texts or scietific data. Being a good reader inspires writing, I believe.

    3) talk. I live with 4 women. They talk all the time. It’s never quiet at my home. I also talk to friends, family, and co-workers. You can get inspired by listening and talking to many types of people.

    4) play. I have 3 daughters and they like to give me hell in good and bad ways. But hobbies and just general fun like date night with the wife can release tension and spur creativity.

    great post

    • j March 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

      Can you listen to music while you write? I can only listen to music without words, or music in another language. I think writers who can ignore the words of the music they’re listening to are some sort of creative superheros.

      I can totally rock Pandora when I’m doodling, though.

      I like “talk.” That’s a good one. This morning, in Starbucks, I spent the whole time I should have been working talking to a fitness trainer who I happened to sit down next to. We talked about… everything – coaching, health, family, self-belief, writing, art, entrepreneurship. Normally, after doing that with somebody, I feel bad about all the work that didn’t get done, but today I had no regrets. There is energy in the act of connection… not to mention stories and ideas and all new perspectives.

      • Lance March 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

        yes i can. I’m a song lyric freak. Tonight, my 9-year-old and her new glasses went to drums practice and learned Sunshine of your Love by Cream. Listening to those words help me iron out a section of my next book during a romantic scene.

        • j March 29, 2013 at 6:25 am #

          Seriously, Lance. That just feels like a magic trick to me. I even find it hard to have a conversation when music is playing because I have trouble relegating lyrics to background noise. When I read about people like you who can crank up their favorite songs and “write like motherfuckers,” I’m so envious. (Makes for a much better montage.) ;)

  8. Joanne Marie Firth March 28, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    I’m not sure if I apply to this or not, as I don’t create professionally. I do know when I am not creating something, I don’t feel complete as a person. I try every day to practice some form of creativity. There is no pressure on me at all, which eases any non-creative times. One thing that is important to me, is finishing what I start. I do tackle small projects though, fearing that if I try something too big, I may not complete it. I might lose interest, put it away and not get back to it. Nothing bugs me more than to find an unfinished project somewhere.

    I started a painting on a vintage, wooden tea tray years ago. It’s a little beach shack on posts. So far, it is only the shack and the deck around it. I never finished the painting by adding the water or sky to it. So there it sits, in my closet, an oceanless little beach shack on a vintage, wooden tea tray. I will take it out one of these days and finish it. Painting is not something I do well, especially painting water. Thanks to this post, I remembered the unfinished painting. It’s never too late to start again.

    I do love your suggestions, especially the one about trying something outside of one’s comfort zone. I took a pottery class in high school and loved using the wheel. Another class I took was sculpture and that was a blast. There are infinte different ways to be creative. The key for me is to feel inspired and delighted with whatever I am doing at the time. If it turns into pressure or drudgery, time to dance around outside for a while to refresh the joyful creative spirit.

    Excellent and informative post j!

    • j March 29, 2013 at 6:36 am #

      I think of all the soul-deep creatives out there, very few do it professionally, and even fewer do it “for a living.” I was writing this for all of us who feel that incompleteness you talk about when we aren’t creating. (Well said!)

      Funny you should mention pottery and sculpting classes. I’ve never done either (if we don’t count Playdoh), and when I was writing this post, I wrote down some “unfamiliar art forms” I’d like to try. Those were both on my list, because, like doodling, they feel completely separate from writing. I want to fire up some new neurons, which never fails to get me inspired and delighted.

      That really gets at the whole purpose of #1. Looking for opportunities to be creative without expectation.Sometimes, to do that, you have to get outside the art forms you know.

      Excellent and informative response, Joanne. (As always!)

      p.s. Your unfinished projects (including your “oceanless little beach shack on a vintage, wooden tea tray” are probably just incubating.) ;)

  9. Valerie Gilreath March 29, 2013 at 4:26 am #

    J., These are all great suggestions. #2 and #7 are already staples of my creative process, and I look forward to experimenting with some of the others you’ve listed. In particular #7 — Just Start — has been invaluabe to me over the years. I am a writer, both professionally (grant writer) and as a “hobby” (poet.) I’m convinced that learning to overcoming my fear of the blank page by just getting something, anything down on paper (over the screams of my perfectionistic inner voice) is what has kept me writing. It primes the pump, so to speak. Then those initial sentences/lines can always be cut, and no one but me ever has to know that they even existed!
    Thanks for this post.
    Valerie

    • j March 29, 2013 at 6:42 am #

      I often say that I’m much more comfortable editing than writing. That blank page, especially when I feel uncertain about a writing project (as I do right now with the most pressing one on my editorial calendar), is enormously intimidating. In fact, if anything, I may use #2 to avoid #7 too often, even though EVERY SINGLE TIME I allow myself to get a first draft down, however shitty, the rest of the process is easier and more fun.

