When Creative Block Catches Up With You
Let me start by apologising for my uncharacteristic silence lately. I am well aware that July and August were more than a little lacking on the blogging front. I could launch into a million and one excuses; tell you about the daily migraines I’ve been plagued with since June, or the poor internet connection I had in Bulgaria, or even the amount of admin work I’ve been wading through as an ongoing pastime since returning from holiday, therefore absolving myself of all responsibility and consequently banishing the feelings of guilt from my own head.
I could, but I won’t. Because the truth is, none of that is actually relevant. No matter how many free hours we have, or don’t have, at our disposal, we somehow find a way to do the things that matter. I should have continued to make time for blogging, regardless of everything else, instead of surrendering to that terrifying mythical demon: creative block.
So, instead of excuses, I will simply tell you I am sorry, and I will make it my aim to get back into the habit as quickly as I seemed to fall out of it.
There are a number of things I’d like to ponder over with you – holidaying with Nelly eight months on, perceptions of Nelly abroad, the normality of abnormal living, the pain of reducing pain medication to name but a few. However, right now I think it is more relevant to reflect on the implications of creative block for a creative professional.
Is it all just a construct of my own mental state anyway? Or is it the result of something far bigger and more imposing? Is it like a dog that smells fear and is drawn to the person in a crowd with the raised heart rate? Does the fear of the block feed the block itself? Perhaps the biggest question of all – can we ever really dodge the block?
All Blocked Up
I have written before (though not on here) about the feeling of creative channels shutting down. For someone who relies on creativity in almost every aspect of their life, the prospect of it failing is a pretty frightening one. More than that, it can be professionally disabling in a manner entirely different from my actual disability.
Something I have come to realise, though, is that I am not alone in fearing creative block. Nor am I alone in sometimes experiencing it. Thankfully, I don’t often give in to it as I have done lately, but even in that, I am certainly not the first creative professional (nor will I be the last) to do so.
Everyone Has An Opinion
Award-winning Chilean writer, Isabel Allende, has been quoted to have said: ‘Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too’ when asked if she has ever struggled for inspiration. I can’t deny that I like the sentiment, and waiting for innovation obviously works for her. However, I am more inclined to side with comedy stalwart, John Cleese, on the matter, and say it is not enough simply to sit around and wait for creativity to strike like lightening; we must take action to make it happen.
In a famous lecture Cleese delivered in 1991, he explained that ‘creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating’ He went on to discuss his belief that it would be impossible to teach someone to be creative. Instead, he set out to instruct the eager listeners in his tried and tested methods of maximising creativity.
I was actually sign-posted to this lecture on YouTube, by a great friend and creative colleague of mine. He uses it as a tool to motivate and refocus himself before settling down to write. Curious as to how any speech from such a long time ago could remain so inspirational, I watched it myself.
Let me tell you: there is a reason John Cleese has had such a long and fruitful career, solely built on his ability to work creatively. For anyone who wants to take a look, and hear it from the horse’s mouth, voila. If you have a free half hour, and could use some creative rejuvenation, it is well worth a look.
So What Was His Point?
The main point Cleese was making, was that we self-sabotage far too readily. All too often, we sit down and demand ourselves to produce something mind-blowingly fabulous without doing the necessary preparations first. In this way, we are effectively setting ourselves up to fail every time.
For a start, we are too fixated on the fact that the blog post has to be insightful, the painting has to be beautiful, the script has to be ground-breaking, rather than simply allowing ourselves to make a start and see where it leads us. That lumps the pressure on by the barrel before you’ve even switched the laptop on, poured the paint, or taken the lid off your pen. As soon as we attach that amount of expectation, we remove most of the joy from a task, making it harder to tap into our usually dominant creative self.
Cleese refers to it as being in one of two modes: open or closed. In open mode, we let ourselves play and explore the possibilities of an idea. In closed mode, we don’t.
It really is that simple.
