How to spark creativity when you’re feeling blocked

September 19, 2013

Sometimes the desire to be creative and the reality of the moment feel separated by an uncomfortably wide chasm. The ideas won’t come. Or they all seem like bad ones. We feel angry or frustrated or resigned. Simply put, we’re blocked.

Creative blocks can stop us before we get started. Kill our momentum mid-stream. Or leave us spinning with indecision. That’s when the negative voice in our head likes to taunt us. You know the one: It tells us we’re faking it. We don’t have what it takes. That creativity is out of reach.

Keep listening and those falsehoods might come true. Or use them as a signal that it’s time to shake things up.

To help us compile a buffet of ways to spark our imaginations, we talked with four working artists whose livelihoods depends on not being blocked. Our thanks to Linda Zacks, a Brooklyn-based artist and designer; Scott Slavin, director of Naked in Alaska and a creativity coach; Valerie Hager, actress and writer of her one-woman show, Naked in Alaska; and Lauren Jost, a multimedia theatre artist and arts education advocate, for sharing their openness and insights.

1. Treat life like art class. Every problem or project you have is a blank canvas, and, unlike math class, there are dozens of ways to tackle it, none of them definitively right or wrong. This helps you “push the limits of directions you’ve been told,” says Linda Zacks. If you’re asked to give a presentation, it doesn’t have to mean a standard PowerPoint. It could be a short play or video or a quiz. 

2. Insist on change. “If you want to be creative, you have to make the choice to challenge the way things are and change them if they aren’t working — even if they were successful in the past,” says Scott Slavin. “Look for patterns you’re repeating and figure out which habits are helping and which are hurting. Are there any you can stop or do differently? Breaking routine is a prime mover for awakening creativity.” (For pointers on changing a habit, read “How to Break the Habits that Get You Stuck.”)

3. Look away from the screen. “Whenever we have a question or we’re looking for a solution to a problem, we automatically go to Google. We’ve lost our sense of curiosity and learning from trial and error,” says Linda. “Get away from the computer. See things. Talk to people. You’ll find what you’re looking for in the weirdest places.” 

4. Go outside. Valerie Hager and Linda both consider their neighborhoods as their muse. “There’s that special element of surprise and discovery when you go outside not looking for anything in particular. And you have all these senses of observation to pick up not just sights but sounds, smells, textures, tastes,” says Linda. For Valerie and Linda, the world is a museum ready to be explored.

5. Value the process. “Be okay with trying 10 different things along the way before finding something that works for you,” says Lauren Jost. Start with whatever you know, and see where it takes you, rather than insisting on a single outcome. Often, the result is greater than what you initially imagined.

6. Revert to childhood. “As children, we were creative naturally,” says Valerie. Back then, a box wasn’t just a box. It was a spaceship to another galaxy or a dream house for Barbie dolls. Re-engage that sense of playfulness and imagination and you’ll strike “the gold of creativity,” says Scott. Doodle. Swing or seesaw. Read “Goodnight Moon.” Color on the sidewalk with chalk. Make a mud pie. Blow bubbles. Finger paint. Gallop, don’t walk. Get out the Legos. 

7. Start anywhere. “This is the hardest thing for everyone,” says Scott. “But just start anywhere. Make 600 mistakes. So what? Just start. More often than not, mistakes are our greatest teachers. It also helps to start small. We have this tendency where if we say we’re going to do something, we think we can do all of it, all of a sudden. For example, when we say we want to lose weight, we think: Okay, I’m going to only eat salad and exercise three hours a day.” But this is a recipe for disaster, an impossible goal. Instead, we should ask, What is the smallest possible thing I can do but do every single day for the next week?” 

8. Journal. “Writing in a journal helps you realize you have a unique mind. Explore your inquisitiveness through your journal,” says Linda. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or not, just write. Write for yourself about whatever you want. Keep a notebook that only you can read. It’s a place where you don’t have to be judged and you can just get your ideas out and think things through. It might lead to some good stuff.”  

9. Try something new. This can refresh your outlook and open up possibilities. Valerie tells this story: “My mom is a membership services person at a hospital. She was feeling a little dragged down and decided to take a T-shirt–making class. She began to make some of her own and then, from there, it got her into making jewelry and earrings. You could tell the new experience recharged her. She began giving her creations as gifts to people in the office, and people began to see her differently and appreciate this happier, new side of her.” 

10. Tackle a mini-project. What’s the fun to-do you keep putting off in favor of responsibilities? Take it on. Even if it’s simply trying out a new recipe, the sense of accomplishment and mastery build creative confidence. “It’s good to have an I’m-my-own-boss mentality and to realize you have can actually do whatever you want,” says Linda. 

11. Reconsider a lingering issue. Use your rediscovered creative powers to come up with five ways to solve a problem you’ve been ignoring. Start by giving yourself a constraint that forces you to get resourceful, such as: You can’t spend any money. You can’t use a computer. And you can’t spend more than 30 minutes total.

12. Take care. Overworking yourself is counterproductive to creativity. Get enough rest and find time to do other things that make you happy. “Sometimes I just need to step away do something else for a little bit. Go for a walk. Read. Call a friend. Being in tune with yourself is important to creativity,” says Valerie. 

13. Use your support system. Good friends can help out on big projects, boost you up on bad days, admire your inventiveness, or simply be there. It helps to lean a little. (For more, read “5 big benefits of asking for help.”)

14. Turn frustration into creation. There will be lots of voices telling you to give up or you’re not good enough or your idea is bad (people just can’t stop themselves). Use the resulting anger, annoyance, or dismay as fuel to keep going — and prove them wrong.

15. Constrain yourself. All the artists we talked with admitted that deadlines help in the creative process. This holds true for other kinds of limits, too, like materials, techniques, words, colors, money. Constraints narrow the field, help define the solution, and push you to produce.

 16. Help someone else. “Getting stuck can often be the result of obsessive self-focus,” says Scott.  “A great way of breaking out of that is doing something useful for someone else. Find a way to give back. It helps boost your self-esteem and gives you some perspective.”

 17. Get out of your chair. When Linda needs to spark creativity, she likes to do something physical to loosen up what’s frozen in her head. This also unleashes endorphins, which help chase away the negativity and fears that can paralyze you.

 18. Brain dump. Whatever comes to mind, Lauren pours onto paper when she’s feeling stumped. Making lists, sketching, and creating free-association word webs will help distract you from your frustration, and might produce a kernel of a good idea.

19. Write on something that already has stuff on it. This is Linda’s cure for what she calls “Blank Page Syndrome.” She loves to find and save used paper that already has writing on it. “It feels like the work’s been started already. It’s a lot less intimidating than a blank white piece of paper,” she says.

Next Week: A print-or-pin creativity tip sheet
Last Week: Inspiration: How to find it, what to do with it

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