We all know the glorious stereotype: The artist, possessed, obsessed, maybe even driven a little crazy by an internal vision of their work, feverishly working till late in the night on piece after piece, fluidly and wildly creative, the work pouring out like an unstoppable river.

Alas, the reality is sometimes more halting, more fraught, more sporadic — and very frequently in precise proportion to the level of harsh self-editing the artist imposes upon their work as they are engaged in the process of creating it.

The inability to let the work simply be is a huge problem for many artists, particularly those artists who happen to be struggling with creative blocks.

A faculty to create without judgment, without severe self-criticism, is present in the beginning and comes as naturally as breathing to some, but in my experience those artists are few. More frequently it is a skilled that is learned. If it is an art form in which we are only dabbling, that is one thing, but if it is the form into which we have devoted long study and great effort, the abilty to retain perspective becomes harder.

It’s a bit ironic, as one of the very things which drew us to artistic expression in the first place — creative freedom — can become more and more subject to a kind of self-judgment that slowly begins to constrict the work.

It doesn’t matter where in the process it introduces itself. It doesn’t even really matter what the “target” of the judgment is. The important fact is that it slows, and in some cases even stops, the work.

What’s the cure for this?

Years of psychoanalytic therapy. But, if we’re in a rush, one thing we can certainly do is stop editing ourselves.

This is a deeply effective blockbuster. And, particularly for those of us who have really become enmeshed in this paralyzing form of self-criticism, it may take dedicated application, and re-application…and re-application. The very non-analytic naivete of the idea itself can be challenging. Sometimes it can be a process just to identify all the places in our process where we introduce judgment — each of one of those will require a course correction. But it really is worth it.

Working artists have learned to let these paralyzing forms of criticism and harsh self-judgment go. If you find yourself beginning to get wrapped up in judgment that is slowing down and stopping the work, begin this new practice of creating without self-editing. It may not suit every creative work situation, but it is a practice with which you should have fluid acquaintance. Set aside a portion of your work day to create with the judgmental portion of your mind detached.

Simply create.

It is a practice that will begin to counter the criticism that paralyzes, and will take you great strides toward that wild, uninhibited creative freedom which every artist can reclaim.

Be well.

Creative vision contains a playful quality. — John Briggs

One can be serious about the frivolous,
frivolous about the serious.
— Susan Sontag

Few working artists would argue the point that making art on a regular basis is serious work. Certainly many artists think of it that way. The obstacles, real and imagined, one must confront over time are legion, and we are not static systems; our temperaments and physical abilities of course oscillate by nature. But few also are the artists who would argue that somewhere along the line, at least some particle of play is not a necessary element in the process.

How sharply we define the areas in which play is invited into our process varies from artist to artist. For some, play is allowed only a brief appearance when structures have been attended to and a new direction must be found (upon which to build a new set of structures). For others, the entire process is as play-like as possible, even unto the media, and more rigorous attention to form comes only later.

A notable quality as intrinsic to the one kind of play as it is to the other is that in order for play to exist, even in its most anemic form, it must be free of judgment. This is not to say that characters or aspects within the play itself can’t exhibit judgment, if that is the form the play takes, it is rather that the larger mental space in which the play is allowed to exist must be at least temporarily free of judgments regarding our ordinary rules of behavior and thought and form.

I use that idea in my toolkit of techniques to cut through creative blocks. Creative blocks, often couched in the armor of plausible deniability, righteous authority, and a harsh “realism,” are almost always serious, grim, heavy. Play is light, spirited, and free. How can I take the former and instill the qualities of the latter? If my mood is grim enough — and when judging my work my mood can get grim indeed — then the main danger is that I’ll dismiss applying playful ideas outright. Who wants to play if they’re feeling grim? To work my way back to a state of play, I have to go one step deeper and pull back from my immediate situation.

We have to, if only as a thought experiment, put the kibosh on judgment in this situation. Judgment quelches play. If I’m blocked, if work is not getting done, there is usually an underlying thought that the work, or at least the element I’m currently trying to introduce, is wrong, even bad.

