Reframing Creative Block

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” – John Steinbeck

Can we talk for a moment about creative block, mindfulness and the creative cycle?

Even as I write this, and I while wanting very much to make my thoughts coherent, I’m having to consciously push myself through the formation of every word, like I’m trying to make my way uphill, on a bike without gears. One pedal, and then the next – one concentrated effort after another. 

Ever since I finished up the COVID Characters series that I felt inexplicably driven to create this spring, the words ‘CREATIVE BLOCK’ have begun to slowly grow and now are looming in my mind as a daunting follow-up to a season of profound creative output. And while I’m making a point to keep my mind calm and unshaken by this period, having been through it before, I’ve still been in a subconsciously meditative state, rolling the topic over in my mind. 

There is rarely a time when I don’t have some sort of extra creative outlet in my life – ‘extra’ meaning an outlet that’s purely for me on a personal level; outside my day job in which I’m creating to support business purposes. And when I say ‘rarely’, I really mean it – when I don’t have a side project going, I feel strangely bereft and without a compass, like a mental vagabond seeking its next oasis. My outlets range from fine art dabblings with acrylic or watercolor, digital painting, doodling, gardening, crafts, house projects, family events, etc. As artists are naturally prone to do, I regularly tap into “the ability to observe the full spectrum of human experience – both internal and the external – and turn those observations into art*” and so you can imagine that the events of Spring 2020 created quite a novel spectrum of shared, global experiences, with a full range of emotions playing their parts, thus creating a rich fodder for observation and making new connections. 

In this post, I’m referring to a creative cycle for work that is not time-boxed or deadline-related, as I’m talking about personal projects. That’s a luxury in most cases, I know, for those of us in the design industry – most of my work is paid and on a tight deadline. (That said, the constraint that time and money puts on creative work is another topic we should explore further together.) 

Each person works differently, and non-creators may think I’m crazy as I try to put words to the experience, but for the sake of sharing with others in the design community, I’m choosing vulnerability in this moment. 

I paid attention so I could share. This is what the creative process for my digital illustration series looked like this spring:

Incubating an idea

At first, the onslaught of new things to experience and react to causes a pulling-in of thoughts as I begin to process. I go through daily life doing what needs to be done for family and work – which in this case was significant since everything closed down mid-school year, requiring a chaotic juggling act of work and school. And while I’ve never been good at compartmentalizing my thoughts, I did manage to do a decent job of pushing these unformed thoughts to the back of my mind…at least for a period of time. 

Many, many ideas and connections never see the light of day, but when there is enough fuel and space to let them marinate, then I begin to have a harder time ignoring them – and COVID19 unfortunately provided enough new fuel every day, and enough time isolated from the world to steep and create the perfect climate for inspiration. The ideas begin to occupy more conscious space, and my mind starts to intentionally seek out patterns and new connections to be made. According to research, “Creative observation is a skill that requires a balance of paying attention to the world around us and tuning in to our own inner landscape – a balance of mindfulness; a focused, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment; and mind wandering.*”

"The impulse to record and create meaning of the little details and moments of life is arguably the birthplace of art and starts with being awake to the moments of our lives as they are passing. It begins, in other words, with mindfulness."

"The capacity to deeply observe is not only a key attentional skill, it's also a distinct creative advantage."

"The psychological state of flow is characterized by complete absorption, concentration, joy and subjective loss of time."

Going with the [psychological state of] ‘flow’

When the art of paying attention comes to fruition in the shape of an actionable idea, I’ve found that it’s still imperative that I give myself freely to its ebb and flow. If I hold it too tightly, or prescribe what I want a piece to be, the inspiration fizzles. This is part of the divergent phase of creation. If I try to control it too much – at least in the early stages – the personality of the idea (and ultimately the final piece) will fade. The time will come once there’s more form to the idea when I will converge and reign in the freedom I give myself earlier in the process in order to do some close scrutiny, reframing and editing. 
let it go

The ebb of that flow

As with the rush of any tide, there’s always an ebb of the proverbial flow. When I’m in the midst of a truly creative work, I hold on for dear life while it builds up into a wave, and then takes me in to shore in a rush – but then, as an equally important part of the process, I have to let it go when it finally moves out to sea, per say. In the case of the series I was working on this time, I experienced an incubation period for a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic quarantine, likely sped up by the magnitude of world events and related emotions. Once the ideas became more clear, the characters came knocking in my mind and would not be ignored until they’d come to life on the screen. After a 2 month period of manic production, with one character insisting on attention after the other, it began to slow up and my intuition nudged me to realize that the story had been fully told.

Reimagining creative ‘block’ as a part of the process of rejuvenation

After finishing a long-term piece or set of work that required a deep and demanding level of mental absorption, I have found that my mind seems to enter a period of grief and feeling of loss. It’s a bit like finishing a good book or tv series, only you’re way more invested. Not every piece of work does this to me, thankfully (if it did, I’d be a wreck), but when it occurs it’s almost akin to going into low-level shock and it’s not generally comfortable. No one looks forward to an experience of the dreaded ‘creative block’. 

Now, there’s creative block that comes on at the onset of a project, when one needs to get new and sometimes daunting ideas flowing…

In my opinion, this is often related to a mind game that occurs, using anxiety and imposter syndrome as a tool that causes us to freezes up. It spurs an internal line of questioning about whether you’ll be able to do it well, just because it’s a hard task without a sure outcome. Creative work is often so – it’s subjective, uncertain and hard to measure in many cases. In that case, the remedy that is best for me is to remember my track record, and to keep in mind that ‘a body in motion tends to stay in motion’ and ‘a body at rest tends to stay at rest’ – in other words, if I force myself to move forward and keep moving no matter how small the steps, trying things, researching, exploring the topic, etc. then I can usually get the wheels turning and spark some new ideas that propel the project forward. Procrastination never helps to overcome this type of block.

And then there’s the type of creative block that I refer to now, that occurs after a super prolific period of generative work.

This is the type I want to focus on here, because there are plenty of articles out there about how to overcome this super negative thing called creative block, but I have found fewer references to using it for your own purposes, as a period of rejuvenation between phases of strong output. In other parts of life, we recognize that  polar opposites in life usually serve a purpose. For example, people told me as a young parent that ‘if there aren’t bad days, you won’t appreciate the good days,’ and we know that if we couldn’t experience cold then warmth wouldn’t have as much meaning to us, etc. etc. I’m exploring the idea that this may be true for some bouts of creative block, and that it might not always be a bad thing.

So, this time around, as I go through this period of blank slated-ness, I’ve been mulling over the concept of creative block being potentially beneficial, or at least being a necessary part of the creative cycle.

Knowing that the never-ending drive to create is likely rooted in an ingrained ‘creative rage to master,’ it’s hard to settle down and be ok with having no side projects going. But just like white space is useful in a layout, margins in life are healthy as well. So, rather than give in to the shame or fear-inducing picture of what creative block can be, I’m choosing to lean in when I have the luxury to do so (with personal projects). There’s abundant research that backs change of scenery, going for a walk, taking a hot shower, take a trip to a new place, etc. as a way to rejuvenate one’s body and mind. Imminent creators throughout history have been recorded as having routines and habits that allow them to pull away and turn inward to think and refresh. And so I’ll hold this gap in productivity loosely, paying attention as always to what goes on around me, while soaking up a blessed blip on the radar that affords some breathing room for the sake of rejuvenation.

What would happen if creative block became an anticipated part of the process, rather than a dreaded thing to avoid? What would you do to pull away and refill your creative tanks?

* 2016, Wired to Create, Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire

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