I’ve heard lots of reasons for being creatively blocked. An artist once told me he was blocked because he was unhappy at home. Within a few hours I heard from another who thought he was blocked because his home life was too happy. A complete list would fill an entire disk.
Blocking can strike the minute one steps out of school. Think of all the first novels that haven’t been written. Here’s a few ideas about blocking. For most artists it’s a subconscious excuse — often based on laziness, perceived incompetence, a favorite victim-game we like to play, or simply running out of desire. For many it’s a function of guilt. Guilt for things done or undone, for words said or unsaid, guilt about unrealized dreams or unpleasant, often economic, relationships and decisions. Clutter, dither and dysfunction can block too. It’s survivable.
A painter once said to me; “Nothing frees blockage like economic pressure.” How does this explain blockage in those of us who have little or no economic stress?
There are many antidotes. Writers have written reams on their variation of the disease and how to cure it. Many of my letters deal with tried and true systems for painters — pump priming, hands-on commitment, quality push, project challenge. Here’s one of my best: Take a walk. Make it a little bit longer than you would normally walk. Stride out. Inhale life and be thankful you are free to follow your nose. Let yourself go down in your blockage and you will feel yourself climb out on the way home. Quicken your step and feel the return of desire. You will have new ideas and the motivation to see them through. You’ll feel it in your whole body. When desire is abundant there is no blockage. If you already have loads of desire then ignore this letter. You may be incompetent, which can also be remedied, but you’re not blocked.
PS: “There is only one big thing — desire. And before it, when it is big, all is little.” (Willa Cather)
The following are selected correspondence to the above letter “Blocked.” Thank you for taking the time to write.
In praise of walks
Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
This is the best time of the day. I agree that going for a walk is a great way to stimulate creativity. I often collect small twiggs, leaves or rocks and have learned a lot about seeing color by doing this. The twigs vary in color from olive green to gold to burgundy and I’ve only ever seen a few brown ones. Even the needles on a spruce tree have a wonderful range of colours and colour is what inspires me to do a painting. I don’t understand why artists procrastinate the way they do and say they’re “blocked”. Why wouldn’t they want to do what they love best?
Carolyn Millard, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I am always full of life after a long walk, especially a hike in the woods. Brimmed to overflowing! Charged by the sight and colors of Nature. It has a way of erasing negative images, replacing them with the same lush richness. Exploding with the new growth of ideas!
Annie Laurie Burke
“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism.” (Aldo Leopold)
This quote comes not from a Native elder (although this view is typical), but from one of the great conservationists of the 20th century. Aldo Leopold began his relationship with Nature by exploiting it. He started as the typical “sportsman”, taking from the land and its creatures for his own gain. But, like the biblical Paul, he was struck by a thunderbolt. It came when he was transfixed by the gaze of a dying female wolf he had shot. That “fierce fire” changed his life forever.
Aldo came to realize that “harmony with the land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left”. Aldo died in 1948, when I was just two years old, too young to read. But I have found the inspiration that he did in wild nature, and guidance in his words.
There were many wonderful things about my trip to Portland for Embellishment 99, but one very special experience was a trip to Mt. St. Helens. I hiked there wearing a piece that I was inspired to create by a Nature-connected view of the erupting volcano. I finally felt that this artwork — done over two years ago — was complete.
There is something deeply creative in connecting with the earth, perhaps because in so doing, we connect to the Source of Creation and share that power and energy. Contact with nature has never failed to release any creative block I have had. Indeed, it usually brings on a flood of artistic inspirations, and other artists confirm this. Next time you “hit the wall” on a project, let go, and head for the great outdoors. You’ll come back and amaze yourself.
“The Artist’s Way”
Sue Legault, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I don’t know whether or not you are familiar with Julia Cameron‘s book, “The Artist’s Way,” but how to overcome the blocks in the way of your creativity is the basic theme. There are many great quotes as well as some very good tasks or exercises. It gets you to examine your life in great detail, and brings up many things that are well worth writing about. Yes, the book does ask for a lot of writing, but it’s very personal, and is for you alone. No one else needs ever see it, so you don’t have to be worried about the quality of your writing.
I am currently taking a course on “The Artist’s Way” and am finding it very valuable. There are only 4 of us in the class, and we do share some of what we write in order to facilitate discussion. Some of us are more open to sharing than others, but that’s just fine.
