Overcoming Creative Blocks

writers block.jpg

I don’t believe in writer’s block, per se, but I do believe we can sometimes create blocks around creative goals. Perhaps we were discouraged as a child by a well-meaning parent or teacher. Perhaps, like me, you were told to quit daydreaming, or told that writing – or painting or dancing or acting – was fine as an avocation, but not something you should take seriously.

Recently, I asked a well-published poet whom I have known for a long time if he would read some of my poems and recommend me for a grant I was applying for. After a week, he wrote me an email and told me he thought my poems were “unremarkable,” that I should probably stick to prose, and that he couldn’t recommend them.

Well, as you can imagine, I was devastated. Not only because it was in contrast to what others had told me, but also because there was not a shred of encouragement in his assessment. No, “If you did this with the poem it would work better,” or “The form doesn’t seem to work here, have you tried this…?” or “The lines could be enlivened here with more figurative language.”

That criticism kept me from writing poetry for nearly six months. Even though, intellectually, I knew better than to put stock in it, it still cut to the core. I let it keep me from doing one of the things I love. Now, after all this time, I am tenuously picking up my pen and writing poetry again.

It is a lesson I learned a long time ago and should have heeded.

Give yourself the gift of not inviting criticism from anyone who is 1) a relative, 2) an academic (more on this in a minute) 3) a friend who doesn’t know anything about writing (or dancing, or painting, etc.) 4) anyone whom you have not paid for their professional opinion.

That said, many writers belong to critique groups, and if you have found one peopled with skilled and experienced writers whom you admire and who are already published, bravo. Writing groups can be successful. Just make sure they are helping you grow as a writer.

Now, about academics. Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) says academics are often frustrated artists who are trained to critique, to take apart, to deconstruct. So that’s what they do. Sadly, often because they are not following their own creative path, they are particularly critical. They rarely offer the kind of encouragement artists need, especially young artists just beginning to practice their craft.

In any case, if criticism of any kind doesn’t resonate with you, disregard it.

Your writing – your art – is yours, no one else’s. Remember that. And trust in yourself and your creative gifts. Everyone’s creation is worthy.

If you find yourself truly blocked, there are a few practical things you can do to shake yourself out of it.

One is to do something else: Go for a walk, watch a good movie, take a nap, read a good book. Let your subconscious work while you focus on something else. Whenever I do this, I always come back to my writing desk with renewed energy and usually some good ideas or a solution to a writing problem. In fact, there is research that indicates that when you stop trying to force something to happen and turn your attention elsewhere, your brain takes over and solves the problem. That’s why many people recommend that you pose a question or problem to yourself just before falling asleep so your mind can work on it while you sleep.

Often the opposite works: Just begin writing, even if you write “blah, blah, blah” and continue that for three pages. Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) both recommend this method. Just write; don’t worry about what it says or how it looks. Eventually you’ll see it turn into something.

I have journaled every morning for most of my adult life, but have recently followed Cameron’s advice and am doing it with much more intention. And you know what? I can honestly say the words are flowing more readily, and my creative side is dancing a jig.

Don’t allow others to discourage you from practicing your art. Stay on your creative path.



Quote of the Day - Anais Nin

“You must not fear, hold back, count or be a miser with your thoughts and feelings. It is also true that creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing. Permit yourself to flow and overflow, allow for the rise in temperature, all the expansions and intensifications. Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them. If it seems to you that I move in a world of certitudes, you, par contre, must benefit from the great privilege of youth, which is that you move in a world of mysteries. But both must be ruled by faith.” – Anais Nin, to a young writer

Art and Imperfection

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” -- David Foster Wallace.

This quote was in this week’s Brain Pickings newsletter and it really resonated. I have been thinking a lot recently about imperfection. What it means in a work of art. What it means for the artist. What it means for those of us who appreciate it, flaws and all. How it serves as a symbol of the imperfections we all carry within us, and of the imperfections of humans, society and the world in general.

I bought a silver necklace when I was in Costa Rica last fall. It is quite beautiful, with orange stones and silver links. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the two silver tubular beads near the pendant are two different lengths. Maybe by only an eighth of an inch, but there’s a difference. I didn’t notice it at first, of course. Only after studying it did it become apparent.

It made me wonder if the artist had done it intentionally, as a mark of individuality. Mapmakers insert intentional errors into their maps as a way to copyright them. They might change the spelling of a street, or leave off a tiny road altogether. That way if someone stole the map and tried to market it, they would know instantly if it was theirs. I doubt the necklace-maker did it for that reason. Perhaps she ran out of similar-sized beads, or – given the slight difference – didn’t notice it herself. At any rate, it doesn't diminish the beauty of the necklace, and I would be willing to bet that no one would ever notice it while I was wearing the piece.

Yet, we all seem to strive for perfection in our work. Our industries and businesses demand it, schools expect our children to work hard to reach it, our parents expect exemplary behavior. But art is not perfect. Art is necessarily imperfect, asymmetrical, atypical, individualistic. Unique. And it is art that makes our world – our lives – so rich.

Wallace was on to something. While I think the quote above was meant to encourage the perfectionists among us to chill out, what results from letting go of perfectionism is often art. It is the process of allowing what is emerging to do so without forcing it, without preconceived ideas of what it’s supposed to be, look like and act. It’s a philosophy we can apply to the art we create, as well as our lives and even our children (speaking to myself here). Let them become who and what they want to be, not what our perfectionist egos want them to be.

Write, sculpt, paint, play an instrument – create – in the way that feels right to you. It is all art, and it is all good.