Creative work takes time. It’s prone to blockages, inconsistent results, and a long gestation period that can feel like navel gazing. When the work becomes challenging or feels stagnant, it’s tempting to simply abandon it.
Years ago, in one of my first creative writing workshops, I hit a roadblock in a story I was working on and naively felt that my writing had screeched to a standstill. My instructor at the time said something I’ve since reminded myself of often. “What is the thing you most fear–the thing you want to run from?” she asked me. “Write about that.”
Truly creative work requires breaking through barriers. Often, simply knowing what those barriers are to begin with can be half the challenge. There are no easy answers. There’s no one-size-fits-all. But figuring out the root of your block might make getting past it a bit easier.
Here are five places to start:
Every time you sit down to work, that little voice pipes up and starts shooting down one idea after the next. “Most of us are not even aware that it is a voice … because its constant judgments have been with us since early childhood and its running critical commentary feels like a natural part of ourselves,” write Hal and Sidra Stone in their book Embracing Your Inner Critic.
Tuning out that self-sabotaging voice requires serious self-awareness, but even making small adjustments can help. Give yourself permission to write or sketch for half an hour without pausing, getting all your ideas out so fast you don’t have time to stop and think twice about them.
A writer friend of mine jots down all the nasty self-critical thoughts he has in all caps right in the body of whatever he’s working on, then gets back to the writing, not letting those thoughts stop him from moving forward. Try to push through self-criticism and just get started. You’ll have plenty of time to worry about how bad the product is later.
I have an ever-changing collection of notes and images hanging above my desk. For a while one of those bits of encouragement was a quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
Dillard’s words are a reminder that routine and structure can keep you moving forward. Often when our days unfold willy-nilly, it’s hard to feel in control and as a result, creativity can get blocked.
Identify the work habits you’re forming that might be sabotaging you creatively. Maybe you’re checking email constantly, not making time for exercise or working around the clock. Build some structure and routine into your day. A while back, I replaced that Dillard quote above my desk with a boiled-down message that reminds me how often I need to make time for my creative work–a single word in fat red letters: EVERYDAY.
Building things with our hands, words, and minds can be a bit terrifying. Our subconscious is at work during the creative process and sometimes what lives there can be scary. But while your mind might be telling you to run the other way, resist the urge. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?” In other words: It pays to be a little tortured.
If facing your demons feels too daunting, try setting aside short blocks of time for this creative work and gradually build up from there. You can’t run a marathon the first time you put on a pair of running shoes. Give yourself a chance to warm up to the work by building it gradually into your day.
You’re worried about when the next paycheck is coming in. Your toddler has been puking for three days. You’re getting a divorce. Your email inbox is threatening to explode with unanswered messages. Stuff is going to happen in your life that will make sitting down to focus on creative work seem selfish, silly, or simply impossible.
Creating structured time will make it easier for you to step away and treat this time as you would any other appointment. “Exceptional creators make sure to use their best, peak time each day for their own creative activities,” says Keith Sawyer, author of the book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. “They’re selfish about their personal energy. But for most people, that peak period is no more than about three hours–so there’s a lot of time left over to take care of noncreative business.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and let that anxiety put the breaks on your creative thinking. If you have a really big project on your hands, the only way to make progress on it is to start small. Break it into manageable pieces.
Writer Zadie Smith talks about creating a scaffolding for her novels in order to make the writing process less daunting. “Each time I’ve written a long piece of fiction, I’ve felt the need for an enormous amount of scaffolding,” she said in a 2008 Columbia University lecture reprinted in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.
For Smith, that scaffolding is different depending on the project she’s working on. She might decide to write a novel in three sections of 10 chapters each or five sections of seven chapters, for instance. “I use scaffolding to hold up my confidence when I have none, to reduce the despair, and to feel that what I’m doing has a goal, some endpoint that I can see.”