How to Get Creatively Unblocked
This paragraph in The Artist’s Way is the most heavily underlined and starred in my whole copy of the book:
“Shadow artists are gravitating to their rightful tribe but cannot yet claim their birthright….Shadow artists often choose shadow careers – those close to the desired art, even parallel to it, but not the art itself. Noting their venom, Francois Truffant contended that critics were themselves blocked directors, as he had been when he was a critic. He may be right. Intended fiction writers often go into newspapering or advertising, where they can use their gift without taking the plunge into their dreamed-of fiction-writing career. Indeed artists may become artist managers and derive a great deal of secondary pleasure from serving their dream even at one remove.”
At secondary school I edited our school magazine, yet couldn’t bring myself to write a single editor’s letter. At university I joined the theatre society only to produce the plays, essentially doing all the unimaginative organisation, rather than act in or direct them. For six years I worked as a literary agent, helping other people with their writing, encouraging other people to find their voice and express their creativity.
I think it’s safe to say that I spent the best part of ten years creatively blocked, and that I was what Julia Cameron calls a “shadow artist”.
It has only been in the last year or so that I’ve managed to unblock myself. And it has not been easy. I think of it as scrambling out of a very dark hole. You graze your knuckles, mud gets under your finger nails, you often can’t see the light. And although I am now definitely out of it, I still feel like I’m dancing around the rim, one false step away from falling straight back into its depths.
Yet the feeling of being fully creative again is only just short of ecstatic.
For me creativity is about being in flow. It’s about being able to express myself without having to force or push anything. When I am in creative flow is when I am at my absolute happiest.
There is a lot of advice out there for blocked creatives; The Artist’s Way is pretty much the bible on it. I found some of the chapters very useful and it did introduce me to the idea of morning pages (more below), yet I found the exercises a little repetitive and not particularly helpful.
But before I get to my advice I just want to say that being creatively blocked is horrible. It is shit. I hated it. I felt constantly riddled with anxiety, and in general not just about my writing and creative abilities. I was constantly glancing wistfully over my shoulder at what other people were creating, and hated myself for not being able to give it a go at least. I think of those ten years as the “black years” not just, but definitely in large, because I was so blocked. So if you feel like this, you are not alone.
Yet I think there is a nugget of good in being creatively blocked. Those who are blocked, or have a tendency to get blocked, are the ones who really care about what it is they are creating. They are the ones who desperately want to create something good, something worthwhile, and get nervous at the thought of not doing so. They are the ones who know a good story, a good painting, a good song when they come across one and want to be able to create at that level. I think the first step to recovery is noting that this is why you are blocked: because you care, and caring is good.
So here are four things that you can do to get creatively unblocked:
Start writing morning pages
This is probably the single most powerful thing I’ve done to creatively unblock myself, and the one standout piece of advice from The Artist’s Way. Morning pages are a set number of pages or words of free-flow writing done, funnily enough, in the morning. I do mine a little differently to what Julia recommends in The Artist’s Way.
Julia advises that you write three pages long-hand every morning, before your brain has a chance to fully wake up. I tried to write mine by hand and lasted about three days. They were the dullest, most painful pieces of writing I’ve ever written. Every word felt forced and hard. My mind, like I’m sure yours does, moves much quicker than my hand can so I ended up not writing eighty percent of my thoughts down as my mind had already moved on. I hated those pages.
Now every morning (or, to be honest, most) I write either 750 words, or however many words I can write in the space of one Pomodoro (25 minutes, I use a timer on my laptop), in Ommwriter, a specific writing environment program. It takes over your whole screen so you aren’t distracted (I also turn off my internet so I don’t get notifications), has a lovely clean background and plays gentle melodic music which I find very soothing. I only use it for my morning pages, so it to me it is a judgement free writing zone.
