The Rust in the Lock
Creative blocks come in a variety of forms. Writer’s block is the best known, but anyone who has tried to create anything seriously for any period of time has become stuck. In one way or another, a creative block appears as a dispiriting gap between vision and action – a numb lethargy or an anxious distractibility that snuffs out our best intentions.
Do any of these sound familiar? I can’t think of anything original. Real artists do this so easily; I struggle. I’m in the mood, but I can’t find the time. I have free time, but I’m not in the mood. I’m too old/ too young to be taken seriously. It’s all been done before; what’s the use? These are just a few of the forms our frustrations take. Countless pages and hours of therapy have been devoted to getting to bottom of these blocks. From my own experience and from my work coaching others, I believe that most creative blocks share a common theme – unrecognized expectation.
Our expectations of how things should be set us up for frustration in every aspect of our lives, from relationships to family vacations, from business deals to sex. So often do expectations lead to disappointment and inaction, that I’ve taken to preaching chapter and verse an observation once made by my best friend: Expectation is the rust in the lock.
Here are some examples of the ways expectations can stall our work.
• You expected your project to move faster than it is. Now you doubt yourself, and your energies wane whenever you
approach the work.
• You assumed that Jill was going to be the main character of your novel, but Sue is more active and has so much to say.
Your plot is falling apart right before your very eyes, and you haven't got the energy to slog ahead.
• Someone with no apparent talent has just had the kind of success you hope for. You feel discouraged that the game is
rigged and your efforts will come to nothing.
But here’s the heart of the problem: you don’t recognize these expectations for what they are. All you know is that your heart and mind have deserted your creation in mid-stream. You feel distracted or tired whenever you think about working on it. To get beyond blocking expectations, I recommend a three-step process.
First, notice when you feel blocked. Let the dull emptiness or restless anxiety alert you that it’s time to take corrective action. If you do nothing but get to the heart of the block, this will be a day well spent.
Second, ask yourself what expectation or assumption is causing you to block. You’ll need to give some time to this question and perhaps do some journaling or ask a friend or coach to listen while you look for the root of the block.
Third, release and embrace. Once you’ve identified the expectation that’s making the problem, let go of it and embrace your new understanding of the situation.
Looking back to the examples above:
• So, the project is more work than you imagined. It’s still a worthy project, isn’t it? Can you recommit to a
more realistic timeline?
• What’s wrong with Sue as the main character? Your imagination has more fun with her, anyhow. Jill was
only the starting point for an idea that has grown into something more interesting. Your story can
have a second chance.
• No, talent does not equal success. But that fact doesn’t devalue your vision, does it? Now that you see envy
for what it is, can you let it go and fall in love with your own work again?
The point of this article is to illuminate one aspect of creative blocks. While many blocks share this theme of unrecognized expectation, other factors can cause problems too. A coach will listen objectively while you wrestle with the things that are blocking your powers. Through questions and observations, he or she will help you refresh your view of your project and your creative life. When the cause of the block is named for what it is, the reward can be a refreshing wave of relief and a burst of new creative energy.
aritcles to fan creative fires
In my teens I worked for building contractors during summer vacations. One job remains strong in my memory… the Moscarella building.
I was assigned to Mario, the Italian mason, and Billy, his journeyman. As they built the brick exterior higher and higher, they worked on ever-taller scaffolding, and I stayed below, seeking relief in shade and teenage daydreams. My job was to produce a continuous supply of mortar – mud as masons call it – the smooth cement that holds bricks together.
More mud! boomed the basso profundo from above, and I hurried to fill a pail with newly made mortar and send it up the rope pulley that connected me to Billy. Soon would come the demand More brick!, and those too had to be sent up by pulley. A brick is only two inches wide, so the large wall crept upward slowly, two inches per row, hour by hour in the July sun. The masons labored above, and the kid below had to jump quick whenever the demand More mud! thundered from on high.
Fifty years later, the Moscarella building still stands. Occasionally my errands take me by, and I regard it now with pride. It’s the largest construction project I ever worked on, and it represents this lesson to me: lasting creations are made by doing all the necessary small jobs, one by one. Brick-by-brick, so to speak.
