Sometimes you hit a creative wall. Whether you call it “artist block” or “burnout,” it happens, and it’s debilitating. In my brief (thankfully) brushes with artist block, I’ve learned the warning signs, and how to course correct.
Fear. Fear is always present. You sit down, open your sketchbook, and come face to face with the emptiness of the blank page. Fear stands watching over your shoulder. “What if you make a mistake?” it asks. You stare at the page. “What if you have nothing interesting to say? What if your family doesn’t like what you make? What if your best art is behind you?” Your pen slips out of your hand, and you push the paper away. Repeat this enough times, and you’ll be immobilized at the sight of opportunity. Fear has won.
Laugh at it. Steven King combatted fear by literally collecting failures. He’s quoted saying: “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” (King, 2000) Fear had no place in Steven King’s writing room. He had too much work to do. A dependable creative habit keeps fear from growing into fully-mature terror. It gives us the audacity to laugh in its face and say “Ha! I don’t care if what I made is bad. I showed up and did my time. It’s not my fault if the muses passed me by.”
The fear of starting. Starting is hard. We put it off by re-arranging our books, color-coding our pencils, and checking our email. I procrastinate by scrolling Instagram or “researching.” I’m especially guilty of this after a recent deadline. When all my creative energy's been poured into a project that finally reached its end, waking up the next day to an empty inbox and a blank page can be petrifying.
Starting small helps in these moments. To illustrate, mentally try on these two scenarios:
Option 1: “I’m going to re-illustrate the entirety of the Harry Potter series with a technique and perspective that’s 100% unique to me. This will be my key to future success. It all rides on this.”
Option 2: “I’m going to re-illustrate the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book to try my hand at chapter-heading art.”
Do you see how we can alleviate a lot of pressure by not demanding too much from the beginning? Psychologists have found that breaking goals into smaller tasks increases likelihood of action. (Harvard Business Review, 2020) By consistently starting small, I’ve found that my definition of “small” has (unexpectedly) increased. A thirty-two page children’s book feels shorter now than five years ago. My relationship with fear has changed as I’ve kept good habits.
Before embarking on the behemoth of a project that was The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien started small (well, comparatively small). He first invented a couple languages for fun; “Quenya” and “Sindarin.” He then created a land in which they could exist. This land eventually became “Middle Earth.” Tolkien never saw himself writing The Lord of the Rings series. In fact, he tried to sell his maps for “Middle Earth” to another publisher, hoping they could make something of it. Thankfully they were intimidated by the enormity of his work. They rejected the project, saying if he wanted a story, he’d have to write it himself. Tolkien’s many smaller projects enabled his writing process, and the epic story “unfolded itself” to him. (Edubirdie, 2022) If you’d shown younger Tolkien the magnitude of The Lord of the Rings series when the idea was in its infancy, no doubt it would have paralyzed him. I take heart in the fact that he didn’t wake up one morning, sit at his desk, and write the entire epic. He started small, and just kept going.
Creating is a transformative process that depends on our willingness to keep a creative habit and earnestly engage with the creative process. David Bayles, author of Art & Fear, wrote:
“In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.”
We have a deep spiritual need to create. At the end of our lives, we derive the most value from our roles as producers– not consumers. We identify ourselves as mothers, fathers, teachers, artists, inventors, and friends. We feel pride in the relationships we cared for, the companies we built, the stories we told, and more broadly the value we added to people’s lives. The value we create depends on the framework of our creative habits. Consistently and deliberately cultivating creativity will bring beauty to your life and those you inspire.
What will you create?
King, S. (2000) On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York, NY: Scribner.
To achieve big goals, start with small habits (2020) Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2020/01/to-achieve-big-goals-start-with-small-habits (Accessed: April 20, 2023).
Techniques used by John Tolkien in the lord of the rings (no date) Edubirdie. Available at: https:// edubirdie.com/examples/techniques-used-by-john-tolkien-in-the-lord-of-the-rings/ (Accessed: March 21, 2023).