Diagnosis: Creative block

Yesterday I tentatively diagnosed myself with the unhappy affliction that affects many creative people: creative block. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s a big deal, but it got me thinking about what it really means and if it’s even a thing. Spoiler: it is if you say it is.

Critics of creative block, or writer’s block, say it’s all in you’re head, you invented it as an excuse to avoid work, you’re inexperienced, fearful or you’re just being lazy. All those things might be true, but they can still create barriers to creativity and inspiration, thus we call it creative block. It’s just a term to describe an experience, and in most cases it is not an actual medical condition (such as those caused by head trauma or stroke). The reality is most creatives can relate to experiencing a lack of inspiration, motivation or just plain burnout at least once in their creative lives. What we do about it depends on the reason we’re stuck.

For me it is a four phase process. If all three phases are met we have all the ingredients for creative block.

Phase one: Honeymooning with my Imagination

A common source of creative block for me is the too-many-ideas syndrome. I’m a daydreamer, honeymooning with my imagination. New ideas are fun and easy; they require very little commitment. But they’re just thoughts, not action; action requires a lot more energy. Ideas need fleshing out, which requires much more time and effort. Sometimes it’s a habit that has served me well, but it’s a habit, nonetheless, and it’s a hard one to break. It becomes an issue when it’s time to expand an idea, to put it in to practice and create something with it. Instead of using the idea I can end up obsessing over it for days, sometimes weeks until the concept no longer resembles the original idea. Overthinking the idea is my second bane and can lead to the idea morphing in to a monster I can’t control. I end up hating it. Sometimes I manage to scale it back to the shape of the original idea. When that doesn’t work I put it on my growing “on hold” pile, which is really is just a monument to failed experiments.

This, for me at least, is an early symptom of creative block and it happened with a piece I’m working on at the moment. I took an idea I loved and tried to make it better.

Phase two: Gretel Gets Her Way

So I had an idea, I overthought it, but wrestled it back in to something that resembles the original idea. I still like it very much, but then I started questioning whether or not I actually have the skill to complete the task. This one is often much harder to overcome and a too familiar feeling for many creatives: self-criticism. Most of the time it’s a normal step in the creative process to ask yourself if you have what it takes to complete the task, to critique your own skill set. Sometimes, though, your judgemental, inner critic will tell you you’re “not good enough” and it will be loud enough that you down tools and walk away. I call my inner critic Gretel (for strange reasons only Laurie Anderson fans will understand). Gretel is unfair, unkind, but not always no good. Most of the time Gretel is a whisper in the back of my mind and I use her snarky comments as ballast, for creative stability. Because sometimes Gretel is right. Every now and then, though, she wails and shrieks, overriding all other influences. This usually means Gretel has appointed herself the President of the Enterprise and likes herself a little too much. When it does get to this point it can be hard to talk myself out of it. Fortunately, I know myself (and Gretel) well enough to understand it’s only a temporary state of mind. If I rest the project I can usually return to it fresh and begin anew. But that is all provided there is no phase 3, in which case, Gretel gets her way.

Phase three: Even Louder than Gretel

Living a creative life is essential to a maintaining a healthy mind, at least for myself. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is gratifying and has many more benefits than it has disadvantages. Really the only disadvantage I can think of is the expense of all those lovely art supplies. But sometimes, life gets in the way and I find myself overwhelmed by external forces. For me that external force was the announcement by the state government of the re-closing of the Queensland border, where I live, to residents of New South Wales. This is due to outbreaks of Covid in that state and the first new cases of Covid in mine since May. This came as a bit of a blow as I have family in New South Wales, some only three hours away by car. I’ve only seen my mother once in eight months on account of Covid, despite her living relatively close. As much as I know the closure is necessary and temporary – we will be with them again – it means I can’t be with my sister on her birthday next week, for which we were planning a family reunion and celebration, and they can’t be with us for my daughter’s tenth birthday celebrations coming up in September. My daughter was understandably gutted and visibly crumpled when I told her. That broke my heart. I was already feeling the burden of self-doubt. Now, feeling helpless and overwhelmed, I couldn’t find the inspiration or motivation to paint anything. No idea has roused in me any enthusiasm for painting or writing (with exception to this post). I haven’t done any drawing for five days. Not long in the grand scheme of things, but long enough for someone who paints, draws and writes almost all day everyday. This phase for me is the most difficult to shake off, because it has engaged my heart and heart has a louder voice than mind. Even louder than Gretel.

Phase Four: Listen to Gretel

It’s important to understand, had any of these things happened in isolation I might have weathered any part of it. But that’s the thing about creative block, it never is about just one thing. It’s almost always an accumulation of things, at least for me – although I suspect this is true for many creatives. At any other time being creative might have helped me deal with the blow of not being able to see my family, but I was already feeling a little burnt out. I should have listened to Gretel. That inner noise has always been an accurate barometer of when to step back.

Stepping back doesn’t mean stopping, especially since I don’t know how to not be creative. It just means changing the focus a little, better yet, giving it all less gravity. It doesn’t always have to be the magnum opus, after all.

I have done many of these creative blocks in my time as a writer and artist, so I know a few things about it:

  1. Interlude – creative block is rarely permanent. It’s a transitional phase, so treat it like an ellipsis rather than a full stop.
  2. Ruminate. If ideas are still coming, let them. You don’t have to act on them, but do record them. Let your mind wander.
  3. Recognise – you already have the tools you need to conquer it yourself. Still, it can help to read up on the experiences of other creative people.
  4. Absorb – Reading fiction is a great way of escaping and relaxing the mind and can give the creative machine a much needed oiling.
  5. Hidden, not gone – your mind is still creating even if you’re not conscious of it. It never stopped.
  6. Gather – use the time to gather some creative fodder, whatever form that takes.
  7. Poise – be patient with yourself. You will get back your mojo.

So that’s where I’m at. I have no sketchbook update or prompt to offer, just some thoughts on creative block. I’m interested to hear what you think and what sorts of things you do to ease out of creative block. Or indeed if you’re one the few who haven’t experienced it.

2 thoughts on “Diagnosis: Creative block

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