It’s the same old story: you want to create, you want to produce, you sit down at your desk and then nothing comes. The hours tick by. The page remains blank. You feel like you’re wasting your time. You feel stuck. You feel like this sucks. You feel like you suck. You get angry with yourself. You start beating yourself up—well, metaphorically. Of course that doesn’t work; the page is still blank. Why did you even think that would help?
Your mind wanders and you start thinking about the state of your life. There’s always so much to do—your paid job, of course, but also the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry; all the admin and logistical stuff that has to be done related to your kids and their activities (soooooo many school notes!); and while you think longingly of your couch and spacing out in front of Netflix and your current favourite show, you know that you won’t be able to get there until all the other stuff is done.
“Why aren’t there more hours in the day?” you think. Your rational mind knows that everyone gets the same amount—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week—but the petulant part of your brain longs for more—more time to sleep (you are so tired; why did Miss 4 wake up at 2am this morning???), more time to read, more time to think, more time to create. You stare at the clock, willing the second hand to stop moving forward, Shakespeare echoing in the back of your head—
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with what which goes before,
In sequent toil all forward do contend.
—but it’s no use: you can’t even construct a proper sentence; what makes you think you can stop time?
Your mind drifts again and you find yourself thinking of your friends—the people you consider your creative peers—all busy creators with amazing outputs whose work ends up getting shortlisted for or winning awards. “Patrick’s been invited to be Guest of Honour at PopCultchaCon,” you think to yourself. “Why can’t I be like him?” Well, the answer’s obvious: you don’t produce, so you don’t have anything to show for your labour. That’s why you don’t win any awards. That’s why you don’t get any recognition.
“Well, I would,” you think resentfully. “I would—if I had a writing studio like he does—if I had a job that afforded me more spare time—if I had a partner who supported me, did the lion’s share of the housework and was happy to look after the kids while I went off and wrote.” And before you can stop it, the bitterness sets in—the anger, the envy, the despair … the depression.
“I try so hard,” you think. “I’m exhausted all the time. What’s the point? I’m over this.” So you get up and walk away.
Let me suggest an alternative: rather than walking away and giving up, when you feel these things—when you feel frustrated, angry, envious, despairing, depressed, exhausted, uninspired, even burnt out—perhaps consider these feeling as sign posts pointing to the fact that the creator in you is in need of nurturing. Maybe you just need to step away and replenish yourself creatively before you can dive back into it. Maybe you need to take some time to combat the unhelpful thoughts that circle your head, causing you to doubt yourself, hovering anxiously over your every move. Maybe you need to find more helpful ways of working that fit better with your lifestyle or life stage. Or maybe you just need to rest for a bit.
Below are some remedies that may help your specific malady. Obviously not everything listed here will be helpful, and some stuff may be completely unsuitable. Cherry pick as you please, and use this as a launchpad for producing your own list of creator medicines.
It’s important to nurture yourself as a creator: every time you create, the energy goes out of you and into the work, which means you need replenishing. Obviously this includes replenishing your body with food, drink, exercise and sleep, because if you’re feeling drained, hungry, thirsty or tired, being creative is harder. But it also includes replenishing yourself creatively—replenishing yourself with things like ideas, concepts, stories, social time, other people’s creations, and even play. Try doing the following:
- Consume other people’s creations (comics, novels, TV shows, movies, music, artworks, etc.)
- Listen to podcasts on interesting topics. One of my favourites is Song Exploder, a podcast in which songwriters take apart their songs and talk about how they were made. I’m not a songwriter, but each episode leaves me wanting to write music.
- Watch or read inspiring talks or articles about creativity. Here are a few I love and revisit regularly:
- “Your elusive creative genius” by Elizabeth Gilbert (TED talk; 19 min).
- “Make good art” by Neil Gaiman (University of the Arts 2012 commencement speech; 20 min).
- “Big Strong Magic” by Brené Brown in conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert (Magic Lessons podcast episode 112; 36 min).
My friend Guan has more listed on his website.
- Go for a walk somewhere beautiful in nature.
- Rub shoulders with likeminded creators. I do this by attending conventions, festivals or other events, where a lot of the more established creators can be found; following creators I like on social media; being an active member of groups like the Sydney Comics Guild; and also deliberately keeping up with particular people I consider my creative peers.
- Talk to other creators about what they’re working on, how they like to work and what inspires/nurtures them.
- Create in another medium. If you’re a writer, play or write music. If you’re a musician, take up sketching. For me, I’ve always got a knitting project on the go.
- Work on multiple projects at once. That way, if one stalls, you can always switch to another.
- “Play” with your medium. Try something new. If you’re an artist, experiment with a new technique or a different set of tools. If you’re a musician, try playing a new instrument. Give yourself permission to do whatever you like without the pressure to create amazing work.