But the heart of the lesson is not the bricks. It’s the mud. When we create, the bricks are obvious and heaped before us – tubes of paint, 3x5 cards, scraps of fabric, scraps of verse. What is equally essential is the stuff that puts these bricks together one by one. Call it vision or persistence or effort – we can’t create without it.
We face many challenges as we strive to fulfill our creative lives, challenges that keep us from standing at our easel or picking up our pen or going to the studio. They are not as obvious as the sun beating down on a teenage boy; they are the many small and interlocking things of daily life. And some days it’s impossible to feel creative. But we also know that we want to stand back proudly one day and see our imaginations fully realized.
At those times, we have to be our own master craftsman, calling us back to the job. We have to hear a voice booming from within… More mud!
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A few weeks ago I met my neighbor at mailbox, and we fell into a long-overdue conversation. He is a retired architect and a lifelong painter. I asked him how his painting was going.
“I have a new approach,” he said. “I call it Smoosh!" “OK,” I chuckled. “Let’s hear it.” “No more measuring and filling in the lines and worrying if the color is perfectly mixed. I’m through with that. Now I just take my brush and put it on the canvas, smoosh! The body knows the right thing to do. I trust it. And what I paint is more interesting than when I did all of that planning and worrying.”
His comments have stayed with me. Could I ever hope to be so free in my writing? Could I just smoosh words onto the page, trusting that my body knows better than my mind what direction to take?
Let me drag you into this question, Gentle Reader – could you follow my neighbor’s example? Could you let your body discover new choreography, new color combinations, new metaphors, without letting your judgmental mind get in the way?
If we can, then our creative acts will become exciting adventures in curiosity. If we can, we will return to some of the spontaneity of childhood when we first became delighted by the possibilities of color, words, music, acting, dancing, and molding clay. And curiosity is key. I truly believe it is the natural antidote – the universal solvent – of creative blocks.
Will you join me in an experiment? Let’s agree to set aside one work session to begin with a smoosh – a spontaneous dab, sentence, gesture, image – whatever suits our work. Then, in a mood of innocent, child-like curiosity, let’s follow our smoosh without judgment or control.
I promise to do it. Will you? I hope so. And if you do, drop me a line to tell me how your smooshing experiment went. Write to me at email@example.com
And I’ll tell my painter friend the next time we meet at the mailbox.
Golfing for Art
The next time you’re not in the mood to create, go watch the Golf Channel instead.
I’m kidding… but only a little. Golf is a different kind of sport. In most sports, the players charge into the arena, the action comes whizzing at them (opponents, pucks, balls), and they react, react, react until the game is over. But in golf, nothing happens... nothing EVER happens... (yawn)… until the golfer swings. But the swing is an extremely complex motion that can easily go astray. So, how do good golfers begin? How do they find the calm center within themselves?
Like a good golf swing, our art projects won’t ever happen... nothing will EVER happen... until we begin. Our canvas, blank page, lump of clay will sit unchanged until we do something. But like most athletes, the stuff of life whizzes at us all day long, so we react, react, react and never find ourselves in a creative frame of mind. So, how do we calm down to play the quiet game of art? We creatives can learn a lot from golfers.
Golfers use a ritual. They perform the same idiosyncratic motions before every shot. Turn on the TV and watch them. If they’re interrupted by something like a sudden noise, they go back to the start of their ritual and do all those idiosyncratic motions all over again in exactly the same way. Why? Because their ritual is a trusted way to bring their minds and muscles to the point at which their best swing begins. We creatives would do well to find our own ritual to help us make the shift from our reactive mind to the quiet mind we need to create.
My own ritual is simple; I play a special piece of music, and miraculously I feel something release inside. Some artists use a breathing technique. Some light a candle to summon the muse. Some brew tea. A fiber artist I work with sits quietly and handles her fabrics until the path to inspiration opens for her. A writer I work with has a special chair to curl up in.
Your ritual should be a simple action that you can perform almost mechanically no matter what your mood. Your ritual should be reliable – something that releases you to create every time you do it. You’ll find your ritual through experience and experiment. I tried lots of different methods and took lots of advice from other people before I noticed what truly work for me in my own way. Let your inner sense teach you what works best for you. And your ritual must be authentic – idiosyncratic – yours alone – almost secret – almost holy.
OK, that’s enough T.V. Get back to work.