We have three distinct roles as creative beings. (These apply to areas other than creativity, of course. But let’s focus.)

The roles are consumer, curator, and creator. Each role is important. To reject the role of consumer because “you’re focused on creativity” is as deadly as rejecting the role of creator because “you’re not a creative person.”

All three roles together form a creativity conduit:

We need to be consumers in order to take in our world; observe; read; listen; watch; appreciate what’s been created; hear the larger conversation that we’re part of.

We need to be curators in order to choose what we like or don’t; develop our style and taste; clarify purpose and focus; find commonality with others.

We need to be creators in order to use our skills, insights, and experiences; to share what’s inside of us; to process what we’ve received; to participate in the ongoing creation of the universe; to offer what we have; to grow.

But the creativity conduit doesn’t always flow, does it? 

Things happen. We get out of balance. We lose focus. We ignore one or more roles, or we create blocks. If you’re facing a creative block, maybe it’s for one of these reasons.

1. Trash inputs

What happens

You’re taking in whatever comes your way, with no regard for its quality or effect on you. Everybody enjoys trash inputs sometimes; that’s cool. When most of what you’re consuming is trash, however, you encounter severe consequences. It’s the difference between eating that greasy fast food meal every now and then versus eating greasy processed fast food for every meal.

Key factors

Quality: what you’re consuming doesn’t give you much. Your inputs lack depth, perspective, beauty, and honest thinking. They don’t challenge or inspire you. They stink.

Quantity: You’re taking in too much of these trash inputs. You can’t filter them; you’re overloaded. Maybe you no longer have any filters in place.

Variety: Your creative work can handle and even benefit from some (contrast is helpful in many ways) but when overloaded by trash inputs, there’s no longer any contrast. It’s all trash now.

How it feels

How to fix it

Take a good long look at the source of your inputs. What are you consuming? Where is it coming from? “Trash inputs” doesn’t mean that something is bad, only that it’s not helpful for your creative work.

Realize that no one will filter your inputs but you. If you don’t want trash inputs, you have to stop taking them in.

Take a break from all your input sources for a while.

Set up filters to only receive better stuff from your input sources.

Change your input sources. Think back to a time when you were creatively prolific and loving your work; what were your inputs then? What sources did you return to? Find them again (or another version of them).

Give yourself time to adjust and find a new equilibrium. Remember that if you’ve been on a fast food diet, a bowl of mixed greens won’t taste good or satisfying.

Start using a simple idea system; this will help you filter and develop your ideas, choosing the best ones and giving them due attention. Don’t worry if you don’t have any good/interesting ideas at first. They will come.

Cleanse, fast, detox: you might need to do the mental/emotional equivalent of a physical fast to clear out all the gunk that’s built up in your creative conduit.

Try this:

When you’re ready for more, you’ll know. You’ll get the itch. You’ll feel cleaner and fresher and energized and everything will look brighter and deeper at the same time.

2. Not enough inputs

What happens

As impossible as it seems in our age of information overload, you can limit your inputs so severely, for so long, that you lack material. Perhaps you are entrenched in routine, so that even your normal inputs become too familiar and stale to affect you. Perhaps you are in (or emerging from) a period of great stress or crisis: if you’ve been dealing with a family or medical emergency, a job overload, or an onslaught of obligations, maybe you just haven’t had the time or attention to consume good stuff.

Key factors

Quantity: you’re not getting enough of anything. Even if there are inputs in your life, your energy has been too low to take them in or give them conscious attention.

Variety: you may have grown too familiar with your inputs. The brain needs variety. If you’re been reading the same books, watching the same shows, staying in the same genres and types of experiences, you need to break out. Familiarity breeds contempt, yeah? Your brain is no longer paying attention to your inputs because they’re too mundane to matter. Change it up.

How it feels

How to fix it

First, rest. If you’ve been in a period of crisis, change, and stress, you need rest. How can you give yourself rest? How can you relieve the pressure? What can you let go of? What obligations can you cancel?

Realize that you are responsible for taking care of yourself. You are. And you can take care of yourself. Yes. You can.

Sit with the boredom and ask yourself what you’re really craving. Does it scare you, the answer you hear? Keep asking until the answer scares you. Then follow that thread.

Realize that change is terrifying to use for a lot of reasons; realize that the terror can be an excuse for stagnation. Routines are helpful but routines are not life. You need change because you are alive. You are a glorious living creature; you grow or you slowly die. How can you make a small change? No, smaller. Smaller. One small step toward change. Try it.

Start a new hobby.

Read a different genre.

Think about the balance of comfort and growth in your life. We all need places of comfort and rest; but we need to balance those with times of growth (which is, by its nature, uncomfortable and challenging). If you’ve been stuck in “all growth” or “all comfort,” seek ways to bring balance into your life.

Ask someone for their recommendation (music, movie, book, show, hobby, experience, restaurant, anything!) and then… TAKE the recommendation. Don’t qualify. Don’t reason. Don’t substitute. Try it.

3. Misplaced energy

What happens

You have good inputs, with variety and mostly high quality. You like what you’re consuming and it has a positive, challenging effect on you. In fact, you like it so much that you can’t help sharing it. All the time! With everyone! You set up more and more layers in your curation process: categorizing, saving, finding new ways to share, discussing, recommending. There’s value in curation, but all your creative energy is going into your role as curator. There’s not much left for your role of creator. 

