How to break an “I can’t create” rut

I can’t imagine anyone out there who has not experienced the soul-destroying feeling of being unable to create. I am coming out of a period of this myself, and for a couple of weeks of nearly nothing in my creative tank, I finally broke the cycle.

You know what it’s like: your paper is blank. Your supplies untouched. Your mood flat. For me, I get this way with depressive episodes (and because of this I am unable to create every day, despite my best and loftiest intentions) and I have been in and out of depression with relentless regularity for a year or more. Sometimes I’m fine(ish) and I get a lot done. Sometimes I go for days at a time without making a mark. I envy those who don’t go through this, but even for people who don’t experience clinical depression, the dry spell is a very real thing.

What causes this temporary inability to create? I can only speak for myself, but here are a few things I’ve learned about my ruts:

Fear of something.
I haven’t been afraid of a blank page or canvas for years (another topic for another time), but I have other fears. A recent chat with other top teachers on Skillshare highlighted that even highly successful people have doubt devils in their heads. Imposter syndrome is very real, even in the people we admire most. There is also fear of being a has-been or no longer interesting. The doubt devils will turn the volume up on these fears and it can be difficult to hear anything else.
One fear I had recently was of everyone moving on without me. I’ll explain: iPad art is huge right now and lots of the artists I follow and admire have begun to create totally digitally or collage their physical art (through scans etc.) with digital art, typically with Procreate or very recently with Adobe Fresco. I felt irrelevant and like I had nothing new and interesting to share. Everywhere I looked was a time-lapse of some digital art coming together or that distinctive “look” of digital illustration. I don’t have any interest in creating like this and yet my doubt devils convinced me that this trend was a problem. It’s not, of course, and traditional materials will never ever go out of fashion, but it is easy to let the fear creep in.

What about when you have too much going on? Life is complicated at the best of times, and over the past few years, we’ve all watched world events with unease, no matter which side of whatever you’re on. For me, I have deep issues with politics and society, and it contributes to a feeling of helplessness. Sure, I vote in elections, but the day-to-day news grinds down my coping mechanisms and I feel the weight of it all. Sometimes, I can channel this into emotional art, but most of the time I feel a pointlessness that stops me before I make a mark.
Overwhelm can take other forms too: I have so many things I want to do (or need to do) that I feel too heavy to do anything at all. To combat this, I have created a laminated sheet with task prompts for myself so that when I have no idea where to start, I can look at the sheet of options and tick a box to remind myself what I’m doing. Sometimes it’s computer maintenance tasks, sometimes it’s creating a new Skillshare class, sometimes it’s business tasks… you get the idea, but it has been a pretty useful thing to create my “Hey Jen, what are you doing?” charts. I use a dry erase marker on them and as long as I have the courage to look at and use them, the prompts help to keep me on track when overwhelm is everywhere.

Hoooo boy, that’s a big one. I have always said I am never bored, and it is true. There is always something for me to focus on, good or bad, helpful or not. I don’t get a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out) but I do use distractions to seem busy when I really am feeling fear or overwhelm. It’s hard to not fall prey to distractions- we live in a time where everything is competing for our attention, whether it is a new filter on Snapchat or too many email subscriptions. Buy this. Watch that. Like and subscribe. I know that when I am feeling fear or overwhelm, my social media and smartphone time spikes and I get into a cycle of checking things way too often. It’s like I become a broken record and I check Instagram, Facebook, and email over and over all the while convincing myself that because my business currently relies on connecting with my clients and students through these platforms that I’m doing work. I know better… I’m lying to myself and yes, I do work through those outlets, but mostly I’m distracting myself to avoid confronting the fear or overwhelm. The only cure for me is to get focussed on a task that takes my full attention, like writing, colour correcting images of my art, creating art, or something unrelated like housework or beach cleaning. I distract myself with the news too, so I took Apple News off my phone. That made a huge difference in my anxiety levels because I now have to go out and collect information rather than having a buffet of info effortlessly served up whenever I feel fear and overwhelm. Make it harder to slip into bad habits.

So how do I break out of the “I can’t create” rut?
It’s not easy to face the fact that you can’t create. It feels like failure. No one likes to fail and of course as soon as you acknowledge the feeling it feels a bit worse still. You might cry. You might have a little too much wine or decide to distract yourself with websites or movies. Been there.

abstract art
What I did in my most recent effort to start creating again was to get out a blank sheet of watercolour paper, wet down a set of paints I don’t use often but have great colours (my Kuretake Gansai palette), and pushed colour around. I had no expectations for great work. I had nothing in mind. I don’t believe in the idea that you can waste paper (paper is only wasted when it remains clean), so I smeared colours around to watch them blend, found colour combinations I like, and by the time I had gone through three sheets of paper, I realised I had broken the rut spell.
It’s important to reward and nurture yourself for doing something so brave and difficult, so my final creative effort (I don’t consider these paintings, because that puts pressure on myself to create something for approval by myself or others) was exploring very simple, illustrative cats. They’re cute and were created with no pressure at all. What was pretty great about my “reward” cats is that I now have a fun idea to explore with refining the cats illustration process into a pattern and a print. Win!

illustration of cats

I could not have painted the cats first. No way. Too much pressure even though they are loose and whimsical. I started with the simplicity of abstract paint on paper. I wasn’t concerned with composition or technique – just dirty some paper. I could’ve done this with charcoal or pastels instead, of course. It doesn’t matter what you use; you just have to get to that point where you pull out some paper and do something – anything. I put good music on, but it was only after I started painting that I began to feel less numb about creating.
Do I magically feel like the artist I know I can be? Heck no. I have a lot of healing to do, but I have proven to myself that I can create, even when the doubt devil is shouting, my studio feels like a reminder of failure, my mind is a mess, and I feel sorry for myself.

Make the mark.
Perhaps it has been a week since you last created. Maybe it’s been a year. Allow yourself to feel free of expectations and put a blank canvas or paper in front of yourself. One mark at a time, you’ll get there. If it feels awful, try again tomorrow. You haven’t failed, you started, and that’s something good. Pretty soon, I’ll be able to put the doubt devil back in its box for awhile. Today it whispers rather than shouts. That’s progress.

  1. Thank you for the humble, sage wisdom you’ve extended through the personal insights, examples and encouraging suggestions you’ve provided!

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