The Lessons of Artistic Blocks
It has happened to all artists one time or another, that moment when you no longer want to create. When the idea of sitting down at your computer, your sketchpad, or your piano fills you with an apprehension that leaves you paralyzed. For some artists, the blockage is more subtle. It takes the form of procrastination slowly seeping into the day until more of your time is spent avoiding writing or your art than doing it.
For me, it happened like that—a slow complacency born out of procrastination. Five years ago, after a very prolific period and extreme emotional turmoil, I found myself disconnected from my inner artist. I pulled away from most of my artistic friends, pulled away from my writing groups, and poured myself into my day job. Excuses were plentiful as I avoided thinking about how blocked I felt.
During this time, I still managed to have several deadlines both for my nonfiction work and my novels. So I could not avoid writing altogether. I had to sit down plot out a story and string more than a couple of words together. I pushed forward and finished up one trilogy, plotted out something new. I functioned as an author, still producing both nonfiction and fiction. I donned a mask and reentered my social world, conversing with other writers and pretending.
In truth, I was blocked. In some respects, I still am...
I've never talked to my friends about the depth of my blockage. Nor have I shared the fears that had haunted me in my dreams during those years: Would I ever write something of merit?
Would I actually write something that I saw value in?
Would I feel like something other than a hack?
These questions often plague my thoughts, taunting me with their silence.
As the feelings multiplied, writing became a chore. I continued to accept new contracts, but something in me had changed. Something felt broken.
In retrospect, the past five years have been a surprisingly creative time for me. Although I felt blocked and did everything I could to avoid doing what I once thought of as my vocation, I still produced quality work. My books sold. My editors believed in me. I won awards and praise from book critics and readers. I hadn’t lost my skill.
So how then did I know that I was blocked?
Previous to this experience I was convinced that a blockage would keep me from writing altogether. Or if I did manage to string a few words together, it would be rubbish. My fans, assuming I still had some, would see right through the facade and recognize that I had lost my edge.
It never occurred to me that I could still produce quality work while blocked. Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to realize how much my heightened sensitivity coupled with a complete lack of balance had resulted in complacency and numbness.
After several years of scraping for every word, pushing deadlines to the limit, and forcing myself to create, something new occurred to me:
This is what my blockage looks like.
I wasn’t creating from a place of joy. I wasn’t in the flow. I didn’t love what I was doing.
Yes, I was creating, but I wasn’t honoring my inner artist. Not as I needed to.
A blockage isn’t always about stopping writing, discontinuing your art. Sometimes a blockage comes as mediocrity—the willingness to accept less than you’re capable of doing. I’m not saying that there isn’t value in creating every day, regardless of the quality of the work. But I do think that settling for less than you’re capable of as an artist is something that deserves examination.
For me, blockage revealed itself as an inward struggle. I battled with myself, engaging in procrastination behavior, fought for every word that eventually bled onto the page. I can’t say that what was born in those moments, what was written, was unworthy or less than I was willing to give. It was all I could manage at the moment.
Over the last seven months or so, I've focused on cultivating more balance and peace in my life. I’ve become more aware of what blockages look like in my life. I’m learning who my inner artist is and what she needs. And this awareness allows me to recognize when I am disconnecting from my inner artist and what this means for me: it's a warning that I haven’t been taking care of myself. The message that I am out of balance.
Every artist needs to discover how blockages appear in his or her life. Do they come subtly, masquerading as apathy and quiet discontent? Or are they noisy? Does your blockage wake you in the middle of the night screaming to be heard (and yes this has happened to me as well)? Or does your rational brain usurp your blockage and take over, pushing aside your creativity as folly?
You also need to understand what it means to hide from yourself, to bury and distance your creative self in a mask you show the world.
And then you must be thankful...
Thankful for your blockages and your openness, grateful for your rational thoughts and your sensitivities. For born from these things will be some of your most significant creative expressions.
As I've worked through my own battles with artistic slumps I have discovered something significant for me:
The real value of being blocked lies not only in seeing the problem but in the subsequent journey to move past the block. It is in this exploration, you discover what it means to be an artist for YOU. It is in this process that the connections between purpose and passion are exposed.
This is where authentic balance is discovered.