Taking little steps has never been a strength of mine. I’m a brainstorming, big picture, grand scheme type of gal. I prefer to immediately leap into action rather than plan or inch forward. When I approach a new project, I love developing the brand and marketing approach… actually developing content behind the scenes? Much less glamorous. Not enough of the ol’ razzle dazzle.
Whenever I tell people I’m an artist, there is one very common response I (almost) always hear: “Oh that’s so cool! I could never do that, I’m not really the creative type.” In the words of Dorothy Sayers, there’s nothing for me to do except “laugh deprecatingly”, so I do so and move on. At best, I felt sorry for the other person that they weren’t born as the “creative type.” But in recent years, I’ve started to reevaluate my belief in “types.” Maybe there aren’t creative/non-creative types… maybe some of us just haven’t found interesting problems yet.
I’m going to pull back the curtain real quick: creativity is another word for problem-solving. I know that doesn’t sound as romantic or grand, but basically that’s what us artistic people do. We solve problems. The only difference between us and, well, the rest of the world is that we found problems that are so engaging, so amazing, so consuming that we can’t stop. Not only can we not leave them unsolved, but we go out of our way to find new problems to solve.
For example: I’m an artist. What problem am I trying to solve? I’m trying to share abstract ideas, memories, and emotions with my audience. Not only that, but I’m specifically trying to spark similar reactions in my audience so I have to know how to communicate with them. Now, that’s a problem I love so much that I invested hours into education and study so that I could solve that problem for the rest of my life! Yay!
So how do you find the life-long problem that’s right for you?
So in order to become the “creative type” you need to find a type of problem that you love solving. It’s the challenge that you may gripe and groan over, but inwardly you’re excited: this is your turf. You got this. It might not be painting or writing, by the way. Maybe it’s fixing cars, or creating business connections. Maybe it’s home decor. Maybe it’s making the perfect cup of coffee (call me; I will be your audience.) How do you figure out what problem you want to solve more than anything else?
What challenges do you look forward to?
You know, the thing that genuinely makes you feel glad that you put that effort in, even if you didn’t succeed. It’s that thing where you don’t always have all the answers, but you can’t wait to look for them.
What do you take pride in?
It takes creativity to navigate a city when your usual route has been closed, and while you may feel kind of proud, you might not want to be a taxi driver. But what kind of success makes you feel really pleased? Is it calming a client? Matching shoes with a purse (and belt and necklace and hat)? Maybe it’s seeing the first buds in your garden. What makes you glow?
What do you want to be better at?
It takes creativity to move a piano up a flight of stairs, but I feel no interesting in becoming a better piano mover. But it matters to me if my drawings are any good. I need them to be good, to improve. It’s not enough to solve the original problem; what matters is solving the problem more efficiently and uniquely each time. You have to want to do that.
What teaches you the most about yourself?
Want to know what art taught me? That I wasn’t naturally artistic. You read that correctly: I have almost no natural talent. But what I learned was that I loved art, my innermost narratives clicked with an artistic medium, and that’s where I came alive the most. Painting may not matter to you at all. The important thing is to find something that helps you learn and grow. Maybe it’s providing excellent customer service. Maybe it’s writing a poem. Who knows?
There are all sorts of ways to answer these question. You may already be doing something creative (aka solving problems) and you don’t even realize how much you love it. Or perhaps you need to try something new to discover where your interest lies. Whatever the case may be, rest assured: we all have a good chunk of creativity inside us. It’s just a matter of sparking it to life.
In the day to day busyness of work, school, and family, it can be quite a challenge to find the almost-mythical “Me Time.” For many of us, when we do find “Me Time”, we dread the idea of filling it; after all, it’s supposed to be time to wind down and do nothing, right? Better yet: that’s what Netflix is for!
