[I wrote the following piece for one of Nikki Nigl’s events “About Women,” which is an in-person conversation with women on certain thematic issues that many women face in their day-to-day lives. Nikki is a women’s empowHERment coach and a dear friend. I highly recommend her services as well as her Chicago-area events.]
It’s happened. You’ve run out of ideas, you are overwhelmed, you are beginning to question your very existence. You are stuck and you don’t know what to do. Trust me. I understand. I’m there right now. Well, I’m slowly making my way out of it. Sun helps. Friends can help. Having a deadline like needing to write something to read in front of a large group of people about being stuck helps.
I am a planner by nature. I like plotting maps and making spreadsheets and checking things off a list. These things help me create order out of chaos and assuage my daily anxiety. But I am also a creative person and sometimes those two attributes contradict each other. Cultivating creativity is not a linear process like project managing; it has twists and turns that can’t be foreseen.
Here are reasons why I get stuck:
I care too much about what other people think.
I feel like I have nothing important to say or someone else has said it better.
I feel like I have no audience.
I’m tired and my day job is killing my creativity.
I need a vacation from my daily life.
I’d rather watch a good Netflix show or read a book and ruminate on how much better other people are at storytelling.
I’m hungover because I’ve been drinking heavily trying to drown my sorrows and dreams of becoming a novelist and short story writer.
I have a distracting addiction to Facebook.
I like to be in control and feel like I should know everything all the time.
I’m afraid of the shitty first draft.
These are all things I have thought about my creative work in the last several months and weeks. At the end of last year, I had made these really important “revelations” like being healthy in mind and body and finding balance in my life. I started out in January with a renewed purpose and goals for my life. I was going to balance working out, being social, writing, reading, chores, and relaxing all with the deft hand of an independent single grown-ass woman. And I did it all. For about three months.
And then “life” caught up to me. My day job workload dramatically increased as I became the sole person running an organization handling the work of three people. I’m frequently exhausted at the end of a long day and my daily commutes have doubled from two to four hours. In early spring, I got distracted by the possibility of a relationship that took me by surprise but turned out to not be what I ultimately wanted. Total bummers all around.
My writing production level dwindled from 3-4 times a week down to a few short poems about inanimate objects that I had encountered on my travels, usually while at a work conference or on my way somewhere else “more important”. This writing isn’t what I wanted to be writing, what I had always dreamed of writing, of what I felt destined to write about, what I have wanted to do for much of my life and what I would absolutely regret not doing if I died tomorrow. I wasn’t getting to the trickiness of my consistently elusive characters or my fading plot lines.
Any great writer will tell you that it’s the writing that matters. I have a hard time believing that because I want to CONTROL every step of the process. I don’t want “accidents”. I want fully formed brilliance to make an easy path from my brain to the blank page. It’s happened before, I tell myself; it can happen again. Sure, it can happen again but let me tell you, that shit is super rare. Nope. The rest of it takes a shitty first draft. It takes writing down ideas in the small snatches of time I have waiting: waiting for the next train or bus, waiting for a perpetually late friend, waiting to get to my next destination, or when I thinking of something else.
Here are some tips on how to get unstuck:
Immerse yourself. Get out of your brain spiral of no one likes you or your work or you suck. Chicago is an amazing city with plenty of free things to do and exercise your brain. Put it in your calendar. Make it a self-date. Go lay in the park under a tree and marvel at the way sunlight changes the color of its leaves and the sound it makes mixed in with other outside noises. Go to an art museum and wander for a couple of hours and when you come across a piece you like or feels weird or is fascinating, stare at it for as long as you want or is polite, if the place is crowded. Go to a weird experimental art show/dance/puppetry performance. Distract yourself so hard that you aren’t thinking of your sticky problem for at least a couple of hours. Really hard physical exercise can have much of the same benefits as well.
Think about process. The art that we see on television, in books, and on Instagram are finished products. Great books take years of shitty first drafts, edits, feedback from various sources, sometimes ripping it all up and starting over. Television shows usually have a ROOM full of writers working together toward a finished product not to mention an entire of staff of people who also make the product look good down the last detailed cigarette package. Peel the curtain back and think about how many layers of paint went onto that canvas, how many tries it took to perfect that puppet’s facial expressions.
Get a support network. If you don’t have people in your life encouraging your art or yourself, be purposeful about finding them. If you have people in your life who mirror your shit talk get rid of them RIGHT NOW. If you are an artist, find other artists who are going to listen to and learn your voice and who will push you and your work to be the best that it can be. Find others who will let you behind the curtain and show you their process. Watch documentaries on artists or designers or fashionable dressers. Read books by writers about writing. Don’t be afraid of being alone if that what it takes to build your support network.
TAKE. A. BREAK. Take several. Take a solo vacation to an odd new locale, if your budget allows. Dial back your expectations, your pressures, the weight of opinions. If it isn’t working, it won’t help to force things. I enjoy taking a bath for many hours and staring out the window at my neighbor’s roof. There is not a whole lot to see other than some brick, a metal pipe, and a chunk of sky but it helps give my brain a break. I’ve come up with some of my better ideas staring out that window and doing “nothing.”
Compare and despair. Don’t compare yourself to others, don’t compare your work to others, don’t compare your voice to others. It’s one thing to see how others process and create their work but it is another to believe that you don’t have a unique point of view, because you do. Only you see the world in your unique way. Find that way. Embrace your voice and stop the shitty self-talk.
Play and be silly when you can. Not everything needs to be so serious. I enjoy making collages from magazines or yes, adult coloring. Let go of needing everything to be perfect and let yourself explore and make mistakes and make something just for you. Feel through the simple process of creating something at the lowest stakes possible.
Do things in chunks. Believe that even one “small” idea helps you get toward your goal. Something small is better than nothing at all.
Embrace the shitty first draft. Also know as the “brain dump” or the “word vomit.” This is a super hard one for me because I’m a perfectionist. Calling it “shitty” may seem derogatory but it also takes the pressure off. Something shitty is better than nothing at all. Shitty can be revised or edited.
Take. Your. Time. Find a balance between needing deadlines and needing time to ruminate and percolate.
Lastly, remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing. As Tim Gunn once said on Project Runway, “Fear never conquered anything.”