Every once in a while, a miracle happens: A writer or a designer or an artist finds herself with an open window of time. Envision a shaft of light streaming in and an angels’ chorus. But then doubt creeps in, darkening the scene, and this creative soul is suddenly unable to work. No ink flows from the pen, no marks on the page, no code written.
This kind of creative block, frustrating as it may be, sort of has our best interests in mind. At least in the short term. Which is the problem; short-term pain avoidance may be evolutionarily adaptive for not getting eaten by wild beasts, but it’s not particularly amenable to creative growth, which, let’s face it, is an often-painful process. Heartbreakingly, writer’s block as a non-particularly adaptive strategy for avoiding pain can begin as early as primary school in children who fear judgment.
Self-protection can be useful. Except when it isn’t. For creative workers, the ego-protecting mechanism known as a block or a writer’s block protects our sense of self at the expense of our most important work. To grow as creative people, we have to first of all put in the sometimes-painful reps that develop our crafts and then expose our work to the world, where it may be rejected or ridiculed. It’s perhaps no wonder that the bigger the creative ideal, the stronger the follow-up reaction to protect oneself by shelving it may be. Part of the problem with pursuing the big creative project may be the many thoughts, both positive and negative, that spring up about the project. Focused attention is key to creativity, and the various thoughts about failure, success or meta-cognition about how difficult the task is all contribute to making creativity that much harder to sustain.
Given the real problem a block can present to someone who works creatively, the simple advice to “get over it” or “push past it” (often delivered harshly by interior dialogue as from someone else) just doesn’t cut it. Instead, blocked creative workers need a portfolio of concrete strategies to deploy. Here are a few:
1. Make a list.
Who doesn’t love a good list? A list that takes the project as an intimidating whole and breaks it down into specific tasks gives you a palette of options to choose from each day, ranging from the mundane to the more creatively ambitious. You can then pick and choose depending on how you are feeling that day. Also, by breaking your project into actionable steps, you are also reminding yourself that the project is not you; instead, it is a thing you are doing. Sometimes a simple reminder of this fact can be soothing.
2. Change the scene.
Sometimes we can grow to associate a particular place with bad or blocked feelings. As a result, a simple shift to a new room or a new coffee shop can offer a fresh start on the project.
3. Approach the project lightly.
This shift is both attitudinal and material. What if, instead of taking the big work seriously, you found the room to play in the project or in the project’s creation? This might look different depending on your working context, but a delightful study on enhancing the creativity of children by improving their moods offers the suggestion that simply playing upbeat music and participating in simulated laughter can improve creativity. What if you took a second to laugh, even if forced, before starting? What if you broke out colored pens and pencils to draft your proposal? What if you took a walk and dictated while breathing the fresh air? How can you shake your process loose from heavy feelings?
4. Apply the minimum possible effort.
Given your field of work, what’s the least possible thing you could do? Is it running the spell check? Is it printing something out to read? When you are really stuck, small items like these keep you in touch with the project and keep it moving forward without necessarily activating the scary feelings associated with a big creative project.
5. Try the trick of least possible time.
What if you radically limited the amount of time you allowed yourself to spend on the task? Sometimes big, grand creative projects seem to demand big, intimidating work hours. But what if you told yourself you could work on the project for only five minutes every day, scheduled those five minutes on a calendar and used a timer to hold yourself to that tiny upper limit? Chances are you’d build the muscle of touching the project in a regular way, and by keeping things limited for at least a week, you might even build desire to work more going forward.
What all these strategies share is an effort to deflate the creative project’s scary, ego-threatening aspects, taming it into a manageable live-withable size so that you can do the work that matters so much without feeling that any one work session matters too much.
Related: What to Do When You Feel Stuck
Photo by Zamurovic Photography / Shutterstock.com
Katherine Fusco is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches film, theory, and American literature. She is the author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature: Time, Narrative and Modernity (Routledge) and Kelly Reichardt (University of Illinois). Currently, Katherine is working on a book about stardom and questions of identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Katherine has appeared in The Atlantic, Dilettante Army, Harpers Bazaar, Headspace, OZY and Salmagundi; you can find her blog on motherhood and creativity at CreateLikeAMother.blog.