What To Do When You Hit a Creative Block
Have you ever set out to create something only to end up stuck somewhere along the way? Maybe it’s an element that isn’t working, or perhaps the concept is just not translating the way you hoped. Or how about when you start to question whether your idea was worth its salt to begin with? What then? Though it can be an extremely frustrating circumstance, what if I told you these roadblocks are as important as the process itself? It’s true! And I’m going to tell you why.
When I studied studio arts at Texas Tech, I had a professor that was new to the university. He was the stereotypical artist-type, but he had chosen to fly to our stinky cow-town weekly to teach classes only to return to his family on the weekends. At the time, I couldn’t understand why someone would make such a sacrifice for a career. However, now that I have a family of my own, I can say that for the love of art and making it support your family, I can certainly empathize! I digress. Michael was a fabulous painter with a killer work ethic and I aspire toward something similar--I bet you didn’t know I was a painter too, did you? Surprise! I studied oils for 3 years before abandoning it to pursue family-life!
At any rate, oils didn’t come easily to me--nothing really has. I’ve always felt as though I had to scratch and claw my way to anything resembling success. Painting was no different. There I was studying oils and yet I felt as though I was constantly failing at the assignments Michael gave. He was incredibly patient as the very best teachers are. In fact, it was not at all uncommon for me to send a midnight S.O.S. and receive a response within the hour. That may seem like a small thing now, but in 2003 we were pre-smart phone, and the culture wasn’t yet accustomed to being constantly attached to email.
I remember an approaching deadline for an assignment late one evening and sending a particularly pointed S.O.S. email to Michael. On this particular night, I had come to the end of myself. My newly-wed husband had long-since been asleep on the other side of the wall, while my bloodshot eyes and desperate fingers pumped the keys of a massive computer to frantically incite the help of my professor. I didn’t think I had it in me to complete this assignment and I wanted desperately to quit. I had about two days until the deadline and nothing close to presentable. This moment--this email--seemed like a defining moment.
Oh, it was defining for sure.
Just not in the way you might expect.
The response came in the wee hours not long after I sent it and I distinctly remember how I felt when my I laid my paintbrush down to reply. I trembled as I opened the email, but where I had expected to receive diplomatically-veiled-disdain, I was instead met with perplexing excitement.
Wait, what?! This man was enthusiastic about my struggling? What sort of psychosis is this?
None, as it turns out.
You see, he knew something I was about to learn in the best and hardest way: Challenge is a part of the process. It’s not a byproduct of crappy artistry and it’s not something “good” artists grow out of. No. It's something we grow into.
Challenge is where wisdom and perseverance are forged. It’s where we are faced with our shortcomings and invited to grow. If a tree grows stronger by weathering the storms, so do we, but we do so only by moving through it with the acceptance that we are touched by something greater than ourselves.
At any rate, Michael described his exuberance over my struggle. Not because he was sadistic in the way many of us might describe some of our college professors. No. He told me he wasn’t worried about my artistry at all. He said that the very fact that I was reaching for something outside of myself meant that I was going to be okay. He expressed great concern over the students who weren’t reaching out for help, worried they would not grow. He explained to me how his job was not to create great painters, but instead to create skilled thinkers...creative problem solvers. A people who see creative blocks as an opportunity to dig deeper and who have the longsuffering to see a hard work to completion.
It’s perhaps the best and the worst part of the creative process.
This past Friday, I set out with a lofty goal to photograph and video two--TWO--images in 2 hour time span.The problem was, I wasn’t having fun doing it. It felt hard and little seemed to go according to plan. I eventually had to call it and pack up. Turns out I’d forced the hand of inspiration and suffocated it altogether, but not before getting a few handfuls of shots I’d try to salvage. However, when I got it back to my computer, much to my disdain, nothing wanted to work. I could only get within a stones throw of what I’d wanted! Again and again I tried, but the image wouldn’t budge. I’d hit a wall.
It’s a familiar story any artist can empathize with. So what did I do? I surrendered to the piece. Why? Because it was begging me for room to breathe. I had no choice but to “serve the work” as Madeleine L’Engle calls it. So I gave it the room it needed.
If you don’t wrestle with your art, are you creating good art? If it doesn’t push you, pull you, or make you uncomfortable at least part of the time, are you really creating worthwhile work?
So this is my advice: Don’t be afraid of the challenge or creative blocks.
Sure it might make you angry. Maybe you feel you don’t have time for it. You might be tempted to question everything. I get it! I’ve been there a time or two ( *ahem* Friday). The sooner we accept this, the sooner we will start to make better art!
What if you get really-really stuck? What then…?
That’s when you wave your white flag. Wave it until you feel it in your bones, and then walk away.
You see, when you encounter these sorts of immovable walls, take it as a reassurance that something great is about to be born, but know that you can’t rush the process. You just can’t.
The way of the artist is to labor with the piece; but the piece will be birthed in its own time. So first surrender and clear your mind. Go do something you love. Sleep on it. Do whatever it takes to clear your head-space. Let the piece breathe. And finally, reach outside yourself. Seek out familiar sources of inspiration to get your creative juices flowing again. Watch and wait. Stay in tune with your heart and anticipate the subtle twinges that indicate your next move. If you’ve quieted your heart enough, you’ll feel it when it comes. These twinges will be the catalyst you need to transition through the next stage of the laboring process.
Sometimes pieces have a mind of their own. Trust me when I say they do.
But if you practice these steps, your piece will come to life and creative blocks will lose their intimidation. Sometimes it takes floating through these steps multiples times. But it does work! And if I’m wrong--well-- reach out to me! I’d love to engage with you or perhaps lend a helping hand!
Afterall, community is everything.
All my best,