Have you ever dealt with a creative block, or are you dealing with one now? If so, I want you to know you’re not alone...and give you some ideas for getting out of your rut.
In my mind, there are two levels of severity when it comes to creative ruts. In the first, you feel like inspiration has abandoned you. In the second, you’re not even there to receive inspiration if it does strike.
Let me unpack that.
Creative Rut - Level 1
Imagine creativity as a little Super Mario plumbing pipe. You’re on one end, with your ear pressed to the opening, and the inspiration gods are on the other end, sending you ideas (and mushrooms, and coins, I guess).
Level One creative ruts—like writer’s block—are blocked on just one end of the Super Mario tunnel. You keep showing up to create, but inspiration has abandoned you.
These kinds of blocks are typically short-lived dry spells. Maybe you go through a stretch where don’t have any “good” ideas, or you feel like inspiration has dried up. Everytime you try to pen a poem, paint a watercolor, write a song, create a font, make a pot (it could be anything!) you twiddle your thumbs and wait for a lightning bolt that won’t come. It’s frustrating, but not insurmountable.
In my experience, this kind of creative block can be solved with patience and a little playfulness. Not inspired? Take a different route on your commute, turn off Netflix and read a book, go to a museum, volunteer, or take a day trip. Eventually, a merciful idea will plop into your head and you’ll be back in the game.
Maybe your problem is that you have plenty of ideas, but you’re convinced none of them are good enough. In that case, give yourself permission to create work that isn’t as good as you want it to be. That’s part of this creative person’s game.
When I get stuck because I feel insecure about the work I’m doing, or beat myself up about how good it is or isn’t, I come back to this old favorite from Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to beginners, and I really wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is a gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, it’s still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have this special thing we want it to have.
Everybody goes through that. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while It’s gonna take you awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through that.”
Learning to work through imposter syndrome and keep making things when it feels like you’re so far away from your goal—that’s its own post. Here, I want to talk about a more fatal kind of creative block—one that I don’t think we hear about as often...
Creative Rut - Level 2
More severe creative ruts are blocked on both ends of the tunnel: not only do you feel like you’re lacking in ideas, but you’re also not there to receive those ideas. It’s like when those scary chomping Piranha Plants come out of the tunnel to eat you—you’re not listening for ideas because you’re scared of getting close to the tunnel at all.
In this case, no matter how many mushrooms the creativity gods send you, you won’t receive them, because you can’t get close enough to hear them.
I’m not sure what’s happening in this image, but it looks like Mario is hiding in a sock, terrified of the chompy plant. Img credit US Gamer
Not into the Super Mario analogy? Here’s what a Level 2 Creative Rut looked like for me:
In 2017, I’d been in a 5+ year creative rut. More like a creative ditch, or canyon.
Despite considering myself a writer and musician, getting two degrees in English, and spending two decades making music and performing, I hadn’t spent much time on those arts since I was an undergrad, and I certainly hadn’t shared anything I’d done with the world. I’d once written op-eds for the school paper and gigged with a jazz band, but before I knew it, years had passed since I’d produced a thing, even just for myself.
It’s not always so tragic to leave behind an artform, of course; plenty of artists consciously choose to redirect their efforts and pursue something new. That’s not why I was letting my former passions lie, though. Something kept me from pursuing these things I felt were crucial to my identity, and maybe even part of my purpose on earth, if you believe in that kind of thing. ;)
It wasn’t that I didn’t have creative ideas—I wasn’t even showing up for them. I wasn’t practicing creativity, and I didn’t know how to. My creative block wasn’t just about waiting for inspiration, it was about giving myself permission to receive it.
So...what’s causing your creative block?
I’ve been working through my creative block for the past year or so, and, while I don’t have it all figured out by any means, I’ve learned some things about the beliefs and thought patterns that fed it. Maybe they’re blocking you up too:
Growing up, when teachers and parents called me a “perfectionist,” I thought it was a compliment.
Now I see that perfectionism can help you rise to the top, but it also becomes a liability if you let it gain too much sway in your life.
My perfectionism helped me get good grades, sure, but it decimated my creativity in the process.
I believed that if I couldn’t rise to the top, I had nothing to contribute.
If I didn’t get a perfect score, I was no good at all. And because I valued winning over doing well, my perfectionism made me believe it was better to be silent than to risk being mediocre.
Perfectionism doesn’t just mean “doing your best,” it also demands that you’re the best. But being the best is about ego—it takes the focus off of how your work could inspire others, and puts it on you.
Now I’ve learned to ask: Who is this perfectionism serving? Would I demand this level of perfection from a friend? What could I learn by moving forward, even though I know I’m not “perfect”?
I’m also learning to value practice over perfectionism. The thing is, almost no one is perfect at something the first time—performing well in any capacity usually means you’ve practiced well. So why let your unrealistic expectations of yourself prevent you from practicing?
2. Beliefs about talent
Adding fuel to the fire of my perfectionism, I believed that people were born with a certain level of talent, and my secret fear was that I didn’t have enough. I imagined talent was like our understanding of IQ—it was a measurable level of genius that a select few were gifted with in excess.
When someone else had an artistic success, I unconsciously assumed they were born with it.
I didn’t associate my level of commitment or my hours of practice with the quality of my work.
If I “bombed” a recital it was proof I wasn’t as talented as I’d hoped, not an indication I needed to practice more or learn strategies for battling performance anxiety.