Sometimes, if I take some time out and carefully examine the train of thoughts that led me to this place, this mode of rejection, I can find a thought, a judgment, I accepted without much scrutiny, some idea based on some passing fearful belief (sometimes of artistic inadequacy of some kind, sometimes based on — totally false — imaginings of how the work will be recieved), upon which I, without thinking, based all the subsequent thoughts. And every thought that came after, often running only in the background of my mind, as I considered the work in front of me, finally brought me to this place of disliking everything I add to the work — all of which branched out from that one shaky, fearful, judgmental thought.

These are the chimaeras out of which creative blocks are made.

I reintroduce the willingness to play by realizing that the structures and beliefs by which I delimit my own actions as I create art are all artificial, and are all either created or accepted by me. If I’m at a point where I’m too frozen by my own judgment to lay elements freely onto the piece I’m working at the moment, I simply need to remember the reality.

Rules are guidelines, not absolute truth.

Back up. There are things I like about the piece — what are they? Add or don’t add, but do no harm to those. It’s good to reach, but if my highest goal is not attainable, I need to realize I have elements of this piece I like, and that can be enough for this piece. There will be others.

At ANY given moment there are a thousand artists around the world throwing elements at their medium with abandon, with wildness, with freedom, with a spirit of play. Sometimes when I let myself get wrapped up in rules or self-created negative premises — widely accepted or self-created — I forget that essential reality.

Self-check: Am I tired? Hungry? Low on resources? If so, step back, take care of it, regroup, and come at it later. Late in the work day when we’re low on resources, gremlins appear. Don’t let them run amock.

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves. — Carl Jung

If we have become too serious about our work, and this is resulting in blocks, we need to discover the levers that will allow us to bring at least a wisp of the spirit of play back into our process. A famous rock singer I’ve heard of retires to an adjacent room in the studio to watch Monty Python — methods that suit you will occur to you when you give it some thought. Build a toolkit of techniques. Beware the sandtraps of artificial rules, low physical resources, and judgment. Giving frivolity some serious consideration, as Sontag suggests, can help you keep your creative process light and flowing, and give you helpful methods to avoid the pitfalls that can slow down and stop the work.

Be well.

Every now and then I’d like to offer up a simple post that shows you a great, helpful resource you can find on the web. This is the first, and it’s for a really expansive, helpful website called The Creativity Portal.

Click here to visit.

That’s a link to just one sub-category of the site, on Creativity & Innovation. But there are many categories and many many topics discussed. There’s probably something there you’ll find helpful. Dozens, actually probably hundreds, of thoughtful artists have contributed articles to the site, and if you haven’t heard of it and been there already, it’s well worth your time. LOTS of interesting ideas.

Be well.

“If you have five elements available use only four. If you have four elements use three.” — Pablo Picasso

The concept is Freedom Within Structure.  For those new to the idea, it can seem a little counterintuitive, but the fact is, once one has become familiar with its forms, this technique can be one of the most powerful tools at our disposal, not only for breaking through creative blocks, but for strengthening the health of our daily creative practice.

This is a well-known, time-honored principle among working artists.  The imposition of limits which provide the structure against which creativity finds its expression.  Think of it like pruning a plant, where the cutting back of particular pathways, the pruning of various branches and stems, can cause a profusion of growth as the plant compensates in other directions, as it focuses its resources on alternative pathways.

Who likes to be limited?  Isn’t being “free” part of the charm and the spell of art?

Well that’s true, but the natural world in which we find actually ourselves is one of space/time, pairs of opposites, things that come and go — and thus limits.   And like as not the artist projects whose freedom we admire were very much shaped by the limits imposed upon them, either imposed from without by the limitations of the project, by the medium itself, or sometimes the limitations placed on the work by the artist herself, often in order to access this very vitality.

The freedom we see expressed in an art work is one that is always delimited by its scope.  It may appear to be a work of unlimited freedom, but it is not.

And this is a good thing.

