Self-delusory avoidance activity


Dear Artist,

“What happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy?” wrote American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron in her 1996 book, When Things Fall Apart. “Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something.” For artists, we may make sense of the discomfort of creative inquiry by giving it a name and influence. A genuine self-delusory avoidance activity is better known by its power-handle: “Block.”


“Curved Reclining Form (Rosewall)” 1960–62
Nebrasina stone sculpture
by Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)

“The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality,” wrote Pema. Creativity, in all its forms, requires this probe of inquiry. It tracks the riverbeds of desire, self-doubt and self-belief in search of grit — the kind reserved for those willing to question the most essential systems of human belief and behaviour. Initially, your block is an imagined syndrome — a form of creative blindness, a refusal of heartache that tortures anyway, and if left unchecked, can fester into a permanent condition. Block is dangerous to the spirit but can be useful on a path to rebirth. Instead of trying to overcome the pain of block, you can manage its influence with the invention of new systems. Here are a few ideas:

For one month, tell no one what you plan to make.

Set no production goals.

Disregard your known style and subjects.

Pelagos 1946 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the artist 1964

“Pelagos” 1946
wood sculpture
by Barbara Hepworth

Set aside for the moment anything that requires salvaging, fixing or finishing.

Skip the planning stage.

Think of a technique that you’ve always wondered about but were afraid is too difficult, has already been done, or is irrelevant to your existing practice.

Without external research and with your own hands, try to discover its secrets through trial and error.

Apply your fumblings to a small, new project that can be explored in one sitting.

Now begin three separate small projects, simultaneously.

Employ an hourglass if it keeps you at it.

“This is how you do it,” wrote Neil Gaiman. “You sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”


“Three Forms” 1935
Serravezza marble sculpture on marble base
210 x 532 x 343 mm, 23 kg
by Barbara Hepworth



PS: “All roads are blocked to a philosophy which reduces everything to the word ‘no.’ To ‘no’ there is only one answer and that is ‘yes.’” (Victor Hugo)

Esoterica: Ask yourself: If there were no results, no audience, no praise, no gold, no easel triumph, would you still squeeze out and begin? The world is littered with would-be makers, too certain of the pointlessness to even begin. Luckily, we are not among them. “That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. Everything is in process.” (Pema Chodron)


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.” (Pema Chodron)




  1. OMG….did I need this! Thank you Sara. My most difficult “block” is conjuring up the nerve to approach galleries and competitions for fear of rejection….which I am familiar with. I so truly love what I create that rejection feels like the off-hand spurning of a beloved child….AND for shows we have to pay for it!
    Courage…..just say YES!

  2. The hardest part begins when the rug, the world, the urge to create literally gets pulled out from under me. Pema is part of a spiritual library started before becoming a full time artist. Her advice rings so true in this new year and new ventures. Thank you so much, Sara, for courage and encouragement!

  3. This is what I am suffering through now for all the reasons listed by the article and our esteemed fellow artists. Thank you for providing a step by step to overcome it!

  4. I find the art path can be akin to the spiritual path:

    “Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment – over and over again.” (Pema Chodron)

  5. Sometimes life is wonderfully strange: My hard-fought battle with my inner negativity at not being able to produce finally collided with desperation yesterday. I wanted to throw it all into the trash. Instead, led by something way down inside, I opened “The Places that Scare You” by Pema Chodron. “Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we are hurt” (Pema Chodron) AND today – here is Sara’s timely letter and all the comments of understanding and sharing. Thank you

  6. What I do every day to get myself ready to paint. I take a brisk walk, (I put on a favorite Lady Gaga or other fun song with a beat) I pray to myself and say positive uplifting things that I have memorized as I swing my arms and step to the beat. Halfway through, I pause and stretch to the sky and take a deep breath and then I carefully bend over and touch my toes and then reach up and stretch to the sky again. I then walk back briskly and drink lots of water upon returning. Then, I turn my music to Pandora, (Enya Station) and I get to work. This method of the oxygenating and getting blood flow to all parts of my brain and body before work really does amazing things. If life gets in the way, I manage to still find time to do this. To the corner and back. It can be a very uplifting and enlightening place to go for so many reasons. Happy Painting and Happy New Year! Cheers!

  7. I experienced writer’s block once when commissioned with a new project, after having a big earlier success. It was a physical thing — I couldn’t write, every time I sat down to work, I’d fall asleep — it wasn’t like having no ideas, it was like being unable to do anything at all. Finally I got some counseling which didn’t really help, but I gutted through because I had payments tied to deadlines.

  8. “For one month, tell no one what you plan to make.” Excellent counsel. I go one step further – When I start a new project I don’t tell anybody about it at all. It just creates false expectations. And if I’m blocked, I usually just smoke something.

  9. Well, I guess I have everything in common with every other artist: a loss of enthusiasm; that spark, or at least some sense of direction. So, I still feel like nothing is going to change! But, something deep inside will not allow me to rest until I have wrestled it, and gotten back into the studio.

  10. Just baby steps and playing with the process . Judgement is a sure fire way to destroy the simple joy of using our hands head and heart for making . Sometimes using some of the suggestions from Julia Cameron’s original book, The Artists Way, gets me back on track – morning pages and better still the lone “artists date” mine is sometimes visiting old fashioned hardware stores or taking myself to the local library and reading magazines about contemporary art looking at pictures of the places or people I loved some of whom passed away and I miss . Music is often helpful as is guided meditation on my phone or on a CD . Nature even a walk in a large enough park has stimulated my desire to look closely at natural forms and textures . The important thing for me is to realize that not every piece I make will be important – nor am I the best judge of its merits . The baby steps of rebuilding our confidence trying new materials , new techniques . Even simply showing up in the studio and arranging the pencils and brushes moved us forward into active thinking and seeing .Simply never give up trying to do the practice .

  11. Thanks for this precious advise at this time when I have mourned two siblings who have passed on. This helps tremendously as life does go on in spite of loss. Creativity at this time will be quieter, slower but so helpful for me to settle and be soothed by art making.

    • I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m in the midst of a huge life change with my family that halted most of my making during the month of December and into January. I haven’t yet returned to the studio to create – feeling both pressed for time to care for family along with a strong desire to clear out things in my studio that no longer serve me. The creativity will be placed in other areas while we settle. It was good to hear that you are on a similar path. It’s easy to get down on oneself when the creating stops. Thank you for this so timely post Sara!

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Featured Workshop

Van Gogh’s Favorite City
August 17, 2019 to August 25, 2019


Join award-winning Plein air painter Sharon Rusch Shaver as she conducts her next exciting workshop in the south of France. Van Gogh’s bronze foot-steps dot sidewalks in the exact locations for his paintings in this beautiful city lined with rows of towering chestnut trees. Painting daily in your chosen medium: oil; watercolor; pastel; pen and ink artists as well as photographers will find plenty of inspiration in this city bathed in Mediterranean sunlight. Daily demonstrations and one-on-one help will be provided for those wanting to learn how to speed up and work quickly capturing that fleeting light and color in their paintings and with photos.

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Sharon Rusch Shaver of the Earth
20 x 16 inches

Featured Artist

I seek to paint the essence and beauty of the natural world, land and sea impressions, textured nuances of tree bark or beautifully imperfect jars of clay.


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