- Tackle a shorter project—something manageable that won’t take over your life. Finishing it will give you a sense of accomplishment and achievement, and boost your confidence for longer projects.
Look after your mental health
It’s one thing to nurture your creativity; it’s another to deal with the unhelpful thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing around your creative work that hinder that work—things like, “I’m not good enough”, “This is a waste of time”, “I wish I was more like that person”. Try doing the following:
- Write it out: put actual pen to paper and write out everything you’re feeling at the moment—all the anger, pain, frustration, depression. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or even sentence structure; just get it out there on the page.
- Identify unhelpful thought patterns (for example, “I can’t write” => “I suck” => “I am a waste of space”). If necessary, write them down. Then cross them out and combat the unhelpful thought with more helpful ones: “I can’t write” => “I can’t write right now” => “I’m going to do something else to practise self-care/work on another project” => “I’ll try again another time” => “I’m trying. Go me!”
- Remember that “Comparison is the thief of joy” (as one or both of the Roosevelts said): nothing good comes from comparing yourself with others, so don’t do it. Instead, be happy for this other person and celebrate their success. Creativity is not a zero sum game and this is not a competition.
- Practise self-compassion. You may be going through a lot at the moment, for there are always things that make life challenging. But you’re surviving. You’re trying. You’re making baby steps, and baby steps are better than nothing. (Incidentally, I was very encouraged recently by something that my friend Louie Joyce said: I was talking about how I was producing all these really rough bits and pieces of prose and how it was like sketching or doing thumbnail layouts in comics, and he commented that that stage often takes the longest and feels the hardest because that’s when you’re actually working things out and making key decisions about how the work should go; the later pencilling/inking/colouring all builds on that, and they’re easier because you’ve already put in the hard yards.)
- Celebrate your wins. So you only wrote 200 words today. Congratulations! That’s 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. So you didn’t end up writing anything. Congratulations! You showed up; many people don’t. So you didn’t even get to your desk. It’s okay! Try again another day.
- Create for yourself. No one ever has to see this; this is just for you. Do it because you can. Do it because it’s fun. Do it because it brings you joy. All creativity should start from this point, because if it doesn’t, you’ll not want to do it when things get hard.
Consider the importance of timing
Sometimes the problem isn’t so much what you’re doing, but when you’re doing it. I’ve been thinking about this more and more while reading Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. Many books are about how to do things; Daniel Pink’s When is about when to do things. I used to think that every hour of the day was equal. Daniel Pink showed me that this is definitely not the case: one section of his book is focuses on the pattern of the day—how, after we wake, we experience a peak in our energy and motivation in the morning followed by a trough in the afternoon and then a smaller peak in the early evening. This, coupled with his section on chronotypes (i.e. early birds, night owls and what he calls “third birds”) has changed the way I do things. On my child-free day off, if I can, I tackle writing in the morning. Then I break for lunch (the most important meal of the day, Pink argues). I then expect that seven hours after my waking time (around about 2pm), I will start to feel the effects of the afternoon trough and trying to work will probably be futile. (Often I find myself nodding off around that time due to sleep deprivation anyway.) I’ve also noticed that my brain tends to be really alert around 9:30/10pm, so occasionally I will make good use of that time. But that period of the day also interferes with sleep, so if I can, I avoid using it.
Here are some articles on timing by other people that you might find helpful:
- “How to find time for creative work” by Mark McGuinness.
- “How to stay amazingly productive on low energy days” by Naomi Dunford.
Another thing that I’ve gleaned from reading Daniel Pink is making the most of breaks: one of the surprising things he found when talking to pro athletes was the number of breaks they took. It wasn’t because they were lazy; in fact, the opposite was true: the breaks made them better at what they did. Furthermore, it’s been shown that breaks help you work through the afternoon trough, which means that, overall, you are more efficient and productive. Pink challenges his readers to add breaks to their daily To Do lists, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, it’s something I try to bear in mind as I go about my days.
(Pink has a lot of advice about how long your breaks should be and what you should do when you’re taking them, because doing things like walking in nature while chatting to a good friend are actually more restorative than scrolling through Twitter on your phone, which is my preferred form of break activity. But I won’t go into those here; you’ll have to pick up his book.)
But rest, in my opinion, involves more than daily restorative breaks. It involves more than just sleep. It’s also about letting your creativity lie fallow for a bit—giving those muscles a rest before getting back to it so that they work more effectively in the long haul. I often think of Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on “The power of time off”—how once every seven years, he would take a year off from his work as a designer, travel to Bali and just create whatever he wanted. To his surprise, the stuff he worked on while on sabbatical became integral to the work he did in the following seven years.
Nurturing yourself. Looking after your mental health. Considering the importance of timing. Taking breaks and resting. These are all forms of creator medicine—ways to feed and care for your creative self so that you can keep going for the long haul. Because continuing to create is a much better alternative to quitting.
So go forth and create!