“I don’t believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all. If there’s one thing that’s dangerous for an artist, it’s precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and all the rest of it.” -Federico Fellini

Examples of this abound in popular culture.  Much of the music of Motown was recorded, not on the unlimited-track studios of today, but on a three-track tape machine, most of the Beatles’ music was recorded on a four-track.  The wild creativity, the artistry we hear in those recordings was not a product of perfect artistic freedom, it was defined by its constraints.  Think of the amazingly witty and creative dialogue of the screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s, written under the severely restrictive Hayes Code, which limited how suggestive any dialogue or scene could become — overtly.  The methods which writers devised to get around the restriction has given us some of the smartest movies Hollywood ever created.

Picasso knew what he was about.  We can use this principle ourselves, this dynamic of the instinctual human response to limitation, to free our work.

How?  Limit your materials.  Remove one seemingly essential tool that you use — and see what happens.  Or place limits upon your subject matter.  Focus only on food.  Or cars.  Or sky.  Or limit the range of colors you use — and “colors” can be translated to any medium.

One of the most powerful limitations, however, is simply time.  This is not only a fantastic creative blockbuster, it’s also a great way to rejuvenate one’s artistic process even if everything’s great.  It’s dead simple.  Figure out the time you need to complete an average project — a painting, a song, a short story — and set yourself a completely insane deadline.  Cut the time you allow yourself  in half.  Then cut that in half.

This does a couple of things.  One, it allows you to completely immerse yourself in your medium — you don’t have time to do anything else.  Two, the desperate pressing needs of churning out the work in such an impossible amount of time short-circuit any ordinary tendencies to overthink, or to dawdle, or to second-guess yourself, or to judge.

It may take a little while to get used to the idea, and it may take a few attempts, but it’s a thoroughly engaging technique that can have lasting effects.  The main thing is to complete the work. The work may not meet your “standards,” but that’s not the purpose of the exercise.  The purpose of  the exercise is to allow yourself new connections with your media, to eliminate judgment as you create (which is much closer to that idea of actual freedom, whatever the constraints of your particular situation may be), and to experience creativity in a rawer, more alive way.

This technique is such a powerful motivator that artists of all stripes and all levels of experience frequently call upon it when they are presented a situation in which they feel they have too much creative freedom.  It really can light a fire.  Try it and you’ll see.

Be well.

There are often a lot of nameless, free-floating fears that underpin creative blocks.  This isn’t one of them.

Where are my ideas these days?  What if I don’t feel creative?  What if I’m out of ideas?

The idea that one has to “feel” creative is a common misunderstanding of the creative process.  Sure, yes yes, of course, it’s helpful to be in the mood, it can make it vastly more fun, it’s even preferable sometimes, but as it was said in Frank Herbert’s Dune, by the swordmaster who was training his young pupil, mood is a thing for cattle.  The unpleasant fact is, you can do creative work in any mood.  Push through a few times and force yourself to get down to the work and the truth of it will become apparent.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Feeling like one has run out of ideas, on the other hand, is one of the more impressive methods we use to short-circuit the process and strengthen the patterns toward being blocked.  What better way to circumvent the challenge of the work than to unplug what seems to be the whole point of it all?

Only…for the most part, the creative process doesn’t work this way.   There isn’t a blinding flash of insight in which the final result springs forth fully formed from our brow.  Creative work proceeds wonkily.  The actual ideas that fuel art are usually not grand at all, but rather quite simple.  What if I turn this upside down?  What if I invert these elements?  What if I juxtapose these different things?  

What if I do this instead of that?  

In other words, the work takes shape under our hands, as we ask the little questions, as we do the next small task that is directly before us, as we inhabit the one moment in which we actually reside.  

So what if you don’t have a gigantic motivating insight for the day?  That is, I regret to report, not a real excuse.  You can shape form.  You can juxtapose elements.  At the very worst, today’s work will only be a study, but so what?  You stay away from the work for this reason and you only reinforce the idea that art is some big mystical thing that it, in fact, is not.  Further, even if today’s work is only a study, you’ll have spent the day working with the elements you — usually — love, and you’ll have become subtly better.

