4 Ways to Bust Creative Blocks

Personally, some days I think Yzma had the right idea.

Personally, some days I think Yzma had the right idea.

Everybody gets them.  A creative lull, a loss of motivation, a funk.  These experiences are a part of the creative process. Why they come upon a particular artist at a particular time can vary wildly. Often you’ll hear people say, “No pain no game! Just keep making art! Get back to work, slacker!  DETERMINATION!!!!” Yet is the answer always, “Just power through?” Well…sometimes, but there’s often a lot more to it than that! It really depends on WHY the lull is happening in the first place.

The lull is a symptom. What’s the cause?

The cause is both dependent on you as a person and your situation. In my experience, addressing a funk requires properly identifying the cause. The same way you need to properly identify what’s causing a medical symptom before you can effectively prescribe a cure.

Below I talk about some of the different reasons I’ve experienced lulls and some tricks I’ve found to address them.

CAUSE 1:  The script is bad, and my instincts know it. Too bad my brain doesn’t.

Over the years I have developed a gut understanding of my own writing. When a script is no good, whether it’s going in the wrong direction, or the characters are acting incorrectly, or a darling has shoved itself where it doesn’t belong, or there’s just a better way to do something, I know it. Instinctively, that is, and my gut puts a hard stop on creativity.

Yes. My gut's a mob boss. Don't ask.

Yes. My gut’s a mob boss. Don’t ask.

The only way out is to keep working it over. However, bashing my head against the same brick wall rarely yields results. I’ve got to get out of the box I’m stuck in and think about the scene or story differently.

Some questions I’ve found helpful:

  • Could I show this through a different character’s perspective?
  • Could I simplify this scene?
  • Could I do this with an existing cast member?
  • Could I combine this with another scene?
  • Could I show this in a more visually interesting way?
  • Could I substitute body language or visuals for this dialog?

I will also doodle a lot, letting my pen do the talking. Sometimes giving my artistic side free rein allows me to take an unconscious instinct into the conscious, written realm.

CAUSE 2:  I’m tackling a Complex, and the Truth hurts.

Writing for me is, in many ways, a method of psychoanalyzing myself. I think this is true for a lot of people, whether they’re aware of it or not. Characters and their journeys reflect aspects of my own trials and tribulations. A Complex is a Jungian term for maladaptive patterns of behavior that are usually developed as defense mechanisms, but as we age become actively harmful to realizing our own potential. (There’s more to the concept than that, but that’s my definition for them.) As odd as this sounds, when you start working on a Complex, it fights back. When I work on one through writing, often the Complex fights by bogging down the process.

Sitting myself down on the couch through the filter of fiction.

Sitting myself down on the couch through the filter of fiction.

Addressing this kind of lull often means facing down truths about myself with absolute honesty. I may not always like what I find. However, figuring out how the Complex functions through my own behavior, good and bad, gives me great insight into myself. Walking a character through that darkness and allowing them to grow also helps ME to grow. Even better, from a creative point of view, it almost always yields some of my most powerful work. Pakku’s declaration of “Then I will be wicked” and Mizha facing down her past self (above) are both examples of work that I had to push through a Complex-induced lull to create.

It’s very challenging to do, and requires a lot of energy and hard truths, but it’s worth it. Both creatively and personally. So be kind to yourself if you’re facing down an inner demon so you can wrangle it into your writing! This lull takes a lot of focus, quiet reflection, and often runs the gamut of intense emotions.

CAUSE 3:  I am afraid of something. So…procrastination?

Often procrastination comes from fear. Fear of trying something new, fear of failure, fear of rejection. So, to avoid facing the fear, I procrastinate. Often in useless ways. Like checking the same three websites over and over and over. The trick to this one is usually recognizing the procrastination, examining the fear, and then deciding what to do with it.

Sometimes this is exactly how it feels.

Sometimes this is exactly how it feels.

Sometimes, it’s okay to procrastinate. Especially if it’s directed properly. If I decide I’m not yet up to facing the thing I’m avoiding, it’s often the time I’ll focus on all those little, important-but-annoying-things that I need to get done. Bills to be paid, tax files to organize, phone calls to make, emails to answer, website tweaks, even just washing the dishes. Not only does this mean that when I get back to creating, I’ll have less on my mind, but often getting these little things done helps to empower me to tackle bigger projects. “If I can mail these letters, than I can make that scary phone call. If I can wash these dishes I can tackle that manuscript.”

