Why do we create? Because it makes us feel good. It relaxes us, or helps us focus, or lets us escape. It gives us a sense of purpose and helps us to create meaning. And if we choose to share what we create, it can help others get to similar positive states.
Unfortunately, the creative process doesn't always feel good. Sometimes it can feel downright awful.
You know those times when you feel like you're banging your head against a wall. You pick up a project and feel instantly bored, or you hate the sight of it. Sometimes it brings up negative memories or emphasizes what you don't like about yourself. And sometimes it just feels so hard that you want to cry.
At times like these, I wonder why I bother with creativity at all. It's supposed to be something I love, something that makes me feel happy, and here it is making me miserable.
Is it still worth it? What can we do when creating is painful rather than enjoyable? From my experience, the trick is to get out of the zone of pain as fast as possible and get back to feeling good. That way I can see more clearly and make better decisions. Whether that means doing something creative or not, I try to find something that lets me relax and take a breath.
Here are 6 ways you might find your way out of the dark spots:
1. Push through it.
Most of the time, when I sit down to write these blog posts, I wish I was doing anything else. I suddenly feel a burning desire to catch up on other people's blogs, play my Lumosity Games, scroll Facebook or Instagram, and on really bad days, play Candy Crush. It seems like a monumental mountain to cross. I know from experience, however, that once I start writing, words will come and I might even find that I have something useful to say. Today it took me most of the day to get to this point, but here I am typing and making sentences, and actually enjoying it. And the more I write, the more I feel encouraged to keep writing. This is something it might take some practice to train yourself to do.
In every project there will be that part that feels sticky and hard, and you might wonder if it's worth the effort. Trust me when I say that when you push through that tightness, it lets you get to the sweet spot where things start to flow. If starting is the hardest part, check out this post for some ideas.
2. Try something else.
"I think it's good to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them. When you get sick of one project, move over to another, and when you're sick of that one, move back to the project you left. Practice productive procrastination." Austin Kleon
I love this advice. If your writing is making you crazy, go do something with your hands. If you can't get your yarn, or paint, or clay to do what you want, do a sketch, mess around on the guitar, or dance in the living room. Sometimes staying in the creative space but just shifting the energy can help you find joy again. Once you're smiling and relaxed, go back and see if the problems with the first project have loosened.
3. Look for a small win.
I've learned that accomplishing something, no matter how small, will give me confidence to try something else. On days when the struggle feels too strong, I resist the urge to just give up and sit in front of the TV (or at least, I try to resist it). Instead I look for something else that might make me feel a sense of accomplishment - eliminating the pile of dishes, making the phone call I've been avoiding, or getting my daily exercise. When this blog post was giving me trouble I went and looked for other ways that I could give myself a sense of forward momentum. Once I got a few things done I felt my energy bubbling back up, the frustration faded, and I was ready to try again. What can you to do give yourself a small win?
4. Figure out why.
"There are days when I am trapped in what Virginia Woolf called cotton wool: dazed, unfocused states in which the hours collapse, one flattening into the next. Days in which I am not entirely alive. Our minds have a tendency to wander. To duck and feint and keep us at a slight remove from the moment at hand. If we’re writers or artists, we can’t afford to live that way. We have to recognize our cotton wool, and cut through it." Dani Shapiro
If you find yourself constantly encountering the same bad feelings when you attempt something creative, you might want to sit down and try to figure out what's really bothering you. Are you afraid that you'll fail? Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? Get out a pen and paper and write down the question, "What is bothering me?" Then write down anything that comes up.
When there's really strong fear or pain around something, avoiding it won't solve the problem. Figure out if it's the project that's causing the pain, or something else that's going on in your life. If it's something else, go work on that before attempting the project again. The image of a tortured artist may be popular in our culture, but I think most of us would rather feel good while we work.
5. Channel the pain.
Sometimes if you're feeling heavy emotions creativity can help you work through them. I've written some of my best poetry when dealing with extreme social anxiety. I've used writing, painting, and collage to help me make sense of what I'm feeling (the collage above came after a particularly stressful period). Using your pain to make art means that you're not avoiding it, or running away. You're experiencing it fully, and this can often help you to move through it.
"Faulkner said that it is “the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing.” The illuminating of that conflict--one that resides inside every heart still beating--is itself a thing of beauty because it allows the reader to experience empathy, oneness, identification. It allows that greatest consolation of literature, which is to pierce our separateness, to show us that, in this business of being human, we are not alone." Dani Shapiro
6. Walk away.
This might mean setting something aside for an afternoon, or putting it away for good - though you don't need to make that decision right now. You just need to be aware of when something is causing you too much pain and not bringing enough pleasure.
If you've done the above 5 steps and are still feeling miserable then it's time to step away. At this point you'll probably be feeling quite desperate and frustrated so, please, do something really nice for yourself. Have a good long nap, buy yourself flowers, call a good friend, or indulge in your favourite TV show or book. Have compassion for what you're feeling, gently let go of any negative thoughts, and tread softly. Don't take any drastic actions - you might regret them later when you're feeling more balanced. Make taking care of yourself your first priority and save any problem solving for a sunnier day.