Key factors

Quantity: you’re probably taking in way too many inputs to process in a reasonable amount of time. It’s great that you have so many high-quality inputs that you want to share with others; it’s not great that all your attention and energy is spent on collecting and curating.

How it feels

How to fix it

Start with honesty. Misplaced energy is a form of procrastination. You are only hurting yourself.

Start requiring some small, very simple type of creative output from yourself. Daily is good. A daily sketch, a daily paragraph, a daily poem. Anything. Dip your toes back in the creative waters. You are a creator. You’ve just gotten out of practice.

Recognize the painful truth that there will always be more options, more good stuff, more possibilities, more books and movies and music and shows and plays and conversations and paintings and illustrations and genres than you can consume in a lifetime. Rejoice that there is so much richness in this world for you.

Set time limits for yourself. Dedicate some amount of time to consuming and curating, because it is good and you love it and do it well. Good for you! Choose the best of the best, and when you reach your time limit, honor it.

You might need some accountability and support. Self-imposed limits are difficult.

Require creativity before curation when you arrange your day.

Realize that you may never feel qualified to do the work you want to do. Feeling qualified is an elusive thing to chase. You can’t control how you feel. You can control what you do. You qualify yourself to do something by… doing it. That’s it. Your feelings may or may not match.

Curation is lovely and important, and all creators need thoughtful curators; but the world also needs your distinct and important creative output. We are incomplete without what you have to offer. Please make your offerings, however incomplete, imperfect, small, or below the personal standard you have. You will improve with each offer.

4. Creative constipation

What happens

You’ve taking in good outputs; perhaps you’re doing a bit of curating. What you’re not doing is any creative work. You turned your filters into obstacles. There’s no flowing out; there’s a big block, and no matter how much you take in, it’s not enough. You’re stuck in the consumer role, and you may feel completely disconnected from your own creative powers.

Key factors

Identity: you’ve disconnected from your own role as a creator. Perhaps you don’t see yourself as creative. Perhaps you had a bad experience, negative feedback, or some other kind of creative shut-down. Whatever the reason, you’re living in one half of your creative conduit and it’s creating a big block at the other end.

How it feels

How to fix it

Unblocking can be painful and scary. Accept that you may have to go through some discomfort and feel very vulnerable to get past this block.

Realize that you are the only one who can give or withhold permission to create. You are your only authority. You are the only judge of your work. 

Expand your definition of creativity: if you don’t identify as creative, it’s probably because you have a narrow definition of it.

If you’ve created this block in response to negative feedback, criticism, or some other pushback to creative work you did, it’s time to do some research. Read about people who have succeeded in a way you want to succeed. Find out what they did. What rejection did they face? What obstacles? What criticism?

Try something new; anything new. The need you have right now is to distance yourself from doing only what you’re comfortable with.

Convert part of your consuming activities to creating activity. For example, if you consume comics, spend time creating a comic yourself. You don’t have to show it to anyone.

Focus on creating, not shipping. If you fear creative work, it may be that you don’t trust yourself to create something good enough. So, for a while, take the “releasing” option off the table. Focus on creating just for yourself. Play. Practice. Relax into being creative with no pressure to do anything else.

5. Perfectionism

What happens

You’re in a tragic place, but you don’t have to stay here. It’s great to have high standards for the work you do, but you’re stuck in something else. You set a standard, reach it, and then push the standard higher. You’re creating, but you’re afraid to release your work. You won’t ship. Your creative conduit is blocked, and all the beautiful offerings you’ve made are locked in behind a thick wall of fear.

Key factors

Quality: it’s all about quality, at first glance. You don’t want to do good work; you want to do excellent work. You’re not okay with mistakes. You want to meet high standards in everything you do. But there’s more going on than attention to quality.

Identity: you’ve identified yourself so completely and fully as a creator that you’re now terrified to “prove it” to the world. You think that being a creator means doing perfect work, all the time, being better than others. And you’re terrified you can’t live up to this definition of creator; indeed, who could? But if you can’t live up to it, who and what are you?

How it feels

How to fix it

You feel trapped, because you are: in a prison of your own making. You built it around yourself, shut the door and locked it. Now you keep (purposely) forgetting you have the key. It’s time to wake up to what’s really happening: you are the only one who can free yourself.

Realize that the solution is simple and possible and the fact that you don’t want to face it is because you’re afraid. This is a big realization. Take your time.

Ship something. Pick a random thing in your “not quite ready” pile (it’s a big pile, isn’t it?) and send it into the world.

Require yourself to ship something daily. A small thing is fine. You can call them incomplete, if that helps. Label or justify or explain however you want as long as you ship.

Create a checklist for finishing things, a clear, step-by-step process for doing that last bit of work. Use your checklist and then call the work finished.

Realize that “finished” does not always mean “complete,” and “complete” never means “perfect.” Creative work can always expand, improve, connect; you have to pick a point of completion and send it to the world. Otherwise you never get to your other work.

Ask yourself what you are afraid of: what’s the big bad thing that will happen if you send something into the world and it turns out to be awful? What’s the real consequence you fear? And how bad is it? Could you handle it? Probably.

Spend some time on relationships and activities that aren’t related to your creative work. You need to expand your own sense of self, so you can relax your hold on your creative identity.


October 24, 2018