It’s been a long Winter. Not just outwardly, in terms of cold temperatures, grey skies, wind, rain and occasional snow, but also inwardly too. I’ve felt myself stuck in a kind of inner Winter; physically, emotionally, creatively and professionally. Aside for commissioned work, I’ve struggled to write a single sentence. My third novel, which I initially had hoped might be completed and published this year, has stalled in the initial chapters. My two blogs have been frozen, with no new content in months. I engaged in a pre-scheduled blog tour to promote The Key of Alanar in January, and that was both fun and difficult. Fun because I love that book with all my heart, and I enjoyed sharing the process behind it, but also difficult because I really just felt like retreating from the world and hiding away.
I actually reached a point where I didn’t think I would ever write another word again. I just didn’t know if I could. The Key of Alanar totally exhausted me. I’d put more into that book than anything in my life, ever. I actually didn’t know if there was anything more I had to say, or even, sadly, any great burning demand for more. I began to second guess myself creatively and even personally. There’s nothing more toxic to any writer or artist than the horrifying thought ‘what will they think?’ It paralyses and chokes the life out of genuine creative endeavour. It instils a certain level of fear and pressure that makes it very hard press forward. This fear is always there in artists; the fear of failure, or maybe even the fear of success; of criticism or even worse, being ignored altogether. It’s always there as a kind of low level background rumble. But the moment we give into it, it becomes a deafening wail. It disrupts and paralyses and, if we happen to give into it and lose our momentum, it can be very very hard to overcome. Creative block can last for not just days and weeks, but months and years. Some truly talented artists never recover from it. In some respects they lose a part of their soul. There are few creatures in life quite as miserable as a blocked artist!
Perhaps this Winter season is a necessary one, however. Everything in life flows in cycles. There is a time for flowers to bud and bloom, for the sun to shine and for life to flourish, and also a time for things to wind down as the life force retreats inward. There is most definitely a time for dormancy, and maybe creativity cannot flourish without that. It’s the space in which new visions begin to take shape and new ideas start to form.
The last few days I’ve felt the first stirrings of Spring; not only outwardly in terms of seeing flowers bloom and small buds on certain trees, but also inwardly in terms of my own creativity. I think I’m ready to start writing again. In fact, I’m determined that I’m ready to start writing again. Every day I will sit and type words. I have no idea how those words will turn out, but at least I’ll begin to create a momentum once more. I have something to share with the world again, and now is the time to do it. Here’s to the Spring!
I’m excited to be relaunching my Dreamlight Fugitive blog in addition to my main blog, Beyond the Dream! My first new post is about something that affects everyone in any creative field: the arch-enemy of creative expression…self doubt!
Yesterday, having finally finished my new novel after a year and a half of work (and the rest! But that’s another story!), I was clobbered over the head by an attack of self doubt. I’d just ordered proofing copies yet I found myself going back and picking away at random sentences, trying to find better ways of stringing the words together in order to reach that most elusive of writerly goals: the ‘perfect sentence’!
One thing led to another and I soon started to question the entire book. What if it wasn’t ready to be put out into the world? Feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction quickly turned to feelings of anxiety and dread. What if I was in fact one of the worst writers ever to pick up a pen or hammer away at a keyboard? I’m safe at the moment, but the moment the book is published it’s a target and as the one-stars reviews come flooding in, I’ll be revealed as the terrible hack I am! I even very briefly considered binning the entire book and starting again from scratch.
That’s how self-doubt works! It’s a vicious, pernicious and potentially crippling little monster. It hides away in the darkest recesses of the mind and is prone to jumping out at inopportune moments and letting rip with its penchant for woeful catastrophising. It’s something that every artist and writer must learn to live with and it does get easier with time.
Most of the time I have it under control. But coming to the end of a project, when you are actually taking the steps to releasing that work into the world, makes the self-doubt monster terribly antsy. Stirring from its slumber like a cat that was only really half-asleep the whole time, you know the meltdown is inevitable.
“You’re thinking of publishing THAT? Are you crazy?! It needs at least another year of work. The critics are gonna tear it to shreds!”
Now, a little self-doubt is healthy. It gives us a certain objectivity about our work, which is useful in the editing stage (and throughout, really). It becomes harmful however when it degenerates into an overwrought, mud-slinging, anxiety-ridden neurotic monster, determined to convince us that nothing we do is good enough and that we’d be better off setting it aside and slumping onto the sofa and firing up Netflix. So pervasive and persuasive is the self-doubt monster, it’s almost certainly destroyed countless artists’ careers before they’ve even had the chance to get in the game. Left unchecked, this inner censor will not only hinder your creativity, it will completely destroy it and leave you a blubbering and, above all, blocked wreck!
The self-doubt monster is actually pretty easy to deal with it however. And here’s how.
First of all, take the ‘self’ out of self-doubt. It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s simply a thought and that thought’s corresponding emotion. It’s actually completely impersonal. We all get it — everyone, in every walk of life! It’s certainly not unique to us. Self-doubt is basically fear. It’s a defence mechanism designed to somehow keep us safe, even if it is a little misinformed and ultimately wholly counterproductive. Depersonalising it immediately takes the sting out of it.
Secondly, once I’ve depersonalised it, I personify it. This might make me sound utterly crazy, but I find it helpful to give it a name and form. I call my self-doubt monster Fred. Fearful Fred. He looks like a big, fat and slightly ungainly grey caterpillar. Most the time he just wiggles about in the recesses of my mind, doing whatever it is caterpillars do. Occasionally however, something gets Fred riled and he gets all worked out and inflates in size, becoming a gargantuan blob full of his own hot air. This happened last night when I somehow convinced myself I was the worst writer in human history.