“Creative work defines itself; therefore, confront the work.”  — John Cage

Ideas come from doing the work.  They feed off each other.  Some days your rational ideas will have little or nothing to do with what’s taking shape under your hands.

And you will thank the gods for it, because this can sometimes unlock work you never imagined was in you.

Do the work.  Push through.

 


I found a painting just outside the apartment a while back.  

It was leaning up against the wall, a stone’s throw from the street in the crowded, industrial, vibrant section of Brooklyn that is my neighborhood.  The wall it was set against belongs to an old warehouse; rusted razorwire curls along the top, broken tiles and tarpaper, and yet the wall is full of color.  From edge to edge, half a dozen different artists have filled it with images and designs, realistic and abstract, from street level up 15 feet till the wall ends.  It’s a nice touch of color against the usual gray warehouse facades.

Maybe the person who made the painting put it against that particular wall because some of the designs it implements reflect similar forms, because the grafitti inspired it.  Which seems likely.  But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the painting to me.

What’s interesting to me is that you can really only see half the painting.  For whatever reason, the artist had started to erase it, to paint over it with plain white, maybe to reappropriate the canvas for a new work, or maybe to blot out a painting they hated.  The painting is a record of two very different modes of thought, of creating and destroying, even the very instant the choice was made to save it.

That was the painting I found, a swirl of blues and greens, a peaceful, creative design — partially painted over with white paint.

My heart went out immediately to the artist when I saw it.  Who hasn’t been there?  Who hasn’t obliterated a work we felt, in the fury of the moment, was terrible?  When was it we learned the lesson — did we? — to withhold that fierce judgment and see what different perspective the next morning, or the next week or month, might bring.  

And how long did it take after that realization to grasp the deeper lesson that judgment of that kind is never useful, that we haven’t the faintest idea how anyone, or we ourselves for that matter, will regard those ideas at a later time?   Of how they might serve us then, or how the perspective upon them might reveal still other insights.  The question then becomes — Why on earth would one throw away an idea?  That is more the act of a petulant child, having a tantrum.

It is something that can be seen in the work, attitudes, and lives of the masters.  There is a deeper kind of evenness with which we can learn to regard ideas.  They are merely ideas.  Now go on from there.  

Who knows what really went through the mind of that artist?  The mystery of it!  What halted their hand?  But at least twice someone thought that painting was worth saving, once when the act of erasing it was stopped, and then once again when the painting was placed out on the street, carefully, for someone to see, appreciate, maybe even take home.  Someone thought that the ideas were, at the very least, worthy of being seen, of being, even if only in a small way, a part of the conversation.

That painting lives with me now.  It is a reminder to me that the act of saving one’s work, and releasing it into the world, requires a certain bravery, but that doing so also lets us, in some way, take part in a wild, strange ecosystem, and that this act has gifts, that for all its terrors there is a kind of expansiveness, and a curiously nourishing fulfillment, in letting go.

I was sitting with a very talented musician friend years ago, discussing songwriting and the creative process.  (He has since gone on to become a national act in a particular genre, with legions and legions of devoted followers.)

He was talking about how good lyrics, and good songs, don’t, by and large, come “out of the blue,” that they come about through writing and rewriting and rewriting.  

The belief in that mystical flash is too often an excuse not to do the work.  

He talked about how he usually spends hours and hours and hours working on the composition of a single tune, a single lyric.  Sometimes it can come more quickly, sometimes it takes days.  Or longer.

And then he said something completely obvious that nevertheless resonated through the core of my being — How else is it going to get done?  I’ve never forgotten that conversation.  

It cut through any of that myth-building nonsense about art-making and the creative process which I’m trying to feed myself that day.

How else IS it going to get done?

It gets done when you move your body, do the single small individual task that’s immediately before you…and then you do the next.

The work gets done when you do it.

No number of pithy slogans or inspiring quotes are going to automatically dissolve your creative blocks.

