How to Get Back in the Creative Zone after Hitting a Brick Wall

This post is part of the Break Through Your Creative Blocks series.

Break Through Your Creative Blocks!You need to be tough to succeed in a creative career. Unless you’re the exception to the rule, you will be criticised, rejected, ridiculed, cheated and disappointed – many times.

So I wasn’t surprised to hear this story from ‘Sally’ (not her real name) in response to my invitation to tell me about your creative blocks. I’m guessing it’s a tale many of us can relate to.

I have been struggling with creative block for 5 years now. I used to write prolifically (songs), until I came to a brick wall, artistically and commercially – I had been offered a record deal which fell through, I was then in a girl band with promises of great things that again came to an end etc etc. I seemed to have run out of energy – the momentum had changed and I just felt frustrated and angry!

I then put together a girl band whom I began to write for and promote. 6 months later when the band collapsed (and I was left with Β£15k worth of bank loans), I had to return to the job I had previously left (and hated) to work full-time to pay back the money.

You could say that from this point on, I had serious battles with my own creativity! My partner was running a studio from our flat which didn’t help, as I was working all day and returning home to people singing and recording and sounding great. It felt like it was being rubbed in my face!

I guess when I managed the girl band, I didn’t have to face my sliding confidence issues, I could put the focus onto them. Only when that ended, was I left with the financial and emotional debris.

When I hit the brick wall I lost all confidence in my abilities, so much so that when I opened my mouth to sing nothing came out! I did not write a song in 5 years and fel that every time I had an idea I got a sick feeling in my stomach that it was going to be the same old thing again and I hated that I was so predictable. This happened before I even knew where the idea is going! I found it crippling. For a while I was no longer interested in music, art, books, I felt like I had shut off this side of myself completely.

Things have softened a little since then – I have co-written a song with my partner who’s a prolific songwriter but I still doubt my abilities to write something of any quality myself. I know that the creative process involves just starting with a small step etc, but I still have those nagging doubts that make starting something so hard. Add to that working 4 days a week and being mum to a 2-year old, doesn’t make it any easier!

I am now listening to music again (which is great) and going to the odd gig. I don’t feel so closed off to ‘the flow’, but still need to kick start it into action!

What we’re looking at here is not one setback, but a whole series – artistic, emotional, professional, financial. So no wonder you’re feeling battered.

Remember the immortal words of Rocky? πŸ™‚

It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!

(Rocky Balboa, 2006)

So first of all, respect for getting up again and again, and having another go. Many people would have quit altogether, but I get the sense that there is a steely determination in you to make this happen. Give yourself some credit for that.

Let Go of Your Old Self

When working with clients who are in a similar situation to you, I notice they often get stuck by looking back, full of nostalgia for their old self, when they were relatively carefree and creating prolifically.

If that’s a temptation for you, then let go of the image of your past. That was then, this is now. You will never go back to being exactly the person you were. As Heraclitus was fond of saying, “you can never step into the same river twice”.

What Have You Learned?

One big creative advantage you have over your old self is a wider and richer range of life experiences. You’ve done more, felt more, suffered more and lived more than your younger self. And that can make you a better songwriter.

You don’t have to write about the experiences directly – they may well inform your music at a subtler level. But I’m sure you can think of plenty of songwriters who matured and got better with age, and whose later works resonated with a sense of hard-won life experience.

Ask yourself what you’ve learned from the past few years. If it helps, make a list or write it out in prose. If a song comes, that’s great, but don’t pressure yourself. The aim of this exercise is simply to appreciate what you have gained from adversity.

Take Back Control

One theme I noticed in your description is a loss of control – broken promises, deals that fell through, and financial disaster… All of which left you on the outside, looking through the glass at others pursuing their creative dreams.

So take back control. Be selfish. Make your art the priority from now on, regardless of logical arguments for pursuing other projects or helping others achieve their dreams.

Of course you’ve acknowledged that this is scary. For all the downside of the events you’ve described, the ‘upside’ is that they’ve distracted you from having to face up to the terror, responsibility and joy of your own talent. But how much worse can it be than avoiding it for the rest of your life?

Do It for the Hell of It

If there’s one thing I’m guessing you have learned from your experiences, it’s that you can’t rely on your music to bring you fame, wealth, opportunities or your dream lifestyle. So much of that depends on other people, and you’ve seen how they can let you down.