Of course it’s true that you are naturally more talented at some things than others, and you probably still worry: what if I’m not talented enough at this one thing I want to do? But I suspect that people naturally gravitate towards the activities they have some intrinsic skill with. If you love singing, it’s probably because, on some level, you’re wired for singing. Know what I mean?
Now, instead of telling myself I’m not talented enough, I ask myself what I’m willing to work at hard enough to get where I want to be.
It’s all complicated by the way people praise each other for being “so talented” rather than “so driven” or “such a hard worker.” But people who have invested their time in the work are the ones who make it look easy, right?
3. Success as a creative
For most of my life, I thought that succeeding as a creative person meant achieving commercial success or public recognition. And I think that’s a pretty common way of looking at it, in the U.S. at least. We judge the success of artists on their song downloads, book sales, follower counts, etc.
But it’s unlikely that very many of us are doing creative work for the money. Sure, it happens. You can get rich on art—but that’s probably not what you drove you to this work as a child. So it doesn’t make sense to judge your success on that.
When you believe you can only do creative work if you “succeed,” it introduces a whole slew of obstacles:
Am I really ever going to “make it” at this? Then what’s the point?
I’m so behind. I’m too old to be a _____. People my age don’t make it in _____. What’s the point of trying?
This is unlikely to pay the bills, so it must not be valuable work.
Instead, what if “succeeding as a creative” just means continuing to produce work? Continuing to spend time doing the thing you feel called to?
That brings us, once again, to practice! I’m trying to shift my thinking: instead of aiming for public recognition, I’m aiming for personal integrity. Did I show up for the thing? Am I practicing the thing? That’s all that’s required.
While we’re on the objections train, let’s talk about ageism. This block is so huge (maybe bigger than the money block?), that I think it deserves its own category.
At age 15, I thought I was too old to join choir (I wasn’t).
At age 16, I thought I was too old to join orchestra (I wasn’t).
At age 21, I thought I was too old to come back to the violin I’d stopped playing just a few years before (I wasn’t).
At 23, I thought I was too old to start a food blog (I wasn’t).
At 26, I thought I was too old to start writing seriously (I wasn’t).
At 28, I thought it was too late for me get back to music (It wasn’t).
Noticing a pattern?
If you’re like me, you have ALWAYS thought you were too old to do the thing you want to do, but you are probably not, if you’re breathing.
I think there’s a special power in being a late bloomer, anyway. When you dive into a craft later than you wish you did, you have a special vigor and energy to jump forward quickly.
Besides, chances are, you’re not as much of a beginner as you think you are.
The toll of a creative rut
Woof! That is a LOT to struggle under. All that mental acrobatics just to keep yourself from reaching for a pencil! But when you’re in it, it feels insurmountable.
If you’ve had a creative block, or lost touch with a form of expression you once reveled in, maybe you know: it hurts. Instead of nourishing me, hearing beautiful music was painful. I’d cry with longing at concerts, and a documentary about a songwriter would send me into existential crisis. It was too hard to watch someone so close to the source of something I’d been denying myself. When I read beautiful essays, instead of marveling at what words could do, I mourned the stories I wouldn’t tell.
Dramatic? Probably. (I’m an Enneagram 4, in case you couldn’t tell yet.) But if you’ve been here, this kind of ordeal probably doesn’t sound that wild. Silencing an aspect of yourself is hard work.
It’s not usually obvious to your friends and family (or followers) that you’re in the rut. During my creative rut, I did loads of creative things: I worked at an arts organization, I had a food blog, I had a brief stint building websites, and my job meant writing for the Internet. All of that work was valid, valuable, and deeply creative. No one would have known that I secretly dreamed of doing something else—not instead of those other creative activities, but in addition to them.
So, how do you get out of a creative rut?
Let’s go back to the Super Mario analogy. It’s easy to try to treat a creative block by focusing on the inspiration end—you’ll start that project once you finally have an idea!
But the truth is, the bigger problem is that Piranha Plant—the objections keeping you from doing your work in the first place.
To get out of a rut, then, you need to do at least two things:
1. Kill the piranha plant.
In other words, break down your objections. Figure out why you aren’t showing up for creative work, and change your beliefs.
My approach to this was pretty simple:
Daily guided journaling
It’s not a new idea. Writing every morning for ~3 pages, 750 words, or ~30 minutes does something to your brain. My favorite resource for getting started is The Artist’s Way. It’s a spiritual book that can be a bit “woo woo” at times and uses the term “Great Creator,” but it changed my life. Not exaggerating!
Protecting myself from downers.
There are safe people and then there are the people who are so threatened by your creative aspirations, they’ll (probably unconsciously) do anything to knock you back to a place of fear. Those people don’t get to know what you’re up to. Find other positive people out there and go to them for support.
Seeking out creative gurus
I’m an Elizabeth Gilbert devotée (if you hadn’t noticed - loads of my understanding of creativity started with her book Big Magic). Find your own creative idols, the people doing work you admire, or making you feel full of possibility (not afraid, like you’re out of time or not good enough) and absorb everything they have to say.
2. Show up for the mushroom (coin? whatever comes out of that pipe!).
In other words, keep your ear pressed to the tube and wait for the ideas creativity sends your way.
Practically speaking, this just means developing a creative practice. Spend time every day (or as often as you can commit to) doing your craft. No matter what the results are, if you keep showing up, all of a sudden you’ll realize you’re not thinking about doing it—you’re doing it.
One thing to keep in mind is that showing up for a creative practice isn’t about discipline, and whether you make it to your daily date doesn’t reveal anything about your character. It’s about self-love, and how much you allow yourself the space to do what you suspect you might be meant to do. ;)