If you have a creative block you’d like some help with, tell us about it – details in the first article in the series.
Every creative medium has the equivalent of the writer’s blank page – an empty space waiting to be filled. And every creator knows the numbing feeling of staring at that space without a clue what to do or say next. The possibilities are endless – so many, that it’s impossible to choose. So many, that there might as well be none at all.
The feeling gets worse the more you look at the work of your creative heroes – what could you possibly add to what they have said and done in the field?
So it was no surprise when this issue cropped up in response to our invitation to Lateral Action readers to tell us about your creative blocks.
I’m a good photographer. I can take a technically well executed and interesting picture. I’ve sold images, for hundreds of dollars, been successful in competitions, had a gallery show, have images part of a traveling, internationally curated exhibition. So I can take a picture.
I’m currently frustrated and blocked in that I don’t know what I want to take pictures of. Or have anything to say with the pictures I do take. I’ve worked at this and been frustrated by it off and on for several years, trying to work on projects (with some success – a couple of books produced as a result)
But I still feel that same block, that the pictures aren’t interesting, or worth showing or bothering with. There is always something lacking, some element of emotion or anything to make them worthwhile or actually say something interesting. I think I might be struggling with the fear of trying to break out of the style I’m in, but don’t really know how to go about it.
I’m currently attending a poetry workshop with Mimi Khalvati, at the Poetry School. It’s an advanced workshop, so we’ve all been writing for a while. One of the things Mimi does very well is to challenge us to go beyond simply producing ‘good writing’. Here’s a typical bit of feedback from Mimi, one that I’ve been on the receiving end of:
This is a well crafted poem. If you look at every line, see it’s well-written. The form, the rhythm, the rhymes and syntax are all well handled.
But the trouble is, you knew everything in it before you sat down to write. You didn’t surprise yourself, you didn’t discover anything as you wrote. Nothing happened.
And that’s why Poetry has yet to walk into the poem.
Ouch! But she’s right. Like Gordon, who can take a “technically well executed and interesting picture”, if I want to progress with my writing, I need to recognise that technical skill is a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition for success. When I sit down to write a poem, I need to let go of everything I know and be open to what happens.
And like all the best things in life, it’s scary – but exciting.
Scary, because the inner control freak starts, well, freaking out. It’s only his job. And exciting, because the thrill of discovery, or suddenly finding something magical happening with the words, or not knowing exactly what it is but being intensely curious to follow it and find out – is exactly why I started writing poetry in the first place.
And the thing is, you can’t plan for magic. You can only chant your little spell and hope the spirits are listening. You can’t plan ahead and anticipate “what you want to say” or ” what [you] want to take pictures of”. If the words or pictures are going to be worth paying attention to, they need to be as fresh a discovery to you as to your audience.
Or as Theodore Roethke put it in a poem, “I learn by going where I have to go”.
Hugh MacLeod wrote a great piece about this at the end of last year ‘Don’t worry if you don’t know absolutely everything before starting out’:
iii. Interesting destinies rarely come from just reading the instructions manual.
Yes, Louis Pasteur did say, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” On one level, he was right. That being said, the stuff you learn beforehand will never be one-tenth as useful as the stuff you learn the hard way, on the job. All the former can do is help train you to deal with the reality of the latter. The real truth is always found in the moment, never in the future.
So what does this mean to you in your studio/office/workshop/atelier on a Monday morning?
Plans are good for some things. Buildings. Savings. Exercise. Some bits of some businesses. But they have their limits when it comes to creativity. After all, if you’re only going to execute on a plan, you haven’t really created anything, have you?
Preparation is fine. Research is fine. Practice is fine. Rehearsal is fine. Learning your craft is fine. But there comes a point when it’s time to face the stage, the page, the canvas or the blank screen.
At that point, you need to leave your plans behind.
You heard me. Let go!
Start fooling around, playing with your materials. Splash the paint on. Scribble the words down. Point the camera wherever. Sing the first thing that comes into your head.
Where’s this going? What will you get out of it ? Who cares? Have fun.
“‘Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the young man answers, ‘I have important things I want to say,’ then he is not a poet. If he answers, ‘I like hanging around words listening to what they say,’ then maybe he is going to be a poet.”
Notice When You Surprise Yourself
Experiment for long enough, and chances are something interesting will happen. (I say “chances are”, because there are no guarantees. Sorry.) Maybe not something amazing, like hearing an inner voice reciting ‘Kubla Khan’ or suddenly realising why that apple just fell to the ground. But something interesting, something you didn’t expect, something that may have potential.
Quite often, you won’t notice it at the time. This is why many writers have separate times for drafting and reviewing/editing their work. And why so many photographers love digital photography – take as many shots as you like, without worrying about using up the film! You can go back and pick out the good ones later.
When you return to your draft/sketchbook/memory stick, what you find can give you a clue to what to do next. You notice where the writing catches fire, and it’s easy to pick up the thread and add a few more lines in the same vein. Or you suddenly realise what you find interesting about that old building, and can’t wait to go back and snap a few more shots from the same angle. Or you keep playing around with that one good riff until you find the next one growing out of it …
… at that point, you’re no longer worrying about “what you have to say”, you’re having too much fun saying it.
Good Amazing Feedback
Sometimes, we don’t even notice the good stuff afterwards. In Gordon’s case, for instance, given his achievements, and some of the great work on display on his blog and Flickr page, I find it hard to believe that his past achievements are limited to “technically well executed and interesting picture[s]”. Now, I’m not a photographer, so I can’t give him the kind of feedback he really needs, but there are people out there – experienced photographers, editors, teachers – who would be able to look at Gordon’s portfolio and see things in it that he hasn’t noticed yet. Their words could open up entire new creative vistas for him. If he can find someone like that, their advice will be priceless.
That’s why I go to Mimi’s class. She’s told me things about my writing I would never have noticed myself – or not for a very long time. And because the group is composed of experienced poets, I also get great feedback from them, that I wouldn’t get from non-writers, or even experienced prose writers.
Make it a priority to get this kind of feedback for yourself. Don’t settle for everyday compliments or even very good feedback. Seek out someone who knows far more about what you’re trying to do than you do. And do what it takes to get their honest, considered opinion on your work. They won’t tell you “what you have to say” – but they’ll point you in a direction where you can find out for yourself.
Enjoy Not Knowing
This last one can seem a bit subtle at first, or even impossible. Surely ‘not knowing’ is the problem we’re trying to get over here?
Actually, no. The real problem is ‘resisting not knowing’, or ‘wanting to know everything beforehand’. Drop that, and ‘not knowing’ isn’t a problem at all. In fact, it’s a big relief.
Stop and think for a moment about all the day-to-day situations where you’re expected to know what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it. All those expectations. All that accountability. All that pressure.
Sometimes, the weight of knowledge can start to feel a little heavy.
Isn’t it nice to have one small corner of your life where you don’t know what you’re going to do, or what’s going to happen? Where there are no expectations (other than the ones you bring with you) and no one will hold you to account?
Hugh calls this “personal sovereignty”. Another word for it is ‘freedom’.
Sure, freedom can feel a little scary, at first. But once you get the hang of it, it can be a lot of fun.
“If you know exactly what you are going to do then what is the point in doing it?” ~ Picasso
Over to You
Do you always know ‘what you want to say’ with your work?
If not, is this a help or hindrance?
Any tips for dealing with feeling blocked by ‘not knowing’?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks and into the creative zone. For a FREE 26-week creative career guide, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.