How to banish creative block

We’ve all been there. The dreaded blank canvas. The acres of white staring out at us from a computer screen: accusatory, mocking, demanding to be filled. And a mind as empty and arid as an American desert, tumbleweeds rolling across the plain…

Creative block can be disturbing – a nightmare, even. It’s disheartening, confusing and downright frustrating, but it isn’t insurmountable. The key is learning not only how to deal with it, but understanding what is happening and why.

Here is part 1 of a three-parter to get your mind moving again.

Take a break
Be honest and ask yourself: ‘Am I working too hard?’ Or indeed: ‘Am I trying too hard?’ ‘How long have I been slaving over this project and finding myself at a loss?’

Sometimes there comes a point when you simply need to give up the ghost. A depleted, befuddled mind won’t help anyone, least of all yourself.

If you’re repeatedly banging your head against the proverbial brick wall, be kind to yourself and stop. This happens to everyone, so don’t berate yourself. It isn’t failure, just a temporary blip.

Recharge your batteries

Go and do something else. Take a day off –  a long weekend or a proper break is even better, if you can spare the time – and go visit people you love, or places that make you feel good. Pad about at home in comfy clothes. Snooze. Go for a walk, get some fresh air. Recharge your batteries.

Paradoxically, switching off and giving your brain permission to do its own thing is proactive. It may feel like you’re not actually doing anything to achieve your aim – but that’s the point. The connections we make – the insights we achieve – when we’re not concentrating on a problem, are just as valuable as those we do make when we are.

Why? Because we’re taking our foot off the accelerator, allowing our subconscious to breathe for a change and give us some answers.

Doing nothing is creative

This is about accepting that doing nothing is a valid part of the creative process. And it’s an approach advocated by highly successful artists, the musician Brian Eno being one of them.

Even if you haven’t found a solution to your specific problem, taking time out will put you in a far better frame of mind to return to your task and tackle it. You’ll be ready again.

So down tools, if only just for now. Give yourself a breather. It sounds obvious, but taking a break really can do wonders.

What’s going on?
At certain times in our lives, things can get a little rough. Perhaps relationships, home life, health or financial issues are getting us down. All of these – anxiety and worry especially – can interfere with our ability to feel comfortable in ourselves and channel our creativity.

I believe strongly that if we’re troubled, we are not in the flow. We’re unable to allow ourselves to forget time, other people or things, and immerse ourselves fully in creating.

I don’t buy the idea of the obsessive, tortured artist: it’s unhelpful and counterproductive, and definitely not a positive or peaceful way to exist. When we’re preoccupied we are less able to connect with our creative process, because whatever is conflicting us internally gets in the way.

Be gentle with yourself

If you’re going through a difficult period, be gentle with yourself. When challenging things are happening in our lives, it’s only natural that we’re going to feel ill at ease or upset, and thinking about them will take up a lot of brain space.

In that instance – if you feel it might be helpful, and you are able to – consider suspending what you’re doing, just for the time being, and go attend to the important stuff.

Don’t pressure yourself into feeling you must produce your A-game when your mind is taken up with genuine worries – especially if they have anything to do with your health or well-being. When you’re back on form, you’ll feel re-energised and ready to make work.

Negative me
Creative block can be a subterranean little devil. In some cases it’s the mind’s way of manifesting a subconscious sense of inadequacy. A blank canvas or computer screen is basically saying: ‘Well, if I’m terrible at what I do, why do it at all?’

The result? No result, because it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. A negative mindset is great at perpetuating paralysis.

If this sounds familiar, ask yourself these questions.

  • Do I value myself?
  • Do I value my work?
  • Do I rely on my work to validate who I am as a person?
  • Do I feel I’m wasting my time? If so, why?

(Note that here you are not asking yourself: ‘Am I wasting my time?’ This is about your perception of yourself, not a detached assessment of your situation.)

Most artists have insecurity

Self-doubt is a badge we all wear at some point on our path as creatives. Believe me, most artistic people have had a moment of insecurity about their work, however brief – if anyone tells you they haven’t, they’re either very confident or a convincing liar!

I experienced this kind of moment when I was preparing for my first solo photography show. Up until then I had been feeling generally ok about the exhibition, so it caught me completely unawares. I was at my desk, cleaning picture frames at the time, and a thought popped into my head:

“No one will like what you’re doing. Are you insane? You’re going to fill a gallery in three weeks’ time and this is what you have to show for it? Why are you even bothering?”

Harsh words indeed. I wouldn’t even say that to a stranger, let alone a friend!

At this point, the best thing you can do is to push on through. Ignore the gremlins, because that is all they are. They are not real.

Accept your vulnerability, because it’s part of who you are, but don’t give into negative self-talk. If you do, the battle really will be lost.

Remind yourself why you are a creative.
Remind yourself that you are capable of – and are doing – good work.
Remind yourself that this is your calling.
Then, go to it.

In part 2 I’ll be continuing on this theme, outlining practical steps to drive away creative block. Let’s see off those gremlins for good!

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