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.