Recently I’ve experienced a bout of Absolutely Nothing Inspires Me Artistically, or what might be better known as a good old fashioned, super boring creative drought. I had heard about them from other creative people, and symptoms include an existential crisis, crippling self-doubt, not producing anything for months and the confronting feeling of waking up day after day without a single new idea. At all. Ever.
Has this ever happened to you? How did you cope? Do you have any tips? I felt like I had always been a well of creativity I had personally mined for artistic gold, and suddenly, inexplicably, out of the blue, my resource had run dry.
I’ve always been creative. Ever since I can remember, I drew and painted. Then later, I took photographs and built a darkroom, and always made things. Creativity had been integral to my identity (always the “arty one” in family and school life), and it had helped me through relatives’ divorces, falling in and out of love, rejection, and big moves. I created because it made sense of the hours and days. I made zines and sound art noise and glitch tapes, I made collage and the best damn birthday cards for my mates. For as long as I could remember I had more ideas about artwork than time to make them happen. My notebooks were littered with lists of artworks I’d thought of but will never get to make. I liked that about me — I was a bubbly gyser of creativity, oozing ideas, and it really did build the foundations of who I came to see myself as; an “ideas person,” a “go-getter.” I was ready and prepared for life, for work, because I had my creativity. My creativity at its most fundamental point, was a way for me to exist in this world.
But over the months as this creative drought has been creeping in to an untenable point, I at first went into total denial about it’s existence. If I’m totally honest I started to feel this creeping doubt about the consistency and quality of my creative ideas a good six months ago. I put it down to stress and…well nothing because I kind of just ignored it. But I didn’t think it was a “problem”, I just thought about it as little as I possibly could. I did what would make my stoic, hard working Scottish ancestors proud and kept my head down and just worked and worked and worked. I carried on.
I also thought misguidedly for a while that this was what creative professionalism was like. I assumed this sick feeling of creative malnourishment was a normal part of the job. Karl Marx didn’t call it “alienated labor” for nothing, and it’s not called “nose to the grindstone” because it feels great. I thought feeling creatively void was part of the deal of being afforded the privilege of making a living off being creative. But as I looked around me and saw my friends, artists, peers, working creative jobs and exploding with energy and ideas for challenges they found wonderful and gripping, I noticed it wasn’t usual to feel like I had creative anaemia. My friend got a gig being director of photography on a big music video to be shot with a UK band in Ukraine, and he had these logistical puzzles, which he solved skillfully and oozed creativity while doing so. He made it apparent that creative droughts were a nice label we gave to a much deeper problem, which is personal to the individual and it made me think perhaps “writers block” or “creative droughts” were abstract concepts which stood in for a complex mix of other.
Before I got around to sorting out what was actually happening to me (and it did feel like something was “happening”), I like most artists I know that have faced a lack of creative inspiration began to doubt who I was an what I did. Did this mean I shouldn’t be an artist? Had I ruined my life? Was I in the wrong professional field? I wondered if I should interpret my lack of inspiration as a clue I’d made a series of horrible, very large life choices that had gone rather badly. I am embarrassed to admit, but I even found myself saying absurd things like, “should I go to law school?” or “should I be a doctor like my brother?” when I really did know that I did not want to go to law school, or medical school, I just wanted to feel creativity flow out of me like molten lava as it had for decades already.
As the weeks went by and I had no new ideas, I noticed a few things that were really going on and took note. I noticed I was exhausted, post-post-tired, in that cumulative haze of months of not getting enough sleep. I was tired and a bit stressed, which retrospectively will squash creative thought incredibly quickly. I also noticed that I continued to be creative in other areas of my life, which I took as a wonderful sign that my brain hadn’t lost the ability to think with a unique creative approach. I inadvertently approached problems creatively, I made up recipes and hand-built a complex plant watering system. I saw familiar patterns of creativity in these other ares of life and celebrated these small moments of reigniting my creative spark. I remember reading that Beethoven had a time between 1813 and 1820 in which he hit a huge creative block. He wrote one string quartet (Opus 95) and the Hammerklavier and five other smaller pieces of music, which considering how utterly prolific he was, is a sparse period. Once I stopped seeing this duration of little creative output as a super rare phenomena that only happened to me, I came to see it as a cyclical part of human creative growth.
So here is what I did that helped begin to ease me out of a huge creative drought. It might not work for you, and I’m actually still inside of it, so please do share in the comments below how you got through creative blocks. No seriously, help me! How did you get out of a creative drought!?
I read a lot. Like a lot. I re-read unashamedly my favourite creative works. I thought if I couldn’t invent my own stories I could get lost in the ones that had inspired something in me years before. I read for hours alone and cherished the time I could do this. I studied pieces of writing searching for clues about how they were sculpted and what I had identified with them previously.
I walked a lot. For hours, around my neighbourhood. I know we’ve discussed the merits of walking, but please do try this if you feel a creative block as there is science behind it. I downloaded audiobooks and walked and walked. I mean like… Infinite Jest length walking.
I looked at what my peers were doing and soaked up other peoples’ art. I looked at what everyone else was making and quietly, and calmly took stock of trends, scenes, and happenings. I tipped my toe in exploring artwork on Tumblr. I talked to people I trusted about the state of art in Australia and became okay with existing within it without having to be actively contributing to it.
I pushed myself to make deadlines, to enter competitions, and be involved in art exhibitions. I said yes to creative opportunities even if I didn’t feel like I had anything for it, because it forced me to keep going, to keep making.
So what helped for you? How did you get through creative blocks? When did it end? And how did you know your drought was over? And what advice do you have for me? Are creative blocks really a part of normal human growth?