So what do I write? Whatever thoughts are circulating around my head. Sometimes I’ll ask myself a question (Why did I react like that to that? Why are you find this tricky? What do you REALLY want?) and then answer it. Sometimes I’ll go on a big old rant. Sometimes I’ll whine and moan for so long I get fed up with myself. Sometimes I’ll write about the meaning of life and happiness and love. Sometimes I’ll write a list of what I need to do that day. Sometimes I write pieces of dialogue, or dramatise scenes that I witnessed yesterday. Sometimes a random character will appear. More often it’s just me and my thoughts. And sometimes I write absolute gibberish. But that doesn’t matter. Morning pages are for getting shit out of your head. They are a swift brain spring cleaning. No one will ever EVER see them. They are just a tool, an exercise.
They’ve taught me not to be too precious about my writing, that just because I write shit one day doesn’t mean I’ll write shit the next. That I can sit down to write and have 750 or so words at the end of half an hour. And that there are always more words. That I can always think of more words. They are about getting out of the creativity scarcity mentality (“I only have ONE good idea”) and into one of abundance.
Do something else creative
I think most creatives have one thing that they really want to be fucking good at. For me it is, and always will be, writing. I will always want to be the best writer I can be, and find it incredibly easy to get frustrated and disappointed when I don’t feel like I am expressing myself fully or eloquently enough. And this means that sometimes I can’t write at all. Even now.
But when this happens I think that the best thing is to do something else creative for a while; to try something new that challenges you in a different way. So if you want to create art, then start writing. If you want to write, take a pottery class. Learn to crochet. Take up the tambourine. Do a filmmaking workshop. Try writing a song.
And this is what I’ve done this year, by taking a couple of pottery classes and then by starting to paint. I can post a photo of one of my paintings or of a load of wonky pots up on Instagram without thinking too much about it. Yes I love it when I paint something pretty, but I’m not as invested in the outcome as I am with my writing. I find it easier to separate myself from my creative output, which is key I think to be able to keep creating.
And this in turn helps my writing. I helps to unstick my creative toes, to loosen myself into flow, allowing me to move through my block so I can then go back to writing again.
Create something really bad
Watch this video.
You have to be bad in order to get good. You just have to be. There is no way around it, unless you happen to be Zadie Smith who has probably never written a clunky sentence in her life. The rest of us have to suck, for a bit or maybe for a while. For however long it takes. I’m sorry chicken, but that’s just how it goes.
I find it weird when people say they will start writing their novel when they have a good idea. I write everyday so that when I do eventually have a good idea, I can attempt to do it justice. And I think that’s a good way of looking at it: that everything you are creating is practice for when you eventually write or paint or play your best work.
But if you are completely blocked then I think even this isn’t enough. I think that you need to make something really truly rubbish. On purpose. Write a really corny story or a stupid little limerick. Write a song to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Make a pot that couldn’t hold anything if it tried. Cover a canvas in bright, garish colours. Because you set out to make something so shit you can’t hold it against yourself when it turns out to be just that. And then, you know what, you just made something. Boom.
Write some fan fiction
The blank page is a killer for creativity. It’s like a big fat guy mooning at you – you can’t think about anything else, however hard you try. If you are feeling intimidated by it, then writing fan fiction can be a great way to get around it. You aren’t starting off with a blank page, you already have your characters, maybe the world they live in, maybe a couple of plot points or a few other details. You can take your favourite characters and made them no outlandish things. You can set them up with that other character you really wanted them to get with, or even with a new character who is suspiciously like yourself. You can take them on wild journeys and leave them stranded in a city because they aren’t your responsibility. You can pick them up and put them down at will.
Start by googling your favourite book / TV show / movie followed by “fan fiction” and have a read of the stuff that comes up. A lot of it will be hosted on Tumblr. A lot of it will be very, errr, sexual. You will learn a whole new language. You will probably blush a lot.
Fan fiction has a very bad reputation, it is not a genre or practice that is thought of particularly highly well, anywhere. Yet following on from the success of Fifty Shades (which started life as Twilight fan fiction) quite a few agents and publishers started scanning fan fiction forums and websites for writers. That’s obviously not the point, but I think you would be surprised by how many writers have dabbled with fan fiction. Not least because it’s really fun.
And if you are an artist then maybe try copying someone else’s work for a little bit, then play with it to try to make it your own.