Plus, I never know what revelations are going to come to me when I’m washing dishes.

Facing down a new task that I don’t have much practice in can be intimidating! It’s okay to let something rest for a little bit, as long as it doesn’t go on forever.

CAUSE 4: I’m exhausted. The job of recovery.

I am a workaholic. I really struggle to rest, because it feels like being lazy. However, I’m also learning that I have limits. Some days, a lull is due to sickness, lack of sleep, too much stress, or just simply over-taxing the creativity muscle. So, to trick myself into viewing it as work so I don’t feel like I’m “not accomplishing anything,” I have learned to tell myself that my only job on days where I’m exhausted is “recovery.” The key is the word. See, “rest” sounds much too lazy. “Recovery,” on the other hand, sounds like some sort of medical procedure that probably involves hours and hours of difficult physical therapy. Maybe even movie montages. Yup. Lots of hard work, recovery is. Why, my schedule is just chock full of tasks like reading books, listening to music, doodling with no goal in mind, watching a favorite movie, and all sorts of other, super-tough tasks. Yup. Recovery. It’s a tough job, but sometimes it has to be done.

If a US Olympian marathon runner can accept this fact, maybe someday I will too.

If a US Olympian marathon runner can accept this fact, maybe someday I will too.

This is where having a buffer really shines. They give a creator the space and peace of mind to actually let themselves rest.

A lot of people struggle to maintain a buffer. I’ve noticed this is often connected to a boom-bust behavior pattern. The creator will set out to make a buffer in a frenzy of activity. Then, once the buffer is completed, they will stop working until the buffer runs out, forcing them back into production mode. This isn’t really how a buffer works. Buffers have to be maintained all the time. They exist so that you CAN take a temporary break for health or emergency reasons and be able to keep posting in that time. Any time lost due to that emergency is made back up as you go, not in a frenzy of activity all at once.

Buffers function best when your rate of posting matches your AVERAGE rate of production. Not your top-speed production. That way, if you have to take a break for some sort of emergency, you also know that you can come back, work a week or two at your top-speed rate, and then get back to normal. The larger the buffer, the more time you have to spread out the burden.

Buffers don’t work for everyone. Some people hate how distant they feel from the work when it finally posts. Other people are creating material that’s topical and can’t sit in a buffer for weeks and still be relevant. In cases like these, sometimes scheduling regular breaks around specific times that you’ll know you’ll be busy is a better answer. Better to take a breather with the schedule than burn out. Your readers have RSS and Twitter and Facebook and a million other places to follow you now. They’re not all going to disappear if you tell them you need to take a few days off before you go crazy.

Sometimes there is no diagnosis

While I’m getting better at differentiating one type of lull from another, sometimes I’m stuck in the dark. All I can do then is either try to figure out what is going on, or accept that sometimes there just is no reason. Or, if there is a reason, it’s okay not to know it. Especially as a person with chronic depression, on days like this it’s important for me to make self-care the top priority. Eat, drink water, stay clean, get sufficient rest. On bad depression days, just getting those four things covered is often plenty. The upside is, if I do manage my self-care well, it often means that I’ll get better a lot faster, and motivation will return all on its own. Every day is different! I just try to tackle each one as well as I can, and keep making slow and steady progress creatively and personally.

(For you history fans, Audre Lorde was a pretty cool lady. She was, to use her words, a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”)

(For you history fans, Audre Lorde was a pretty cool lady. She was, to use her words, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who wrote with unapologetic passion.)

How does your experience compare?

What do you do to get out of a creative funk? Tell us, and your fellow lull-survivors, your tricks for recapturing your motivation in the comments below!

Need some help busting past a creative block? Let’s tackle it together! I’m a Creative Consultant, and my first call (or text chat) is always free. I offer project development, crowd-funding coaching, creative career planning, and developmental editing. Contact me!

Curious about my creative work? LeyLines is the story of an irresponsible prince, his dream-weaving sister, and their adopted brother. When their mother dies under suspicious circumstances and a goddess asks them for help, they embark on a quest that will force them to choose between their family and their future. Read it at LeyLinesComic.com

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