But the only real reason for making music is the joy of making music. Everything else is a distraction or a bonus. If you’re not enjoying yourself, what’s the point?

So do it just for the hell of it. Lock yourself in a room or go away somewhere on your own, take out the words and music and play with them. Don’t think of it as ‘songwriting’, just something you’re doing to amuse yourself.

Remember what it was like when you first stumbled across songwriting as something you loved to do. Do it like that, and screw the outcome.

Give Yourself Time

The songwriter in you just wants to write songs. She’s curious to see how they will turn out, and is happy to take all the time in the world. So give her time.

I know the ‘professional musician’ is eager to get on with her career, but she’s going nowhere fast unless she has the songs to back up her ambition. She has a wealth of experience and skills, and these will be invaluable when the time comes, but it’s not just yet.

Savour the uncertainty of not knowing how your new songs will turn out. The more patient you can be, the more fully-formed they will be when they see the light. And the more stunning that butterfly will be when it emerges from its cocoon.

Over to You

Have you ever made a creative comeback after a series of disappointments? How?

What advice would you offer to someone in Sally’s position?

Mark McGuiness is a creative coach with over 15 years’ experience of helping people get past their creative blocks. Sign up for Mark’s FREE 26-week creative career guide The Creative Pathfinder. And for bite-sized inspiration, add Mark on Google+.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I think a part of what you have written, Mark, that is urgently important is to try to separate for now the creative work (and accompanying refreshment of the spirit) from the money. If they are tightly intertwined, the anxiety and pressures regarding money will often bleed into a person’s feelings about her art/music/work. That’s kind of tragic if you really love(d) your creative work.

    Luckily, one doesn’t have to let the financial issues sit heavily on the creative work so that it can no longer breath.

    I’d ask myself, would I love to do this even if no one were willing to pay me for it? If the answer is yes, at least for now accept that you are making your living for now doing something else useful, and then give yourself a hearty chunk of time each day or week as time allows to immerse yourself in the creative stuff you love to do.

    If the answer to the question is at this point that the activity interests you only if you can make your living from it, it is a harder road.

    Personally, I do things I love just for love and also for compensation. But what works for one person will not necessarily be satisfying for another.

  2. I do things I love just for love and also for compensation.

    That’s a nice way of putting it. The love is the most important part (creatively) but it doesn’t exclude compensation as an added extra.

    • There is one other part, though, to the question of whether one would do it just for love even without compensation that may come into Sally’s situation. That is, would you be willing to do it for love of it and without compensation even if others are being paid for it? Comparisons with others may dampen ones enthusiasm for an undertaking unless one has a very constructive learning-oriented way of processing the comparison.

      • Ah yes, peer pressure can have a big effect on motivation – positive or negative.

      • This is a very interesting question. Not in many other fields you should ask it. Some creative people decide not to make money at all from their creative work and just keep it totally separate. Priicing art has been an issue all the time. Artists do it for love. No matter if they have a buyer or not. It is artist’s need to get it done. For similar work some sell higher or less or for free. That is why establishing a solid understanding about your own rule for yourself is so important.

  3. I recently wrote a post titled How ‘Unbelieving’ In Yourself Helps Finish Music.

    The only problem with this outlook is: after the album was finished, it was hard to field special compliments about it, because all along I had tricked myself into thinking it was no big deal.

  4. Mark:

    “Do it for the hell of it” is somewhat related to what I am about to say.

    I think when you hit a brick wall one of the best ways to get back into the creative zone is to do what Peyton told Mia to do. (Peyton and Mia are from the popular TV series movie called One Tree Hill).

    When Mia got stuck and the record label was asking her to come up with her next song, Peyton asked her one question: “Before you became well known, why were you writing songs?” Then she answered: “Because I wanted to write them” or something like that.

    Then Peyton told her to just write what comes to her instead of thinking of writing a hit.

    I think that is one of the problems here. I think “Sally” is trying to write a hit. I think she is trying to write something that people will listen to and stop dead in their tracks. And I think she should thinking about that.

    Just write what you feel or think. Making it epic can come in later. And besides some of the greatest epic work we have ever seen have been created accidentally.

    So just do your thing and the rest will take care of it self.


    Sam Lab