However, in my personal experience, I’ve realized that this “do nothing” is a numbing practice. We aren’t necessarily refreshing our minds or recharging our mental/emotional energy. We’re just clicking mute on everything. In some instances, I think this method is totally fine. But if you really want to get the most out of your downtime, I suggest taking up a hobby! And here are 5 reasons:
Purpose without pressure
Pressure makes a huge difference in we react to a variety of situations. For example, when we prepare dinner for ourselves, our expectations might be rather low (it’s mostly cooked, it’s fine) compared to when we are preparing dinner for a guest. When other people are invited to be our “judges”, a small (or great) amount of pressure sets in and adds anxiety to the experience.
With a hobby, your guest (or audience) is simply yourself. You can relax, set your own standards, and perhaps ignore negative feedback altogether. It isn’t about impressing anyone, but simply about entertaining and engaging your own heart and mind.
Recharge your batteries
Whether or not you love your job, if you’re giving 100% everyday (heck, even 75-80%), you’re burning up a lot of energy. While a hobby may seem like just one more thing to add to your already gargantuan to-do list, it shouldn’t be! An ideal hobby isn’t a chore or a mandatory task: it’s like taking a mental breath and letting it out slowly. It’s an activity that either allows your brain to relax or stretch muscles that don’t get used at work.
For example, if your work is physically demanding, but your mind doesn’t feel stimulated, you may take up some kind of intellectual puzzle solving, or creative endeavors that make you think outside the box. If your job is mentally taxing, you choose a physical activity that allows your mind to rest while your body works. Your hobby shouldn’t be an obligation; it should be a time of refreshment!
Connect with others (or not)
Even though your hobby is for yourself, first and foremost, it’s also a great way to connect with others around you. As mentioned before, your hobby is a purpose without pressure: this makes it a relaxing, non-competitive topic of conversation as well. Sharing your hobby with others gives you a connection that doesn’t require anything from anyone: it’s simply a topic of interest.
On a related note, a hobby is a great way to manage social interaction outside of work. If you prefer the company of others, including them in the hobby is a great way to hang out and relax in a non-business environment. Conversely, if you prefer alone-time to recover, your hobby can serve as a reason for being alone: “Actually, I’m going to the library to do some writing. Can we meet later?”
Voluntarily invest in yourself
Your job is a kind of investment in yourself, but it’s largely a required one. You need a roof over your head, and food on the table, so you have to have a job. There’s no way around that. A hobby, on the other hand, is totally voluntary. You don’t have to spend your freetime pursuing personal growth of any kind, but freely choosing to do so goes a long way in bolstering your self-esteem and confidence. It’s a way to give something to yourself without expecting anything in return (see #1).
Discover new strengths
Hobbies are a fantastic way to learn new things about yourself. For instance: many (maybe most) people would claim to be “uncreative.” For me, I never saw myself as physically active, nor did I feel any desire to start recreational exercising. However, after a week of simple morning stretches, I discovered that I really enjoyed the feeling of being active and alert, and I began to challenge myself with more intense workouts. The great thing about hobbies is that it’s okay if you aren’t “good enough” or experienced (see #1 again.) All that matters is that you use your time to explore and grow.
If you could pick up any hobby or new skill, what would it be?
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?
It’s Wednesday, which means we’re half-way through the week! Wednesday is also a good time to look back at the first couple of days and reflect on what we’d like to do differently before the week is over.
For me, I constantly need to evaluate how productive I actually am, and compare it to how productive I want to be. I’m very susceptible to the Monday resolution fervor which (much like New Year’s resolutions) fills me with an all-too-brief burst of determination that quickly fizzles into almost nothing. Using Wednesday as a checkpoint helps me adjust, correct, and continue on my merry way!
Here are 3 questions I ask myself to see if I’m on the right track:
- Do I have deadlines to meet?
I work extremely well under pressure (probably better than I do without it.) Deadlines give me a bit of an adrenaline rush that motivates (scares?) me into action. This rush tends to carry over into non-deadline tasks, giving me the motivation and determination to carry on. Give yourself some deadlines, and find a partner to hold you accountable!
- Do I feel regret?