Yes of course it’s true, words embody ideas, and quotes can sometimes communicate wonderful and inspiring ideas.  But if you’re a blocked artist and have suffered those blocks for years, OR if you’re someone who set aside the creative life to attend to other responsibilities, and now can’t find your way back, it’s going to take more.

One of the keys to this connundrum is a hard one to turn — we have to learn to reach out.

With these long-standing blocks, part of the problem is the cleverness with which we’ve built our walls, and the endless repetitions of that behavior in which we have turned aside from our creative work when we came to that wall.

This is a closed system.  If we really want to free this artist inside us, we are going to have to open up that system.  One of the ways we do that is by coming clean.   We have to lay everything out to a genuinely sympathetic person, preferably an artist, to whom our real situation is fresh.  Why such drastic measures?  Because, if we have a long-term block, we have become ingrained in our patterns, enmeshed, we have become prisoners of our own castle, and an outside perspective is one critical key to knocking the rust off the gates and beginning the process of pushing them open.

We do not see ourselves.  Our familiarity with our past, our selective vision regarding it, and our rationalizations to make it all okay, need to be brought to awareness.  If you are in a labyrinth, it helps to have someone positioned high above you who can see the way out more objectively.  

If you have a long-term block to doing something as natural as making art, this coming clean can be the difficult doorway which leads to the reality of living the creative life, of freeing the artist you are, but somehow don’t quite believe yet.

It isn’t a one-time thing either.  Patterns and beliefs that create long-term blocks take time to see, even with someone else’s help, and time to understand.  Sometimes we’re confronted with unpleasant beliefs we have about ourselves and our ability to make art, and sometimes it takes time to even admit they are there.  But the alternative is to leave those patterns undisturbed.  Easier at first glance, but then of course the blocks will remain.  It’s like a closet you never clean.  It’s safer, but then you will never become that wildly, intensely creative being which is every human’s birthright.

Who, then?  Someone who understands the creative process.  Is this a therapist?  Sometimes.  Is this a friend?  Well, it can’t be a friend who reinforces the negative patterns!  But it can be an acquaintance, sometimes a friend.  Every situation is different.

It’s an enormous topic, and this just scratches the surface.  But the way IS known.

 

How can it possibly be worth it?  

Because what waits for you on the other side is, quite literally, freedom.

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”  — T.S. Eliot

 

All of us have seen friends who are artists put aside their art and not return.

An old jazzer I knew, who scored big bands in the ’50s, heard from a friend who’d stopped playing as a musician, and asked him “What went wrong?”  Then immediately, laughingly — “What went right?!?”

There are always good reasons.  Family responsibilities.  Job responsibilities.  Responsibilities.

Not always, but frequently, I hear notes of sadness in the voice and expressions of a person describing why they left their art practice behind.  Sometimes the notes are faint, sometimes distant, like ideas that have lain fallow so long they are grown over with ivy, but too often the feeling of sorrow, of something precious lost, is there. 

I don’t care how many of the people around you might think pursuing art of any form — music? acting? performance? sketching? — is a waste of time.   OR foolish.  OR “unrealistic.”  Or any of the other thousand words we use to imprison ourselves in limitations we don’t really, deep down, believe in.

This isn’t about what other people believe.  

There’s a kind of ruthlessness which the artist must possess — and in fact must nurture.  You have to be able to withstand the passing storms of outside opinion.  What does someone else’s opinion have to do with following your desire to create???  Yes, of course, it requires a kind of bravery to pick up the brush again, pick up the guitar, pick up the script.  Would it be as hard, would you be so unwilling, if you thought of it as a matter of life or death for a unique and precious part of your being?  

Isn’t it?

“To create one’s own world, in any of the arts, takes courage.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

Find that courage.  And hold on to it.  As if it were a matter of life and death.