Get Comfortable With Discomfort
Cleese goes on to highlight specific challenges, and illustrate his own ways of dealing with the uncertainty of working creatively. It is interesting to hear him compare himself with one of his Monty Python colleagues. He was obviously far too professional to name which one, but he did talk about their respective ways of ending episode scripts. He said he could never understand why his own penned endings were usually more imaginative than those written by his (to his mind) more intelligent colleague.
One day it dawned on him: in such a hurry to finish the job, his colleague would often conclude a script in an altogether unoriginal manner. Cleese, on the other hand, was happy to sit with the discomfort of not knowing how his episode might end. He talked about playing with opposing concepts and testing them out in his head, right up until the point where he had to make a decision in order to meet his deadline.
He was willing to walk away from an unfinished idea, accepting that the right moment to conclude his script would come later, rather than torturing himself staring at a blank page, or bullying himself into picking an answer to a question to which he wasn’t yet ready to respond. It is this fearlessness in the face of uncertainty to which he attributes a great deal of his early creative success.
But What About Nelly?
I suppose you are wondering what any of this has to do with Crohn’s Disease? Perhaps not, but I’m going to tell you anyway, because it is another lesson I feel like I am learning all too late in life. I suppose you could argue that at least I am learning it.
It is something that was pointed out to me only last week, and it has never felt more appropriate. However much we like to deny it, we are only human. The human brain is an incredible thing, but it can only cope with so much strain. When we try and juggle too many balls, then introduce some batons, knives and fire-sticks, as well as attempting to keep a plate spinning, sooner or later, one of these will hit the ground. That’s before there’s the added stress, strain and pain of chronic illness.
It just isn’t possible to function at a constant speed 100% of the time. Sooner or later, our brain will revolt and we are likely to crash and burn. I have realised that is where this particular bout of creative block began. My brain wanted me to slow down, give it some breathing space, allow it to recharge. I was giving my body a holiday, but I expected my brain to keep working at the same rate throughout. I had all manner of plans for the things I would write whilst I was away, not to mention the project planning I intended to do.
If I had simply relented and willingly allowed my brain not to focus on writing for a week or two, chances are, I would have jumped back into the saddle as soon as the break was over. Instead, the fact that I was struggling to write became something I could punish myself for and worry about. Like the dog that smells the fear, the block sensed my anxiety and negative anticipation. It fed on this and grew. The more blocked I felt, the more worried I became, the more blocked I felt – a never-ending cycle and a creatively-obstructed mindset.
So what can I take away from all this? What tricks can I put to use in the future to avoid periods of creative stagnation?
Around twelve years ago someone called Lou Harry brought out a book in the shape of a block, creatively titled Creative Block. Each page contains nothing more than an off-the-wall idea for how to banish the block – make an ice cream sundae with an unusual ingredient ; make a scrapbook filled with ideas to revert to when you’re stuck ; go for a walk….
I will admit, some of these are less imaginative than others, none of them reinvent the wheel, but all of them do one thing very effectively: they encourage the reader to take a step back from the blockage and channel their energy into something altogether more frivolous. This takes us right back to John Cleese and his theory of openness.
By giving ourselves permission to play, we open ourselves to the possibility that creativity might strike. In the event that it doesn’t, at least we will have done something enjoyable, leaving us feeling refreshed to begin the process again, unburdened by the negative energy we were channeling into feeling blocked.
It really isn’t rocket science, but it does make perfect sense. In fact, it matches up with the message I instil in all my students, whatever their age. Worry less about the outcome; focus on the process of getting there and the ideas you can explore along the way. Most importantly, be sure to enjoy the scenery.
Sometimes it is essential to give yourself a break. Try and acknowledge that you may be in closed mode for a reason. Whether that is physical pain, emotional stress, side effects of medication or just an overloaded brain, the reason is valid and it doesn’t mean you have failed.
Surely it is far less damaging to accept – I am blocked today and go and do something else, then make a conscious decision to be open tomorrow, even if only to play, than to do what I have done and hide for just over two months in fear that the block will find me. As with so many things, the anticipation is the worst part. Now that I have unpicked the mystery of my own creative block, it doesn’t seem half as scary. In fact, I am pretty sure I just smashed through it.