“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”CHUCK CLOSE
I look over at my art table. A mess of paint tubes, pencils, rags, and a few of the pieces I had been working on are strewn over the surface. The early afternoon light filters in through the thick curtains. There is an expectant hush surrounding the space. Will the room be filled with the swish of paint across the paper, or will it be filled with the tormented sounds of a blocked artist scratching away in her journal?
A lot has been said about creative blocks, with some arguing that it doesn’t exist, that it is a made-up concept that people tell themselves to get out of doing creative work. While the jury is still out on that, the fact remains that it isn’t always easy to create regularly. Most creatives get stuck from time to time, or hit a plateau where their work remains firmly mediocre no matter how hard they try.
How, then, do you continue to do the work? To put in the hours? To quieten the torment in your soul long enough to at least give yourself a chance to try?
Personally, I look to those who have gone before me for answers. There is some comfort to be gained from the knowledge that I am not alone in feeling blocked. That long before social media and the internet could be held up as examples of distraction, artists the world over were dealing with feelings of inadequacy and comparison, and the torment of being locked in their own world, creating worlds where others could lose themselves. That philosophers and psychologists as well as creatives of all stripes have devoted at least some of their attention to the workings of a creative mind.
The problem with rationalizing the creative process
Psychologist Susan Reynolds claims that far from being a psychological condition, the creative block is a myth. She argues that the concept of the writer’s block originated with the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 19th century, when he first described his “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent.
In a 2015 article in Psychology Today, she writes: “Romantic English poets of the time believed their poems magically arrived from an external source, so when their pens dried up and the words did not flow, they assumed the spirits, the gods, and/or their individual muses were not visiting them with favor.”
Needless to say, she doesn’t believe in the muses.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it puts the individual at the center of the Universe, above the Gods and the many undeniable mysteries that we observe around us in the natural world. As Elizabeth Gilbert said in her viral TED Talk:
I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”
With Reynold’s view of rational humanism, all creative endeavors are completely self-directed. Where, then, is the space for inspiration, for flow, for hearing a poem as it comes barreling down over the landscape?
In search of divine inspiration
The ancient Greeks and Romans had a very different view on creativity. Plato, for example, claimed that poets produce truly great poetry not merely through knowledge or mastery, but by being “divinely inspired” by the Muses, in a state of possession that exhibits a kind of madness.
In a nod to this ancient wisdom, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer posited that the greatest artists are distinguished not only by their technical skill, but also by their capacity to “lose themselves” in the experience of what is beautiful and sublime. Nietzsche concurred, offering the more rational minded among us a broader model of creativity. In The Birth of Tragedy, he detailed two conflicting creative energies: the cool rational intellect, which he called The Apollonian energy, and the passionate emotional aspect, which he called the Dionysian energy. He believed the best creatives were able to find a balance between the two: blending the Dionysian spirit of ecstatic intoxication, which imbues creative work with vitality and passion, with the Apollonian spirit of restraint, which tempers chaos with order and form.
This balancing of the Dionysian and Apollonian energies is something I experience every time I paint. My painting process is intuitive — I explore the interplay of the intuitive use of colors, marks, and shapes to see what emerges on the canvas. Things can get very chaotic before I begin to find some order in the chaos. I employ the Surrealist technique of automatism, with a focus on producing paintings without conscious thought, allowing images to form in the layers of marks and paint, only elaborating upon them towards the final stages of the painting process.
And yet, there are times when all of this feels contrived. When I push around the paint and no inspiration strikes. It’s like the inner dialogue that I have with my paintings dries up, and the Muses refuse to come out and play.
Too much external noise leads to creative blocks
In one of her journal entries in Journal of A Solitude, May Sarton writes:
“I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful.”
These words offer this blocked creative some measure of comfort.
Ultimately, as Sarton points out, that’s part of what a creative block is — a failure of nerves, a failure to listen deeply, a failure to remain open and curious, a failure to accept that sometimes, the muse refuses to grace us with her presence, but that we must continue to show up anyway. Because that is the work of the artist — to show up, even when the work seems to be going nowhere.
In that entry, Sarton continues:
“It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort.”MAY SARTON
You can take comfort in knowing that Sarton felt that constriction of choices, the squeezing out of inward decisions. It is comforting because it helps you realize that it is probably simply a part of the human condition to feel constricted and constrained, to feel like the outside world is too noisy, like you cannot even hear yourself think for all the noise out there (or in your head).
I wouldn’t be remiss in saying that the world has become even noisier now than it was in Sarton’s day. While the internet and social media may have broadened our horizons to some extent, in many ways, they have also constricted them.
Algorithms determine what we find interesting, which removes the delight of serendipitous, startling discoveries. Instead, technology puts us into neatly labelled boxes, handing us more and more of the same drivel, in the hope that it will keep us entertained long enough for them to profit off of our attention.
When you are thus distracted, cut off from your own inner voice, from the magic of unexpected discoveries, why should you be surprised when inspiration seems to dry up and the muse disappears in a huff?
Embracing silence to overcome a creative block
You don’t need to become a luddite and completely eschew technology. Instead, there is a case to be made for carefully curating your sources of information — long-form articles, in-depth podcasts, and books should be your first port of call instead of the click-baity articles and listicles that litter the interwebs. Social media should be carefully curated and its usage monitored.
When your mind us thus nourished, no matter what creative field you work in, inspiration and ideas flow more freely.
After all, even in my painting process, my intuition needs a starting point. It is my inner world, true, but it is an amalgamation of everything I read and consume, and of the more mysterious connection to the Universal source. Which, if psychoanalyst Carl Jung was right, is made up in part of the collective unconscious, which comprises the shared mental concepts of our cultural place and time as well as “the psychic life of our ancestors right back to the earliest beginnings.”
When you feed your brain junk, when you live distracted and disconnected, you are unable to access your rich inner world. To hear its warnings, its whispers, and its guidance. You can go through the motions — in my case, laying down paints and marks — but that vital life force and spark will be missing from your work; and you will feel it.
This is, at its core, part of what a creative block is. The lack of quiet spaces where the muse can come in and whisper inspiration in our ears; the fear of being irrelevant, unheard, not good enough; unable to compete with the outside world.
There’s more to creativity and overcoming creative blocks, of course. But if you can start with these small changes, it will go a long way to helping you overcome creative blocks and smoothen your creative process.
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