Have you ever sat looking at a blank text document, page, or canvas and wondered how you ever managed to start new projects in the past?Assuming creative block exists (some say they don’t), it can hit anyone involved in creative work—from writers to performers to composers to scientists.
How you work through creative blocks will be different to what works for me, but understanding what they are and why they happen is a good starting point.
What are creative blocks?
Creative blocks are such abstract notions that it’s hard to pin down a specific definition of what they are and why they occur. The general consensus seems to be that a period of time when an artist can’t access their inspiration or can’t bring themselves to create new work–is a creative block. It’s that blank page syndrome by another name.
How to overcome creative blocks
So many artists have been through this experience before that we’re lucky to have lots of advice about how to work through a creative block. If you’re not sure what works for you (and it might be different each time), here are some starting points to get over the blank page hurdle.
Set yourself a routine
One way to avoid the ‘I have no inspiration’ problem is to work without inspiration. Many artists have shared the idea of working hard every day, even when you don’t feel like it. When it comes to creative blocks, this can be a good way to push past the struggle of not being able to begin.
A study of creatively blocked writers actually found that working to a routine was the most beneficial remedy, not only for increasing their output, but also for generating new creative ideas. Writers involved in the study who waited for inspiration before writing or abstained from writing completely while they were feeling blocked saw little-to-no improvement in their struggle to generate new work and creative ideas.
Austin Kleon shared a similar sentiment when writing his book. In an effort to overcome his procrastination and tendency to spend time on other activities when he should have been writing, he drew a very simple diagram to keep himself on track:
You might find you’re spending a lot of time daydreaming without meaning to, but that could be helpful to your work. A study of people with creative blocks in various fields found that engaging in directed imagination exercises and thinking up fantasies related to their current creative project was one of the most beneficial strategies for overcoming a block.
You can direct your own daydreaming by thinking through different scenarios or possibilities for a project you’re working on, or imagining you’re someone else and thinking about how they see the world.
Go somewhere new
You may find you need a change of pace to awaken your inspiration. Heading out to a park, a drop-in work space or a café can shake up your thinking and inspire new ideas and a renewed vigour for working. Then again, sometimes you need a more dramatic change.
The value of exploring and immersing yourself in new cultures has been proven by artist after artist throughout history, from Picasso to Hemingway. There’s something about challenging your thoughts and ideas with entirely unfamiliar cultural cues that can shake you out of a creative slump.
Work within restrictions
Sometimes the blank page is daunting, simply because we have too many possibilities available to us, and the paradox of choice ends up paralysing us. Enforcing restrictions can surprisingly open up new channels of inspiration, simply because it gives us a starting point and boundaries to bump up against.
You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play. —Mixed-media artist, Trey Speegle
List of 100
Every artist develops their own hacks and tricks to deal with creative blocks over time. This little activity is one I particularly like. It’s a combination of forcing creative thinking within restrictions and stream-of-consciousness writing (which you could also practice by journalling, if that works for you).
The list of 100 activity starts by choosing a theme—perhaps a bucket list or skills you’d like to learn, or favourite moments from your life. You then write a list of 100 items that fit into that theme. No doubt you’ll get to 50, or 70 and start to struggle, but that’s the point—you’re forced to think creatively about a particular theme, and work out those imaginative muscles in your brain.
Do something you’re good at
If criticism of your work is what’s keeping creative ideas away–as it did for Rachmaninoff for two years–building up your confidence again may unblock the flow of inspiration. Something I find comforting in time of creative struggle is to turn to a completely different activity that I know I’m good at—the enjoyment of engaging in something you’re good at and appreciating the output can be a great self-esteem boost.
A similar activity is the “Creative Unblock Project” suggested by Lisa Congdon:
Choose one thing you love to draw or paint (and feel comfortable drawing or painting) already: an animal, object, a person, whatever. For thirty days, draw or paint that thing thirty different ways, a different way every day.
See how keeping one element constant (in this case, the “thing” you love to draw or paint) can allow you to break out creatively in other ways.
Go for a walk
A simple walk can do wonders for creative thinking. In fact, a Stanford study found that not only does going for a walk outside increase your creative ideas, but even walking on a treadmill indoors, facing a blank wall can do the same thing. It seems that the physical motion is as important as the change of scenery.
So next time you’re struggling with creative work on a dreary day, don’t worry about walking outside in the rain (unless that’s your thing)—just hop on the treadmill for 15 minutes and you might be surprised at how your thoughts open up.
Creative blocks are never fun. Whether you choose to see them as an integral part of the creative process, something to fight through or just a temporary problem that will go away by itself, every artist has to find a way to deal with them. Keep this list handy and you’ll have a starting point next time you’re feeling stuck.