Every artist knows that blank stare: a blinking cursor, a blank canvas, a clean page, that photo untaken, a character that seems inscrutable that echoes a critical voice--”you must be a fraud if you can’t come up with something better than that.” Anyone who creates knows that moment of feeling “blocked.” It comes with the territory. Read on for a few tips on breaking creative blocks!
It’s handy then to have a few tricks available to help you overcome those moments of block and get back to producing meaningful work. But before you start perusing the possibilities, here is a primary tip that might set you down the right path: in the words of that great Zen philosopher, “do or do not. There is no try.” Yes, I’m quoting Yoda, but even if you’re a diehard Star Wars hater, there’s a nugget of truth here.
Let me put it another way. Years ago, I was in a writer’s workshop and the facilitator gave us an assignment. He went over the parameters, and just before releasing us to start drafting, he said, “now go and write a crappy first draft.” It was freeing! Too often as artists, we place pressure on ourselves to create great art every time we work. The truth is that most of what we end up creating will be dross. But the act of setting aside time to practice our techniques, no matter how dreadful the outcome, is time well spent.
Anthony Trollope famously wrote thousands of words every day, and that was by hand! And sometimes what we need to do as artists is just “do.” Give yourself permission to create garbage. Sometimes you’ll find inspiration and sometimes not, but ultimately, you will have moved forward in your craft. That little piece of advice aside, here are some specific ways in which artists move beyond block, to get some creative juices going:
Keep a journal in some form: whether you’re jotting ideas in a notebook, saving postcards of favorite artworks, clipping photos out of magazines, or taking notes on some observation of human behavior, a journal can be a place to go when inspiration isn’t coming naturally.
Try free-drafting: there are two elements of this technique that seem to work. First free-drafting puts you under a time crunch that doesn’t allow the conscious mind its damping reign, and two it gives you freedom to let your mind go wherever it needs to go. To free-draft, give yourself a set time (10 minutes is good, but longer gets even more wonderfully weird).
The aim here is not to be coherent but to spill your subconscious. If you’re writing, start with the timer and don’t stop until the time limit is up. If you’re sketching, do the same. Don’t censor yourself in any way--spelling doesn’t matter, grammar doesn’t matter, making sense doesn’t matter. Just keep putting stuff down and, if your mind jumps illogically, let it. When you get stuck just write the last word over and over until something new comes. The visual artist can do the same by drawing some shape over and over. Once you're done, look over your work for what strikes you. Ask questions of the weird connections you’ve made.
Do a little research: this sounds totally counter to creativity, but if you jot down some ideas that have been points of fascination for you recently and begin researching them, you might in the history of the idea or the life of someone closely related to it some wonderful piece of information that inspires you.
Let your subconscious speak: our most powerful creative moments often stem not from intellectually grappling with the world, but from letting that dark voice inside us come out. Some artists keep dream journals by their beds and find in the records of their night machinations the rich subconscious loam of art. Another way to encourage that voice is to create based on the things that scare you. Safe art is rarely great art
Go back to something old: one of the reasons to allow yourself to create, even when it’s not working, is that you can go back to pieces and find in them some spark. If you’re really stuck in creating something new, try going back to older work and examining it not for what didn’t work, but for that little nugget of what did. Extract that and try something new from it.
Go against your own grain: for artists, intention is often the death of invention. One way to break free of your intention is to take an idea that isn’t working and turn it 180 degrees. If you meant to be dramatic, try comedy instead. Did you have black-and-white in mind? Instead, go with the brightest palette of colors you can find. If you’ve seen Robert De Niro’s effete portrayal of Satan in Angel Heart, you know that going contrary to expectation can be haunting.
Set yourself restrictions: it may seem odd, but restricting yourself can be freeing. Writers who work in forms often find the demands of the form lead them into strange new ways of thinking. Try painting with only two colors. Take a series of photos using only long exposures. Let the limits of your art lead you into unusual new discoveries.
Change your surroundings. A well-tested trick for writers is the coveted writers’ retreat. Taking a trip to a location that affords a change of environment can in ways inspire your subconscious into finding new ideas based on the things around you that you don’t normally see, smell, hear or taste. Whether it be the difference in interior design you’re surrounded by, or a variety in your outdoor landscape. Your heightened senses can play a major part in heightened creativity.
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