I isolated the emotion in my body (it seemed to be around my belly, or solar plexus) and I decided to have a chat with Fred (as the personification of my self-doubt). He was beside himself with fear, anxiety and dread. So I made him a cup of tea, sat him down and explained that I’m grateful he’s so diligent in looking out for me, but there was no need for such stress and worry. Yeah, it’s always a little scary releasing a new piece of work into the world, as it probably is for a baby bird being pushed out of its nest in the hopes it will fly for the first time. But I reminded myself the importance of keeping everything in perspective.
I wrote an article last year about the power of karma yoga. Karma yoga isn’t a sequence of physical postures as you might expect, but a mindset with which we approach life. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, we have the right to act, but the fruit of those actions is not up to us. So the karma yoga attitude — which is the greatest antidote to stress that I know — is simply to do our best and let go of the results. Once an arrow has been fired it’s no longer up to us whether it hits the intended target. Chances are we’ve done our best to ensure that it does, but it’s now under the control of a set of natural laws and dynamics that are completely outwith our sphere of influence. All we can do is relax, take it easy and endeavour to take whatever comes with good grace.
The self-doubt monster can be an implacable and relentless foe to any creative person. It’s probably cost me years of my life. I’m certain I’d have more than one novel published by now if I hadn’t spent years under the sway of Fred, bless his heart. Now I’ve learned to master my mind and emotions a little bit more. This doesn’t mean that self-doubt and other self-limiting thoughts vanish forever. But it does mean that when they come up I can put them in their place and simply get on with things. As the Tao Te Ching says:
Mastering others is strength; mastering ourselves is true power.
Self-doubt and anxiety are defence mechanisms generated by the unconscious mind to keep us safe. But we are safe! As artists we follow our calling, we write the stories and paint the pictures that our muse is kind enough to share with us. We learn and grow and improve our skills all the time. We make mistakes, but mistakes are an essential part of the learning curve. Never be afraid to make mistakes! And never allow yourself to be held prisoner to the tyranny of other people’s opinions. Some people will love what you do, and some people won’t. Some people are fair in their criticism and some people are jerks with clear psychological deficiencies (I now refrain from reading comments sections on youtube and other websites because of this!).
Learn to wrestle with your self-doubt monster. Or make it a cup of tea as I do. Usually once I’ve had a firm but loving chat with Fred, I imagine sending him off on an all-expenses paid vacation to Tenerife where he can just relax in the sun all day drinking Pina Colada while I get on with what I have to do.
Self-doubt is ignorance masquerading as truth. Don’t let it cripple you. Take charge of it and educate it. You’re doing fine, let it know that and these lagging parts of the mind will eventually catch up. When we no longer give fear or doubt power over us, when we educate them and put them into perspective, we give ourselves the greatest gift of all. Freedom! And freedom is the ultimate goal of all creative — and moreover, all human — endeavour! So dance with your doubts and allow yourself to be free.
This fantastic song and video by one of my favourite artists, Bat For Lashes, is about just that. This was the song that Natasha Khan wrote after a long spell of creative block, and it’s very much about learning to tame and dance with the monsters of self-doubt, despair and fear. Enjoy.
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.
The past couple of months I’ve felt a little burnt-out creatively. Isn’t that weird? It’s been an amazing year creatively, I got a publisher for my novel Eladria, which should be released at the end of the year and I self-published my first short story (‘Artan’s Night’, now available as a free download) which has received some really good feedback. It’s also such a kick to be able to search for my name on Amazon and iBooks and actually find my work on there! That’s nothing short of a dream come true, and whatever else happens, I’m really proud of that.
So I’m not sure what happened when I started to my second short story. I had it all planned out and I knew exactly what I was writing, but somehow I was struggling to get the words out. The flow just wasn’t there. I was having to force words onto the screen, and even then was rather unsatisfied with them.
I realised I’d been struck by the dreaded writer’s block! I think virtually all writers experience this affliction at one time or another. It’s something I encounter now and again and I’ve thus far managed to uncover two main causes.
The first cause of writer’s block, for me, is that I’m trying to write something I’m simply not ready to write. Rushing into a project too soon can be a mistake. Before clothing them in words, sentences and paragraphs, I like to let the ideas percolate in my mind for a while. This is almost an unconscious process, for even when I’m not consciously working on the story or essay and playing around with ideas and structure, I often feel there’s something taking shape on an unconscious level, as though the piece is forming itself. All I need to do is 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 writing, 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 invigorating and exciting.
Attempting it the other way — trying to wrestle with ideas and words and force them 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 find I have to remain in the 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 I see and hear in my mind.
The second possible cause of creative block is perfectionism. 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 could 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, I never tend to get anything written, as I’m still stuck on trying to fix and perfect that first sentence.
I believe perfectionism stems from a kind of performance anxiety. Obviously you want your work to be as good as it can possibly be so other people will like it. I think this is at the root of my recent bout of writer’s block. My short stories are being written and immediately published and there’s part of me that’s immensely freaked out by that because, quite simply, if they’re not up to scratch people won’t like them and won’t want to read more. The idea of publishing some free short stories prior to the release of my novel was as a means to get people interested and compelled to read more. In the back of my mind I was concerned that my stories might not be up to the standard of the novel and might in fact put people off buying the novel.
That hasn’t happened though, so I need to get over that. And what’s more, I need to get back to enjoying the process of writing. 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 in the first place: namely 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 writing becomes an arduous struggle and the quality of the output suffers as well.
So, the solutions I’ve found to writer’s block are pretty simple. First of all, make sure you’re actually ready to start writing. At the risk of sounding ridiculously touchy-feely, 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.
The second and most important key is to let go of the inner critic for a while. Send it on a paid vacation, get it to take 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.