As a writer of both prose and poetry I have found a great deal of inspiration for my writing in the things that have come up. Most of that writing may never be published, but for clarifying my thoughts, or developing ideas that had been brewing in the back of my mind, I have found it very good.
Live a little
Carole MacRury, Point Roberts, Washington, USA
I sometimes think the very acknowledgement of the word “blocked” tends to convert our feelings into concrete. The longer we dwell on this word, the more it becomes symptomatic and the more determined we are to find a reason, fix blame on something, or in other ways erect yet more stumbling blocks that impede our progress. If one looks at the dictionary meaning of the verb, a solution becomes self-evident: “block, hide, obscure, obstruct, screen, shroud.” The central meaning shared by these verbs is “to cut off from sight”. So, we simply lift the veil, and begin to actively see once more. Recharge our batteries, fill our data banks with new visual stimulation which in turn, fires our creative desires. It’s been my cure for writer’s block in the past and it’s never failed me. Being an active part of the world is a laxative to a writer, whether it is a walk in the woods, a spirited discussion with peers, or involvement within the community. Sometimes you just have to take time out to “live a little”, and then go back and produce.
Ride it baby!
Alexander, Tokyo, Japan
Ride it, baby!!!! Don’t feel guilty. Accept blockage as part of the creative process. Don’t waste time panicking or feeling guilty. A walk is a good idea. Travel is even better. If you can’t come home with an idea then you’re really lost. That’s right. My motto on blockage is RIDE THE WAVE and HAVE FAITH IN YOUR CREATIVE IMAGINATION.
Being blocked is a selfindulgent excuse for laziness that artists seem prone to. I am no exception but the following has helped to minimize it.
Next time you are “blocked”, scream inside yourself “I AM A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST. I CAN CREATE 24 HOURS A DAY, 7 DAYS A WEEK. I AM DRIPPING WITH CREATIVITY!”
The moon and the stars do not have to be properly aligned for you to create. The lights and the weather do not have to be perfect. You do not need to sit around in a dark room waiting for that bolt of inspiration to strike. Why? Because you are a professional artist who can create 24/7! This is your gift!
Obviously, corporations do not shut down because their employees get “blocked.” And they do not give “blocked” employees days off to remedy it. Start expecting yourself to behave professionally.
The Jones system
RJT, Santa Barbara, California, USA
Quincy Jones said his imagination has been flowing since the age of 14 when he picked up his first trumpet. He’s now 77 years old and his five or six or seven imagination is still bursting. Is the guy a workaholic? Is he just keen? He sacrificed the happiness of his daughters and three wives in order to devote his life to his number one passion. He had the Midas touch in every area except his family. Was he ever blocked? Probably. But he stayed up for three days solid knowing there would be an orchestra waiting at the rehearsal hall to play his new movie score in seven hours…he had no choice but to deliver. Some people perform best with this pressure, some do shoddy work when there is a deadline. We all know what our best pace is.
Sylvio Gagnon, Ontario, Canada
Every morning I walk 4 -5 miles and during that time I find that any block which may hamper my mind simply disappears as I breathe in the fresh air and oxygenate my system. I also find that during this time, my imagination is working at full throttle and I can’t wait to get back home to put my newly found ideas to work.
Your letter reminded me of Robert Henri (“The Art Spirit,” page 159 ) where he talks about “The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state.” Henri goes on expanding on the subject including the importance of attaining this state, needless to say, a state without blocks.
It’s okay, it’s okay
Warner Kraus, Austria
Never lose site of the concept that art is a “doing” thing rather than a “talking” thing. This explains why writers tend to be more often blocked than other artists. They think in words too much. Also, in painting and other plastic arts, a wider range of competence is accepted. Everything goes and is okay.
Painting breaks blockage
Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
“Take a walk” seems to trivialize creative blockage, Robert, which is really a profound despair. My experience is that eventually an image emerges out of the despair — an image ‘of’ the despair. Painting that image breaks the block. Rather than trying to kill or ignore the beast, I feed it. It remains a beast, but changes suddenly into one of desire instead of despair. The Willa Cather quote is right on, but the key work is “when”. The beast is a shape-shifter. It’s paradoxical that desire and despair should be two phases of the same phenomenon, but that’s the way it seems to me. Maybe like the full and eclipsed moon. There’s a movie by Jean Renoir (son of the painter) called “La Bette Humaine” (The Human Beast). When Fritz Lang later made a Hollywood version of this movie, he called it “Human Desire.” Desire is a beast who can turn on you at any time. It both feeds and feeds on art.