The Block. All artists know it. All artists dread it. It’s a universally accepted fact for all creative types that there are times when you just aren’t, well, creative. It’s as powerful as the waves, as devastating as a sinkhole. Creative blocks, no matter the type of creation, are as natural as the seasons.
Or are they?
While it’s true that creativity can ebb and flow over a period of time, a significant block is usually a sign that something’s up. That something important is out of balance.
Think of it like pain. Pain is nothing more than the tool your brain uses to make you pull your hand back from that stove. If you did not feel pain, you would keep your hand over the fire, and then it would be irreparably damaged.
Likewise, a Block is usually telling you that something’s out of order. Sure, it can be frustrating to encounter one. But getting through a creative block can be one of the most rewarding experiences you undertake as an artist.
There are two ways I’ve learned to get over a Block.
The first is to power through. This is probably not the best option.
In late 2017, about a year after I decided to make writing my life, I encountered my first real creative block. It devastated my ability to write, to read, even to make music, which I simply do for my own fulfillment.
What’s funny is that it happened at a time when everything should have been conspiring to help my creativity. I was studying abroad, damn it! When I wasn’t travelling, I had swaths of free time. I was exploring new corners of the world every day. I was able to go to coffee shops and sit to read or write. And all of it was completely useless in fixing the predicament at hand: that dreaded Block.
So what’s one to do when they encounter the Block in a time when it shouldn’t exist? Well, if you’re anything like me circa 2017, you push yourself anyway.
I outlined. I wrote short stories. I bought a copy of Infinite Jest, which I still haven’t finished. I went to those coffee shops with pen in hand and wrote depressed narratives in my journal, sometimes for hours at a time. And I was completely unsatisfied with the outcome. It seemed that everything I wrote escaped me, or was stuck in mediocrity.
In early 2018, I came back to the States full of experience, but with nothing to show for it. As it turned out however, I had been neglecting my mental health, and had been avoiding a process of healing from some personal pain.
My Block was not the disease itself, as I thought it had been; it was a symptom that I was not taking seriously. A runny nose that I never attributed to a cold. So I learned a different way to deal with my Block.
I decided to take a step back, to identify the imbalance, and to do something about it.
It may seem that this is not as hard as forcing yourself to write. There’s a reason they call it “pushing through” after all — it takes effort.
But stepping back takes a different kind of effort. Pushing through validated and catered to my worst fears: that I was a failure, that I would never amount to anything unless I wrote, wrote, wrote. Stepping back, however, meant that I had to trust that writing would still be there when I got back.
So I took a break to focus on my mental health. I began therapy. I got better about my meds. And when I came back to writing in the fall, it was from a place of strength, understanding, and acceptance, rather than of fear, anxiety, and self-judgment.
If the second approach seems counter-intuitive to you, you’re not alone. During the worst weeks of my Block, I would have never considered stopping and taking time to breathe, to heal. But a time of rest from attempting constant output can be the most beneficial act you can take for your art.
Creativity comes from within. So does your Block.
The mistake I made when I was powering through was thinking that my Block had something to do with my outside circumstances. Perhaps I wasn’t going to the right coffee shops, for example. Or perhaps I wasn’t reading the right books. Maybe if I’d have gone to New York, or Barcelona, or stayed home in Ohio, I wouldn’t be having this problem.
No matter what the problem was, if I worked hard enough, I felt I could overcome those external factors.
But overcoming a block is less about strength and more about balance. If your internal state is imbalanced, nothing in your external circumstances can change that. And so a Block forms. And the more you climb, the higher it seems to get.
Cultivating creativity is about more than just creating every day. While consistency is critical to your success as an artist, it is far more important to take inventory of your internal state, to change what needs to be changed in your personal balance and outlook, and to trust that your art will be there when you get back.
Cultivating creativity is about long-term, consistent happiness. Your art is like a garden. My mistake was trying to water my garden with a power washer. But overcoming my Block took stepping back, watering slowly, and pulling the weeds out one by one.
Now my garden is in bloom. Now I am content with my art.
This post was written by Sam Riley
Photo: Dr Kiarra King