If you are an artist of any type, most likely you have at some point had to face down this dreaded demon. The blank page, screen, canvas or whatever instrument we use to unleash our art suddenly has more white space than we would like and not because we are going for a zen-feel. Maybe we try to write or paint, but it feels awkward—forced.
I suck, you say. Who do I think I am? I am merely an imposter, not any sort of artist.
Chances are, we have all been through this at some time, but there are tools we can use to get through it.
Pick up a copy of The Artist’s Way or any other book on writing and most likely journaling will be one of the first recommendations as an artist. The reason it is touted so highly is because it works! But to be clear, this isn’t necessarily the typical Dear Diary type of journaling (although if that works, go for it). This is a blank space with no rules, no judgement and no editor. This is the space to say anything and everything. Write poetry, even bad poetry. Draw pictures, even bad pictures. Scribble, use run-ons, swear or pray. Journaling works because there are no rules and it is a safe place to let go.
Some books have guidelines for journaling. For example, The Artist’s Way insists on writing three pages every morning. The point of this is not to be dictatorial, but to form a habit. Writing or painting or creating on a regular basis, even when we don’t feel like it or don’t want to breaks loose the negative self talk and forces us to go beyond it. Sure, you may at first say: This is stupid. I don’t want to do this. I write better in the evening. Why three pages? But after awhile that voice shuts up and you write.
I learned about this through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Sketching and painting are not my areas of skill, but I picked up this book because I had heard claims that it could make most people better artists. Yes, it does help improve drawing skills, but that really isn’t the main benefit. This book taps into the right side of the brain by looking at life through different eyes.
When I first turned a picture upside down to draw it, I felt uneasy and awkward. My brain didn’t like focusing on just lines and wanted to see the picture as a whole. While sometimes seeing the big picture is a blessing, it can also force us to be overwhelmed and blocked.
If I asked you to sit down and draw your best friend and you weren’t skilled at drawing you may tell me you can’t or that you are horrible or simply draw a silly cartoon without really trying to recreate an image of your friend. That is our brains making excuses to protect our ego, which is one of the reasons we become blocked. Now if I asked you to sit down and just draw your friend’s eyes, you may protest at first, but by focusing on just one thing it becomes easier.
The devil is in the details.
Any great designer, writer or artist will tell you that it the details are what sets us apart. Whether you are writing about the blade of grass that stands taller and wider than the other blades of grass, or blending a series of colors to get just the right tone, taking away the big picture gives us perspective. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to turn your world upside down and look through different eyes.
So maybe you have been grinding away at it—writing every day for weeks, journaling every night or every morning, painting, singing, sculpting or practicing and you feel like everything you do is shit. Your muse has ran off with Pan in the woods and she has given no warning or inkling as to when she will return. Time to detach.
Put it down. Stop writing, yes stop! Get away from it all. Go out to lunch or dinner with a friend, hike in the forest, take the kids to a park, walk along a beach, go shopping. Just let go of it all.
Do you remember your grandmother, mother or favorite aunt saying “a watched pot never boils?” In fact, yes the damned pot will boil eventually but when we focus on it and the time it takes it can make us a little crazy (especially if we need to get some dinner on the table and get out the door to soccer practice). Stop focusing on it and just release all of the attention you have been giving it. Detaching from our artwork is sometimes part of the healing.
Muscle Through It
Yes, I know this is the opposite of what I just recommended but life is a balance of push and pull and sometimes we have to push. So let’s say you have journaled, turned things upside down and highlighted the details, spent some time away from the project and have a brand new pair of shoes to prove it and you are still feeling blocked. So now it’s time to say screw it and just go for it. Yes, it may feel like shit for awhile. Yes your inner critic is going to be hopping up and down pointing out all of the mistakes and bad grammar and crappy work. Yes you are going to feel like throwing out everything, but don’t.
Sometimes we have to force out all of the stuff to get a clean slate. Sometimes we have to be the bad guy and say: no, I am not getting up from here until I write a chapter or paint a tree. And then you have to get up again later that day and write another stupid chapter or paint a house but you don’t let yourself quit.
Why is this important? Do you think every great athlete wants to go to practice each time? Do you think every great entrepreneur succeeds in getting every business deal? Do you think Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey or John Lennon produced a perfect product every time? Hell no. We fail, we make mistakes, we mess up. This is how we learn. Stop whining and do it or you will be caught in an infinite loop.
No, I wasn’t referring to a superhero but that works if it’s your thing. What I mean is that we can get sucked into a black hole of me me me me. It’s easy to do and has happened to the best artists. You may know the feeling: My work on this project was good, yay me! My blog really rocked it this time, awesome! My book is getting near completion, go me! This story bombed, I suck.
Step outside yourself and look around. There are some pretty damn good artists out there. Read, observe, watch, listen, share and immerse yourself in other people’s work. While I’m not suggesting we can’t be happy for ourselves when we do well or feel down that something we put a lot of work into didn’t go over well, it’s vital to our creative souls to fill them with beauty—as often as possible.
Inspiration is a real thing and it comes from all different places. Sometimes I have heard a song and it puts me in creative mode. Once in awhile I read something that makes me think differently and I want to write about it. Allow yourself to marvel at each other’s art. When we shut off the negative self-talk and stop focusing on our own work, we make room for seeds to sprout and places to open up. This is feeding your soul.
Yes, being blocked is tough and can be depressing. It’s kind of a downward spiral actually, because as creative people we need to create almost as much as we need to breathe.
But there is always a way out.
Dana Gornall is a mom of three crazy kids and a dog. She works as a licensed massage therapist in Amherst, Ohio and is a certified sign language interpreter. She is always looking for opportunities to even more personal growth. While not interpreting, doing massage, or being with her family she loves going to yoga. You can see some of her articles on elephant journal and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.
Photo: Neal Sanche/Flickr