SOS! Posts: Quick tips for getting through creative crisis.
Artists have a funny relationship with their inspiration. It seems like magic, and we treat it as such. We need ideas and usually they are just…poof…there when we need them. But no matter how experienced the artist, no matter how many creative problems they’ve solved before, there’s always a moment of fear before you begin: What if this is the time your creativity fails? What is this is the time everyone finds out you’re a fake, a phony, a shitty artist? We are afraid to look too closely at our muses in fear that they’ll desert us when we need them most.
When you feel like the creative flow has a kink in its hose, what’s actually going on?
- It’s not magic. Ever since the Ancient Greeks, we have thought of inspiration as a Muse. A flighty, fickle, woman (sexist much?) that wanders into and out of the minds of creative types, whispering ideas and stories into their ears. But those Muses were famous for abandoning artists mid-project and mid-career, leaving them unable to access the heights of creativity again. Even today this myth rears it’s head up again all over our culture, especially in the trope of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, who shows a guy how to live more creatively, but is too damaged and flaky to be relied upon. Let’s nip this in the bud once and for all: Your inspiration is not a separate entity. Your ideas come from inside you, not as a gift from the gods.
- Inspiration doesn’t strike, it bubbles. Inspiration feels external because it doesn’t come from our conscious mind. But that doesn’t mean it comes from outside us. Inspiration doesn’t strike you — it bubbles up out of our subconscious, the same place dreams come from. Our subconscious—or “unconscious”—is where our most primal, pre-verbal mind lives. It’s taking in stimuli all the time as we go about our day, but it doesn’t store them in logical order, it makes a soup. It’s out of this chaotic mixture that the weird associations in our dreams form. It is also where those strikes of inspiration come from. Think of your subconscious as a snow globe. Every time you shake it, the pieces fall into new patterns. When a pattern makes a certain kind of sense, or is especially interesting, your brain shunts it over to the conscious side of the mind, and, ZAP. It feels like a bolt of spontaneous inspiration. But it’s a stew that’s always kept bubbling in the back of your mind.
- Inspiration isn’t a gift, it’s a skill. You’re never going to run out of ideas because your mind has already learned the trick of recognizing interesting patterns in your subconscious and passing them to your conscious. That is the definition of an artist at it’s most basic. Someone who sees patterns in their personal subconscious and/or the collective society unconscious and brings them out — through their conscious mind — into the light where we can all look at the patterns through whatever medium the artist chooses to use. Once you are an artist, you never forget how to do this. Your brain will do it automatically. So if you are experiencing a block, it’s not that inspiration isn’t finding you, it’s that you’re suppressing this handoff from unconscious to conscious.
- Stop forcing it. The trick about the subconscious is that you can’t tell it what to do using verbal thoughts, which is how most of our conscious thoughts come out, in language. It’s like a toddler. It doesn’t know how to use its words yet. And, like a toddler, the harder you try to force it to do something, the more likely it’s going to throw a tantrum and refuse. So you have to distract it. That’s why we more often get struck by inspiration when we’re not trying to actively come up with ideas. Great ideas hitting you during a shower is a common trope — but it has nothing to do with the water. When you are showering, or exercising, or doodling, or daydreaming you aren’t consciously thinking about the problem to solve. Your subconscious is free to stew it for a while. Look at it from different angles. Cough up some strange juxtapositions. And that’s what you need to do when creative block hits — get your mind off it, and make sure your subconscious “stew” has a lot of fresh new veggies in it. Go for a walk. Randomly scroll through Pinterest. Go to a museum. Make sure you’ve got a lot in the pot, then let it simmer for a while. Parallel artistic hobbies or projects are an especially good way to stir the pot. If you are an illustrator, consider photography or embroidery or sculpture. Just as a way to keep yourself focused on something artistic while your stew bubbles. Nothing stops this stew. People just either stop adding enough ingredients (aka get stale looking at the same inspiration sources, or just look at things via google search) OR they forget to stir (physical exercise, artistic play, meditation, etc).
So next time you have creative block, don’t panic. You will never be out of ideas. Just feed the stew in the back of your mind, and after a little simmering the ideas will start to flow again.