Sunday, February 5, 2012

Dealing with a Creative Block

At some point, every creative person will have the experience of feeling stuck. The ideas no longer flow. Your direction is unclear. There is so much to do; it is hard to know where to start. Or you know what to do, and are afraid to do it – this is probably the worst situation to be in as both the knowledge and the fear may not be operating on a fully conscious level. In any event, there are many reasons for feeling stuck. I’ve had my own experience in this regard, and without going into the painful details, let’s just say I have been familiar with the feeling.

So, you recognize the problem – then what? In my opinion, it doesn’t matter why you feel stuck. Whatever the cause, if a creative block continues long enough, it will be accompanied by feelings of self-doubt. It is the loss of confidence and the anxiety associated with it that becomes the bigger problem – and this is what needs to be addressed first. The first step is entirely prosaic: make work a habit and set achievable goals.

I met with a former student last week. Photography was her passion, but she had gone to college for other subjects. Several years after she completed her undergraduate degree, she started taking Photography classes, eventually earning an MFA. The period after graduate school can be particularly difficult. School provides structure. There are the regular critiques and project deadlines. There is also the competition among fellow students that motivates everyone.  Most graduating students haven’t had the experience of being consistently creative outside the context of school, so simply losing that structure can be surprisingly difficult to deal with.

She was feeling overwhelmed and had stopped taking photographs. She had goals, but they were stated in a general way.  Sometimes a list isn’t helpful when the items on it are too broad. Looking at such a list can be daunting.  My suggestion was to rewrite each goal, making it as specific as possible.  Then we would create a schedule for her, based on the new list.

We want to break what needs to be done into achievable portions, so that at the end of the day, you know that either you did what you set out to do or you didn’t. For example, let’s say the bigger goals are to update the website, begin a new street photography project, and promote the work.  Tomorrow’s schedule might be to process 15 files so they are ready to post on the website, to spend 2 hours shooting, and 1 hour researching and identifying galleries which might be receptive to her work. And there would be a similarly detailed schedule for each day of the week.

Every item on the schedule is quantifiable. You either processed 15 files or you didn’t. If you can’t process 15 files in the available time, make it 10, or whatever works for you. The point is, you want to set your goals in such a way that you can accomplish the task and it is not a matter of opinion as to whether you have succeeded or not.  You don’t want to have “take one excellent street photograph each day” as a goal.  Maybe this happens, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you like the picture today and you don’t tomorrow. You want to phrase each goal in a way that there is not any uncertainty about accomplishment. Once goals are quantifiable and achievable and you consistently do what you set out to do, you’ll start to feel a lot better about yourself, and eventually your work. The first step is to regain your confidence and the best way to do that is through a pattern of regular achievement. Follow your schedule for a month, not worrying about the outcome of what you do, and see if you don’t start feeling creative again.

One last point: think about which word was not used in the article above.

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