      I know that. And yet… Today, right in the middle of my to-do list, in big block letters, it says, “JUST START.”

      Thanks YOU for the comment!

  10. fictional100 March 29, 2013 at 4:50 am #

    Judy, This list of “unblocking,” zest-recharging tools, and the way you illustrate and champion them, feels like a classic to me–I hope it finds it way onto a “permanent” part of your blog (a link under “About” or even its very own tab!). You convey so vividly the organic way all the varieties of creativity relate to each other. Your doodles here really touch my heart, especially the tree of life rooted in LOVE and the exhilaration of swinging on a tire in the sunshine, a picture of inner experience.

    And I would never argue with Maya Angelou either!

    thank you!
    ~lucy

    • j March 29, 2013 at 6:47 am #

      That’s a great idea, Lucy! I’m taking a blogging break in early April. One of the things I want to do is some behind-the-scenes work on the site. I love your idea to have the 7 Cures be permanent. Stay tuned, my musey friend!

  11. Nina March 29, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

    This is such an excellent and helpful list. I was so glad to see “incubate.” I wouldn’t have thought to use that work (it is PERFECT) but it describes so well that ‘thing’ of having a kernel that takes a long time to develop and grow.

    • j March 30, 2013 at 7:13 am #

      And the trick is to think of it as part of the process and not something broken (which is where i tend to go wrong). Thank you, Nina!

  12. E.K. Carmel March 30, 2013 at 5:14 am #

    For a long time I was depressed and miserable and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. At one point, I got interested in writing and while learning the craft, my outlook and mood changed. I finally realized I had submerged my creativity, which had always been such a huge part of my life. Now, when I have a rotten day and feel creatively drained, I know it’s not permanent. It’s usually just my perspective at that moment.

    All through high school, I was an artist, so in taking up writing, I actually did your #1 suggestion. Now, to change things up again, I’m dipping my toes back into art by playing around with watercolors and pencils. I agree that getting out is important, though it’s tough here in the northeast during winter. I’m so happy to see the sun again! Of the rest of your suggestions, just starting resonates the most for me. I can come up with 101 excuses not to start a project, so just taking that leap is something I’m really working on improving.

    Thanks for the thought-inspiring post!

    • j March 30, 2013 at 7:18 am #

      Yes, if I’d put the cures in order of personal importance, “just start” would have come first. My single biggest block is the one that stops me before I even start. I love your “refinding your creative self” story. I think people don’t realize sometimes how creative they are, how big the ache to create can be, and how healing it can be to immerse yourself.

      Thank you back!

  13. Chris Edgar March 30, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    I like what you say about dormancy being part of the creative process — or seeming dormancy, perhaps, because the reality is, I think, that creativity is manifesting or at least has the potential to manifest in every act and experience, when we stop carving out a particular part of human life (e.g., writing) and calling it the only creative part.

    • j March 30, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      YES! You’re absolutely right. Creativity comes in many forms and is part of every aspect of our lives. I spent years thinking that everything I did that wasn’t writing (and even worse – wasn’t a very specific literary type of writing) didn’t count.

      So ridiculous, the chains we put on ourselves.

      Thanks, Chris!

  14. Beth April 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Yes yes YES to all of these. The one that seems to be the most important that I forget most often is filling the well…I’m a SAHM of a sweet 6 month old boy, and so I am very depleted all around. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when it’s hard for me to get creative without refilling the well of inspiration. Great post, thanks!

    • j April 13, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

      Yes, I remember that feeling. At some point around my boys’ first birthdays, I remember feeling like I just emerged from a cave. When they were babies, I was happy just to be able to sleep – creative projects were beyond hoping for.

      I hope you’re finding time better than I did!

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