Burn Out vs. Out of Shape: When to Fight Creative Block

When an artist sits down to work, one of the worst feelings is a “creative block.” That oppressive moment where you have too many ideas (or too few), not enough energy, not enough time, no motivation, no inspiration, or perhaps a mixture of all of the above. You sit at your desk or easel, and nothing happens. In many cases, we can’t even pinpoint the cause of the “blankness” that we feel: artists love their art, so why doesn’t it just work every time?

Many other creatives suggest solutions such as taking a break and going for a walk, or reading, or listening to music. Others suggest simply working right through the block, to keep drawing until you finally feel like it. Personally I have found all of these suggestions to be helpful at some point or another: it’s a matter of knowing which solution is going to work when. But in order to know that, we have to ask a bigger question: is your creative block a matter of burn-out or being out of shape? Below are some questions I ask myself when I’m having trouble with my creative work.*

What’s your recent work history look like?

  • Have you just finished a major project (or put a lot of effort into one)? If you’ve been giving 110% for a while, you’re probably facing a certain amount of burn-out and you need a break. Also, if you’ve faced some challenging feedback or results from a project, or you’ve been working on a high-stakes project with intense pressure, your mind has been going at full-throttle and it’s probably time to rest and recharge.
  • Have you done little to no creative work recently? Doing creative work is like riding a bike: you know the basics and you can always get back on, but a marathon is going to take preparation and conditioning. If it’s been a while since you put in some serious effort for your creative outlet, you’re going to feel out of shape and stretched for a while until you develop the mental muscles required. This is a time to muscle right through the block.

Too many ideas or too few?

  • Are there just too many ideas to sift through? Too much inspiration can be paralyzing. It’s like being in a maze: there are so many twists and turns, and you feel the pressure of needing to make THE right decision on your first try. While all those ideas are bouncing around in your head, it’s almost impossible to know which ones actually have potential, and which ones are simply mental clutter that you don’t need. The important thing is to not keep them in your head. Write them down, sketch them out. Ideas that actually hold some merit will keep evolving if you give them some credence; ideas that don’t have any substance will eventually fizzle out. Think of it like scouting. You have to see the ideas in action before dismissing (or accepting) any of them.
  • Are you genuinely out of ideas? First of all, it’s important to understand that no artist creates in a black a hole. Personally, I don’t think inspiration is an invention of the artist: I believe it’s the successful intersection of an artist’s response to an experience, and their need to share that response with the world. So when your well seems dry and you have no inspiration, it doesn’t mean all is lost: it simply means that it’s time to a) experience something new, b) pay attention to your response to the experience, and/or c) find the best way to share your response with others. In other words, you either need to try something new, take note of your response, or think about who else needs to hear your response.

Is it time to adjust course, or time to turn around?

  • Is there something you’re working on that just lost the magic? With long-term projects, there’s always the risk of losing that initial feeling of excitement and motivation. For me, sitting down to ink page 24 of comic-in-progress didn’t feel nearly as thrilling as page 1. At this point, it’s important to review the goals you set at the beginning of the process. In my case, my goal was to simply finish a comic and get it printed. Even if I feel no love for page 24, it’s still possible for me to acheive my objective. I re-evaluate my priorities and move on.
  • Do you need to abandon a project and start afresh? If you’ve put in hours and effort, it can be hard to admit you’re on the wrong path altogether. Maybe your initial burst of motivation gradually fizzled away, and you realize that your goal was impossible/too vague to actually ever be completed. With many of my own personal projects, my goals were generally something like “To share a story of blah blah blah.” That’s a nice mission statement, but goals need to be concrete, with a specific time table and list of tasks. If you realize that a project doesn’t have any definition, it may be time to go back to the beginning and figure out what your goal is.

Creative block is a crazy thing, with many factors and causes. Being physically or emotionally drained can affect it, as well as inspiration, external pressure, and internal expectations. But in my experience, creative block rarely comes out of nowhere. If you can find the source of your block, it becomes easier to counteract it and get on with your creative life.

How do you deal with creative block?

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