 

“When you really intend to do something, and commit yourself to doing it and if you have integrity about it, you are forced to consider your motives and desires.”  — Peter Ciccariello

 

An important aspect of developing the energy required to break through creative blocks is learning to recognize the patterns of behavior and thinking, particularly those surrounding our work, which we tend to fall into, and further recognizing which of those patterns are helpful, and which are harmful to the activity of getting on with the work.  

One of the most suprisingly vital, but often little appreciated, tools in this area is simply intent.   Brought properly into focus, the power of our desire to make changes in our psychological environment happen is formidable.  There are tricks, large and small, which one can deploy in order to keep this intent in the foreground.  But the decision to address harmful patterns will have consequences only if you actively decide you are willing to make changes.

The blocks we throw up for ourselves, the particular devices we use to distract ourselves from doing the work, are essentially the same, but vary widely in form.  Some might use television, some sex, some might attend to mundane tasks about the home.  As always, it’s not the form that’s important, it’s the purpose.  It’s the content.

Thus, the first and possibly most important tool to keep in mind (or, more realistically, bring to mind periodically) is the simple question — What is it for?  The question has universal application, but is useful here as applied only to our own words, thoughts, and actions, not those of others.  If you can ask this of yourself as you go about your day — and stay honest with yourself about your answers — the veil will begin to lift. 

Get a stack of stickies.  Write “What is it for?” on one or two of them and place them in areas you occasionally pass by throughout your day.  As we go about our day, our week, it can sometimes be surprising to be reminded of our real motivations under ordinary activities.  Little notes to ourselves can be like little firecrackers that shatter the facades of our usual modes of thinking.  

Is TV a problem?  Consider limiting your time spent — you can remind yourself with a note on a sticky somewhere on the TV.  What about blocks you throw up as you’re trying to do the work?  Very often, we know just the kind of thoughts we use to sabotage ourselves (“i’m not talented enough,”  “not as good as so-and-so,” etc., etc. ad infinitum), thus we, better than anyone, know exactly how to write a note to ourselves that expresses the precise opposite of those thoughts, those little poison darts we throw at ourselves.  Find a quote from an artist which reinforces this idea if you can, and include it.  Place it in your work area.  

Habits can be broken, and this includes habits of thought.

Use the talents and motivation of your mind in this problem-solving mode to create tools for yourself that address the unhelpful thoughts your mind can generate in those problem-creating modes.

Another important thing — Prepare your work materials in advance.  If you are a musician, songs might need to be brought into usable keys, instruments tuned, equipment hooked up, etc.  If you are a visual artist, canvases might need to be stretched, or those brushes gotten down from the garage shelf.  Etc., etc.  The idea here is simply not to let the actions of preparation to create opportunities, to provide enough time, for old patterns to reassert themselves, for doubts to form, for excuses to rise up — we want to be able to begin the simple act of making quickly, before any of the thinking about creating can take hold.  Make it easy to get started.  Make it easy to play.

Lastly, it’s important for the blocked artist to remember that, very often, we didn’t get this way overnight.  Negative behaviors and negative patterns of thought develop over time, sometimes starting as far back as childhood, and can even become encrusted in a way, and sometimes — not always — it’s just going to take time to reawaken the part of us that can throw ourselves into the work and create without inhibition.  

So be gentle with yourself…as you do the work.

Be well.

Like what you see? Stumble Me!

PROJECTS

Currently working with some friends on a kind of "guided study course" on demystifying the creative process and working through creative blocks. We're thinking about what form it should take at the moment...having fun...lots of ideas kicking around. :-) If you have any ideas, or you want to be updated -- not promising anything! -- drop me a line at anartistinbrooklyn at yahoo.com. Be well.

Latest Tweets!

  • Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. — Raymond Chandler 1 year ago
  • I don't take notes; I don't outline, I don't do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing. — Stephen King 1 year ago
  • Space is the breath of art. — Frank Lloyd Wright 1 year ago
  • The only thing I know is that if I get to my studio, that means I'm alive today. — Robert Farber 1 year ago
  • Ideas aren't real estate, they grow collectively and that knocks out the egotistical loneliness that generally infects art. — Rauschenberg 1 year ago
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