Probably connected to my love of ‘pressure’, I work hard to avoid regret than I do to earn reward. If I fail to earn a good thing, I can easily shrug and say “oh well, maybe next time”, whereas the fear of something negative happening (regret, frustration, etc) is harder to ignore. There’s no need to go overboard and terrorize yourself, but keep the consequences in mind as well as the benefits.
- Have I pursued my personal goals?
In the busy day-to-day business of client work, professional development, a day job, and basic living-ness, it’s easy to feel like I don’t have time for personal projects. At the same time, however, setting aside time to work on my own goals helps me feel less like I’m simply drudging through the week and more like I’m actually making progress. Setting aside time for yourself gives meaning to the rest of your day!
How is your week going? More importantly: how do you want the rest of your week to go?
As an artist, there are a lot of things that I say to myself (sometimes without noticing) that make it really hard to work. It’s a habit of psychological “nagging” that cuts down on my productivity, but also my confidence. While I’ve gotten a little bit better at it over the years (as I get more confident) there are still a few things that I think over and over that really slow me down. I’m hoping that making a deliberate list of them will help me ignore (or even not think) them.
I don’t know if this will work… So I better not try it.
This is a huge problem when I’m thinking about experimenting with my technique… I’m afraid that I’ll make something awful, so I just make nothing. Which is better than something “bad”? No.
I don’t feel creative… So I’ll just sit and do nothing.
This is certainly okay once in a while, but it very easily becomes a habit. I pretend that my lack of inspiration is totally “over-powering” me, and I’m helpless. What nonsense. You can make your hand move, even if you don’t have a reason to. So make it move!
I’m not as good as that person… So why try to improve?
That question should answer itself, but here’s the more detailed response: being intimidated can be paralyzing. However, recognizing the way in which someone has superior skills is a great way to teach yourself. Why is that person “better?” How do you think they got that way?
It’s “just” a hobby. No big deal if I don’t take it seriously.
Then don’t expect anything amazing to happen with it. Publisher don’t publish hobbies. They publish crafts. And don’t expect others to take it seriously. Carelessness shows.
I’d be more dedicated/disciplined if I were getting paid.
I have learned the (very) hard way that this is entirely untrue. You have to respect your work AS work before you start respecting it as a money maker. If you really make sure that Good Work is just as important Good Money, it’ll be much easier to work a job that a) sucks and b) doesn’t pay well. Not that you shouldn’t try to make more money, but try to always be satisfied with your handiwork.
I’m sitting at a Starbucks in Kansas City, MO as I finish this post up. Today I will be tested on my knowledge of typography and page layout. Tomorrow I will set up my computer and equipment, and Thursday I will compete to show off my design skills. Fasten your seatbelts, kids. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
“It wouldn’t be so hard if you did it more often.”
My mom has said this about laundry, cleaning my room, doing dishes, dusting and sweeping, mowing and raking, and exercise. Do it more often, and it gets easier.
After writing about habit in a previous post, this bit of Mom Advice occurred to me, and I had one of those moments (everyone has them) where you realize that your mom was right. She knew! How did she know? It also applies to creating!
Towards the end of last semester, I realized that I went days without writing or drawing anything creative. Once in a while, okay, but days? It’s very much like exercise; the longer you spend not doing it, the harder it gets to start again. So I made a conscious decision to make sure I draw (even just a little bit) everyday. To this end, I toooootally rearranged my desk so that my computer AND my hard sketchbook both fit comfortably, and are constantly accessible. (I technically have two desks, to be honest… a cheap one from my school’s architecture surplus and a cheap one from Wal-Mart.) I moved my files, binders, and notebooks to another spot in my room, so just drawing and writing materials are around me (plus some books on Renoir, Cassatt, and Degas). It. Is. So. Marvelous.
In fact, it’s so great that it has me ignoring one of my other good habits, which is going to bed before midnight. I now stay up late to draw, even if I was drawing all day. I write several paragraphs, and each day, the amount that I write grows. Daily practices are super hard to start, and it takes something like 30-40 days for a new habit to form. So what if you made a goal to draw or write for X hours a day?
It would get easier.