For any creative person — whether they’re a writer, artist, poet, designer or musician — nothing is worse than the dreaded creative block. The ideas suddenly dry up, inspiration wanes and it becomes a struggle to bring any project to completion. More than just frustrating, these creative dry spells can be quite soul-crushing and may last for weeks, months, or even years.
I think virtually all writers and artists are struck by this affliction at one time or another. After finding a publisher for my first novel, Eladria, I figured I should have been on fire creatively. But I found that as I started trying to write some short stories, the flow just wasn’t there. I was struggling to force words onto the page, and even then I wasn’t especially satisfied with the output. I realised I’d been struck by creative block! But rather than struggling, fretting and resisting it as I would have done in the past, I decided to accept it, explore it and work with it.
As I examined this condition, I uncovered two main causes — and solutions.
1. Trying to force creativity
I believe that a defining characteristic of a great artist in any field is humility. Creativity is not so much something that comes from us, as it is something that flows through us. It took me a number of years to realise that it that can’t be coerced or forced by the mind. Attempting to do so is a sure-fire way to end up blocked and frustrated. Creativity is something that we need to create a space for, an opening in which something will grow and develop.
The first cause of writer’s block, for me, is often trying to write something that I’m not ready to write. Rushing into a project too soon can be a mistake. I like to let ideas percolate in my mind for a while before clothing them in words, sentences and paragraphs. This is almost an unconscious process; even when I’m not consciously working on the story or essay, I often feel there’s something taking shape on an unconscious level, as though the piece is forming itself. I’ll write plenty of notes and maybe draw some doodles, and be open to flashes or inspiration and snippets of dialogue. But I don’t force it yet. I wait until I feel it’s ready and then get into a clear-minded state and allow it to emerge and reveal itself. It’s a kind of passive approach to creativity, but that’s how I’ve done my best writing. Once I ease myself into the creative flow, the words pretty much write themselves and it’s a marvellous process too, one that feels exciting and invigorating. Attempting it the other way — trying to wrestle with ideas force words onto the page — is often an uphill struggle and one that leaves me frustrated and drained.
So in order to stay in the creative flow, I recommend remaining in a mode of ‘passive writing’, which is almost a kind of listening; listening to and observing the ideas, stories and characters as they take shape, allowing them to emerge fully formed, and then dictating what you see and hear in your mind. This applies to other forms of creativity as well. Try allowing a painting, sculpture or piece of music to form itself, and then when you’re ready, capture it in your chosen medium.
I’ve always been a terrible perfectionist, rarely satisfied and prone to editing a piece of work to within an inch of its life. No matter how many times I’ve chopped and changed a sentence I still think it can be improved. That perhaps makes me a good editor, but it’s not so great when I’m trying to create a new piece of work. I learned a long time ago that in order to create a good first draft I have to switch off the internal editor and write first — edit later. If I can’t do that, it’s a struggle to get anything written, as I’m still stuck on trying to fix and perfect that first sentence.
I believe this applies to any kind of creativity. The first stage is getting your work onto the page as freely and joyfully as you can, while the second stage is taking what you’ve done and editing, polishing and bringing it to completion. Confusing these two stages is a primary cause of creative block.
Perfectionism stems from a kind of performance anxiety. Whilst you obviously want your work to be as good as possible, being overly focused on the results and what others will think can create a complete creative paralysis. The best way to get over debilitating perfectionism is to let go of all concern about what others might think and remember why you write, paint or compose in the first place. The answer is normally because it’s your passion and you love doing it. When you lose the love and enjoyment and get crippled by fears and doubts, you sabotage yourself. The process of creating becomes an arduous struggle and the quality of your output often suffers as well.
Summary of solutions to creative block
The solutions I’ve found to creative block are pretty simple.
First of all, you have to be remember that you can’t force creativity. Inspiration and ideas can’t be cajoled or commanded, they only tend to appear when you’re in a suitably open and receptive state of mind. The gestation period of any creative project requires a degree of sensitivity and intuition. You have to be alert to know whether the project is ‘cooked’ and ready to serve up or whether you need to let it simmer a while longer. There’s nothing worse than trying to force out undercooked ideas. Indigestion is inevitable.
This doesn’t mean you should sit and twiddle our thumbs. Being open to inspiration often means playing around with ideas, making sketches, paintings and exploring certain combinations and styles. Inspiration comes when you open yourself to it. It helps to be relaxed, open and prepared to experiment. You can then allow breakthroughs to emerge organically, in their own way and at their own time.
The second and most important key is to silence your inner critic for a while. Send it on a paid vacation, making sure it takes all of its fears and anxieties with it, and simply ENJOY what you’re doing. Keep it fun and exciting. If you lose the enjoyment, you’ll eventually lose your passion and this will be reflected in the quality of the work. Write (or paint, sculpt, or compose) as if you’re just doing it for yourself and your own enjoyment. Do it freely, without inhibition and without concern for what other people might think. It’ll get edited and polished up at a later stage and the rest will take care of itself. Until then, don’t lose the enjoyment. And I suppose that’s a great rule, not just for creative work, but for life as a whole.