My biggest creative outlet has always been writing.
For more twenty years now, I’ve been learning how to court inspiration and translate it into words that speak to others and satisfy my desire for creation and self-expression.
I’ve found that when my creativity is blocked, it’s typically due to three mistakes. Here’s what they are and what to do if they're holding you back too.
Creative Mistake #1: My expectations are too high.
This mistake blocked me throughout most of my 20s. In college, I’d picked up many ideas about Being a Writer. In my poetry class, our professor made it clear that only some of us would have enough talent, or “genius,” to really make it as Writers. As a literature major, my days were spent reading and analyzing the most admired authors in the English language. They were the standard we all compared ourselves to.
As I labored at my desk on my own writing, the shadow of these great writers were not helpful. I got frustrated if I produced a story with flimsy characters or a plot structure that didn’t work. I would shut myself down with self-criticism and then make myself continue working even when it wasn’t fun anymore.
My advice, if this is your block too: Remember you are on your own creative journey. The creatives you admire are people from whom you can draw inspiration and instruction, but don’t let them stand over you as you’re working. Don't compare yourself.
Work in your own world. Do that by opening up your curiosity to what you really want to say or express, what you could try next, what is working for you and what isn’t working. You are learning a craft that will take time and iteration, so show yourself patience and understanding as you take steps to improve.
As with anything in life, you’re not going to suddenly “arrive” at success. There is no “arrival.” Instead, you’re working toward goals, and developing your skills, little by little.
Take baby steps to keep your motivation up. If you have big expectations that you’ll work three hours a day on your creative project and it’s starting to overwhelm you, cut that time down. Don’t force it until you drain yourself of every good feeling.
Instead, say you’ll work only an hour as a start. Set a timer. Do whatever you’re able to do in that time. When the timer goes off, do a happy dance, feel good.
Hemingway gave this advice to a young writer: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.”
My advice to work in short bursts is related to this idea. If you end your day’s work on an energetic high note, you’ll be more likely to return the next day feeling good and ready to go. Don’t leave yourself energetic obstacles to continuing your work.
Creative Mistake #2: I don’t create the right conditions.
Immediately following college, I worked as an assistant at an art magazine in NYC. I spent eight hours a day at a desk in a deathly quiet cubicle office-land, copy-editing until my eyes glazed over. Then I rode the subway home and sat down at my desk and attempted to write at least several more hours, this time for myself.
I was tired. My brain was fried. Yet, I didn’t take any meaningful break from the computer screen at work to the one at home. I didn’t have a good laugh with my roommates or go for a run, I just sat down again. I thought I simply needed to be disciplined and force myself to keep going -- no matter what -- in order to produce meaningful work.
I did write some nice things during these years, but mostly what I produced was a growing dissatisfaction.
What these patterns led to were big chunks of time in my life where I felt too discouraged or exhausted to write anymore. I would decide it would be healthier for me to set writing aside for a time. Of course that made sense, who would want to keep on at an activity that made them suffer?
My advice, if this is your block too: Discover the best creative conditions for you. To do this, you have to become a super sleuth at determining when, where and how you work the best – and then religiously create those conditions for yourself.
What you’re doing is not only figuring out how you get into “the zone” – that state of deeply satisfying creative focus where you lose track of time – but how you can get back into it on a regular basis.
Some questions to get you started:
- Do you work better in the morning, afternoon or night?
- Do you like noise and activity around you or do you need pure quiet?
- Are you better in short bursts or longer stretches?
- What daily habits (such as sleep, exercise, or diet) support you in feeling your most creative?
- Are you better working alone or with company – or a mix of the two?
- What are you most passionate about expressing or exploring right now?
- Based on your answers to the questions above, what will you try this week to set your best creative conditions?
This last year has been one of the most creatively, happily productive times of my life because I have been able to find and create some ideal conditions for myself.
I still have moments of struggle in my work but I recover from them more quickly.
Remember that stress can be both healthy and unhealthy. Be aware of your levels. A healthy level of stress will keep you motivated, active and stretching to resolve the challenges in front of you. You might feel some pressure, but you’re still creating and feeling capable within it.
By contrast, pay attention to when you start feeling anxious or frantic. Watch for when you’re having a slew of negative thoughts or trouble concentrating. These are often signals that you’ve tipped over into unhealthy stress. Take good care of yourself until you’re feeling more relaxed. Breaks and even plain old boredom are proven sources of renewed creativity.
Creative Mistake #3: I’m working in a vacuum.
By my late 20s and early 30s, I’d mostly abandoned my creative writing because I’d decided it was too lonely. It meant so many solitary hours at my desk.
I envied my friends who were musicians. Even though they were always complaining of “band drama,” at least they had the opportunity to regularly share their ideas and work in collaboration.
Plus, I didn’t really get the sense that working all these hours in solitude was worthwhile.
If I wanted my short stories published, I had to regularly send them out – acting as my own unpaid secretary – to underfunded literary magazines with diminishing audiences that only accepted a handful of pieces each year. Even if I was published, who read these tiny literary magazines and how would I ever know if anyone enjoyed what I wrote?
My enjoyment in writing began to resurface again as I wrote more at work, and when I started writing my own blog in 2012 (about learning wilderness survival skills).
When my co-workers told me they had appreciated what I had written or that a piece had helped them in some way, it was very motivating. So too were the comments that came in on my blog from people all around the world who were also interested in making baskets out of ivy vines or trapping small animals using a heavy rock propped up with a stick.
How totally random, and how edifying.
My advice, if this is your block too: We often think of creative work as a solitary, individual pursuit. Something made alone and in a quiet, personal space. In doing so, we miss an entireside of it, the social side.
Creation is ultimately about self-expression – and who are we expressing ourselves to if not the outside world? All of us want to feel like we are making a contribution. Other people’s enjoyment and appreciation of our work can be incredibly motivating. Their reactions, questions and suggestions can make our work better and lead us into new areas of discovery.
Find new ways to share your creative work with others. With today’s technology, there’s no lack of options for sharing what you’re working on with anyone in the world. There’s Amazon self-publishing, SoundCloud, Etsy, Wordpress, and YouTube, not to mention thousands of online communities and forums for pretty much any creative pursuit you could imagine.
If you’re preventing yourself from sharing something because “it’s not done yet,” seek out people who can help you complete it or who will support you in getting it out there.
Remember, this is all about progression. Don’t stop. Move ahead, step by step.
I’m not sure there is any better feeling than creating something meaningful to you, and then finding out that it has touched someone else too.