Phil Hansen was in art school when he developed a tremor in his hand. Before then, he’d been making images using countless tiny dots, but suddenly he couldn’t make a single solid dot with the shake in his hand. He couldn’t draw a straight line. Hansen was in a creative rut. He left art school, then left art completely.
A few years later, he picked up a pencil and just started scribbling. He realized he didn’t need to draw straight lines to be an artist and started experimenting with other ways to make art that the shake in his hand didn’t affect. He dipped his feet in paint and walked on a canvas. He created a 2-D image using wood boards and a blowtorch. “I just had to find a different approach to making the art I wanted,” Hansen says in a TED talk he gave last year.
But even after realizing he could still make art, Hansen felt stuck. He didn’t know where to begin. “I was actually paralyzed by all the choices I never had before,” says Hansen. “If I ever wanted my creativity back, I had to stop thinking outside the box and get back into it.”
Hansen started challenging himself by using unusual materials and self-imposed rules. He made a giant portrait by karate chopping a wall with paint on the side of his hand. He wrote people’s stories onto a revolving canvas to create a giant image of a face using words. He made a bust of Jimi Hendrix using matchsticks that he then set on fire. He created a portrait using chewed-up, spit-out food. He tattooed Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on a banana with a pushpin. He painted a picture of the Mona Lisa using hamburger grease. “After having gone from a single approach to art, I ended up having an approach to creativity that expanded my artistic horizons,” says Hansen.
Getting out of a creative rut can feel hopeless. If there were an easy solution that a five-step article could give you, creative ruts wouldn’t exist. The fact that they feel awful and hopeless and inescapable is the whole point. It’s called a rut for a reason. But the good news is, feeling stuck is just part of the creative process. And, thankfully, there are ways to get reenergized about your creative work.
For a year, Hansen worked on a project called “Goodbye Art” in which he created meticulous art pieces that were all destroyed once they were finished, whether melted, trampled, rotted, or burned. The project taught him to be less precious about his work–that he could give himself the freedom to make anything he wanted, knowing it would be destroyed in the end.
Often feeling stuck in creative work is simply a matter of being too precious about it–being afraid to let it get messy, to crack open whatever you’re working on and just see what happens. That can mean letting yourself start in an arbitrary place, no matter how silly or random an idea seems, and seeing where it takes you. Not being precious about the work can often free you to be more creative.
Maybe the term “creative rut” isn’t quite right. Sometimes it can feel more like a creative desert, like standing in a giant barren space with no clue which direction to take. That’s where giving yourself rules or limitations can be useful. It’s what Hansen did when he told himself he could only make art using one specific material like hamburger grease or chewed-up food.
If you’re writing, perhaps that means starting with a specific prompt or scenario or as poets often do–using the constrains of a set form to get started. If you’re designing something, this could mean limiting yourself to a certain color, shape or material, like Hansen. “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless,” he says.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could will creativity into being just by concentrating really hard on it? Chaining yourself to your desk and trying to squeeze creative ideas out is like manhandling an empty tube of toothpaste. You’re not going to get much out of it. “Knowing that the very time we believe we should be chained to our desks mulling over a problem is when we should actually put work aside and take a break can help us come up with new and unusual solutions,” Sian Beilock, psychologist and author of the book Choke writes in Psychology Today.
When I’m feeling stuck in my creative work, I try to surround myself with beautiful things. I’ll visit a museum or read poetry. I’ll look for a outdoor space to wander alone. I find that placing my concentration elsewhere helps to free up my creative mind and spark ideas. It’s also empowering to see the kinds of risks other artists are taking in their creative work. There’s something liberating about knowing there are artists out there making portraits out of hamburger grease.
You’re not in a rut. You’re just impatient. We want results. We want things to move quickly and in the right direction–to be able to stand up after a day’s work and have something to show for ourselves. Often what feels like a rut is just impatience. Efficiency and creativity are not from the same camp. Creative work, by nature breaks away from the predictable stuff of life we know so well. That can feel pretty unsettling. It also comes with the territory.
Try this: What if you just let yourself be bored? “Every free moment has become an opportunity to get something done, or at least be entertained. But doing nothing, being bored, is a precious thing,” Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, writes in Psychology Today. “Occupying our brains is too easy–and that’s killing our creativity.”
Shut off the distractions and let yourself be alone with your thoughts. Start small. Let yourself play and know that whatever you’re doing, it’s a process.