5 Things to Remember When You're Creatively Stuck

5 Things to Remember When You're Creatively Stuck

We’ve all been there. The moment when the project goes from fun and butterflies and excitement, to avoidance, distraction and guilt. Some people call it writer’s block. Some people call it resistance. I have been known to call it the suck. It doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s pretty much universal. Whether you are writing the next great American novel, or teaching yourself to watercolor for fun, this phase is par for the course, and it is one of the most difficult dips in the creative process to get out of alive. If you are there right now, here are a few things to remember.

This moment sucks. YOU do not suck.

This is probably the most important thing to remember of all, so let’s just go ahead and start here. The normal progression of the human mind goes almost immediately from this sucks, to I suck. Iterations of this may include: Well that verse was utter crap, good thing I have my day job. I can’t believe I am not nailing this new watercolor technique, I am terrible and should just quit. It’s taking me way too long to finish this project, I probably just don’t have the ability to do this. This is what your fear wants you to think. It relishes any moment where the creative process gets even the littlest bit difficult, because it knows it can swoop in and say Told you so. Your fear’s entire job is to keep you safe and it takes the very effective approach of a dramatic alarmist. Fear takes any sign of treachery - we all know how dangerous watercolors can get - and immediately cranks the dial to 11. That’s how we can find ourselves sitting in the ceramics class we took for fun, staring at lopsided bowl we made and wondering how we are even competent enough to make it through the day. A doesn’t equal B people. But fear will tell you it does. The reality of the situation has nothing to do with who you are as a person or as a creator. The reality is the creative process is hard. No matter how long you have been working in your particular craft or on this particular process, there are always growing pains. There are always these moments when you can’t quite figure it out. It is easy to follow fear’s progression and believe that you will never figure it out. But you will. You will get past this phase. And guess what? You’ll likely come back through.

You’ve been here before. You’ll be here again.

And so has/will every other being on the planet.

Comforting right? Actually.. I find it is. Another thing your fear likes to tell you when you have entered the I suck phase, is that you are the only one who sucks. It will find examples for you in every direction you look. See how successful she is? This guy’s work is amazing - you shouldn’t even try. You will never be as good as them. But the dirty little secret that fear desperately doesn’t want you to know is that each and everyone of those people have been where you are right now. They have been there repeatedly, for years. There is no such thing as overnight success. There is only toiling away at your craft for years without recognition, learning and trying and failing at new things, giving up only to start again - and doing it all purely for the love. People may seem like an overnight success to the world, but that is because we haven’t been granted access to the whole of their lives that it took to get there. And you know what happens now that they are “there”? Exactly the same thing. This phase of the creative process is not something that anyone gets a pass from, not now, not ever. Sit in the suck and be thankful for it, it’s here for a reason.

This pain is leading you somewhere.

You are likely reading this right now because you are in it, deep in the suck. I know from experience that this phase doesn’t usually lend itself towards introspection - at least not the type of introspection where you are able to see the positive in the situation. But bare with me, because I promise you are experiencing this for a reason. Take a step back and get curious about what you are feeling, and what the deeper lesson of that feeling could be. You are experiencing this phase of resistance because of fear, but where does that fear come from? Have you failed in the past, and you are afraid of doing that again? Let the past go, this current project is entirely unrelated, I promise. Are you afraid of what people might think of you, or say to you if you show them this thing? Guess what? They may have an opinion for about 2.5 seconds, and then they are going to go right back to worrying about what you think of them, I promise. Are you afraid of what might happen in the future if this thing is as successful as you know it can be? Awesome. Get excited about what could be, because life is going to change no matter if we choose our passions or not, I promise. So choose them, and once you’ve given some thought to what your resistance is teaching you, then it's time to get busy.

It’s time to push forward, make something else or move on.

Thats right, it truly is that simple. We can hem and haw and sweat and cry and worry until we question every creative decision we have ever made, but the truth is we have three simple choices when it comes to the moment we get stuck on a project: choose to continue and push through the suck, take a creative break until we are inspired to come back, or move on entirely.

It can seem counter intuitive to decide to work on a project, when the last thing we want to do is work on said project. But I am here to tell you right now, nothing will make you feel better except doing the work. A lot of the things that are stopping you from being in action on your project.. are stemming from the fact that you are not in action. When you don’t work, you begin to question your ability to work. When you don’t commit time to the project on your heart, you begin to question your commitment to the project or even your commitment to creation as a whole. When you don’t show up to the work that is asking you to create it, you feel like you are failing, failing yourself, failing the work, and failing your purpose. Can you imagine how much energy it zaps out of you to be worrying and processing all of those emotions? No wonder we don’t have the energy or focus to complete the task at hand - we are too busy upsetting ourselves over the fact that we haven’t finished the task at hand! When you step back and realize how silly that all is, it’s a lot easier to get to work. Hang up your hang ups, and sit down to the project. The worries will begin to melt away and creation will begin to break though.

If you are able to sit down and are still stumped however, your second option is to take a break. Sometimes you just need some space from the project. When we get too close to our work it’s hard to see the bigger picture, and remember why we started making the thing in the first place. It’s time to remember that why and fill up your inspiration tank. Flip through your old creative journals to see what sparks you left behind. Go to a museum or concert and experience someone else’s art. Make your own art that is completely unrelated to what you normally make. Get outside for some fresh air. Explore a part of your city you haven’t seen yet. Snuggle your dog, partner, friend. Do whatever you personally need to do so that you are feeling recharged, refreshed and excited again. That energy will carry you back to the project with renewed life. And if after all that, you still can’t seem to sit down to make this thing, you have that third option.

You CAN quit. And you should think about it.

I am serious. No one is holding a gun to your head to make this thing. You have the power of choice in every creative situation. If this is a personal project, you chose freely to create it. If this is a client or work project, you chose to partner with these people and create with/for them. You can just as easily choose to quit. (Yes, I realize that client/work projects will be harder to get out of, but it can be done if it’s the right thing. Contracts can be broken or renegotiated, money can be returned, creative life can still move on.) So how does it feel to hear you can quit? Were you just waiting for a permission slip from someone else to do so? Great, I grant it, go ahead and move on. Does the idea of quitting bring you an immense relief that you can feel in your body? Then it truly is time to let this idea go. Do whatever you need to do to free yourself up from this project, and then get out there and start letting new ideas float in. However, if you have the opposite response to me telling you to quit, then it’s time to fight. If, when I say Quit, you feel a renewed sense of fire and purpose - that doesn’t just have to do with proving someone wrong - then it’s time to keep going. If, when you think about quitting this project, you feel a deeper sense that you are not done with this thing yet, then you must continue.

A lot of times when we come to the crossroads of a project - when it gets hard and uncomfortable - and we have the choice to move forward with it or move on, it can be really hard to get clear direction on which way to go. But you already have the tools you need to decide within you. Think about your options. Picture yourself in 3 or 6 months time. Picture the you that completed the project and picture the you that chose to take the lessons you learned to move in a different direction. Which you feels better? Which you feels lighter and more electric in your body? Which you feels right? Commit to that you and move forward.

Every day we are working on something is another opportunity to recommit to the project. Things that take this much passion are not something you choose once. You choose them over and over again everyday, just like a romantic partner. Some days it’s easy to choose - the project is saying all the right things and being ridiculously sweet and adorable - and some days you wonder why you ever chose this project to begin with - it’s leaving its underwear all over the floor again - but each day you have the opportunity to choose. Each day you have the opportunity to say Yes and show up with the love you had for it on day one. Focus on that love, and leave the suck behind.

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