Feeling stuck as an artist? Here are 11 Proven Methods for Getting Unstuck

Ever just feel stuck?

Like someone slapped a wheel-lock on your motivation?

Sure, we are all productive when the muse is flowing and everything clicks, but sometimes it just doesn't.

All of us find ourselves from time to time in a place where nothing flows. Where what was once a joy becomes something tedious.

When art is your business, you don’t get the luxury of staying stuck. You can’t stop producing. It is professional suicide.

Here are 11 proven methods for getting "unstuck":

1. Beat down the fear with the belief that we need you.

People designed to create have to fight a daily war on fear. It is the reason so many artists love Steven Pressfield's book: The War of Art. Pressfield writes...

Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

 Do it or don’t do it.

 It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet. You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution.

Give us what you’ve got.

The battle against fear is worth it because our desire to create isn’t just a hobby, it is a calling. And there is purpose to that calling.

Will people reject your work? Of course. Because it is always easier to criticize than to look at a blank sheet of paper and pour yourself onto it. Critique without contribution should be measured as it is: a bid for power by those who refuse to create. Don’t fear the critique. Assess where it is coming from.

More importantly, you have a gift to offer that is uniquely you. If you don’t create, something important goes missing. And that is something we should all fear.

2. Free yourself with the permission to create "bad" art. 

Sometimes part of our stuckness is a perfection-induced paralysis. I love what Christine Paintner writes in her book The Artist’s Rule

Our focus here is on the process rather than the product and on allowing the expression to come through as fully and authentically as possible. When judgments arise in the process, simply notice them with curiosity and compassion and contemplate where else in your life these voices arise. Allow the art-making process to become a container for your internal awareness, much like meditation practice.... Give yourself permission to make mistakes, to make “bad art” or to write something that doesn’t sound even close to perfect. This is the way we begin to cultivate inner freedom, by allowing ourselves a full range of expression as a journey of discovery.

This idea of a “journey of discovery” rather than a quest to create perfection is liberating. You are creative. You have a desire in your soul to create, or you wouldn’t be here on this site reading this post. Failure is integral to producing anything real. And if you don’t give yourself permission to fail, you will find you do not create anything at all.

Give yourself permission to create “bad art.”

3. Smash the cement block of the starving artist by writing down what you want.

It is hard to be creative when our basic needs aren't met. Artists have a tendency to romance poverty as if it is some trial by fire that makes us better. Samax Amen wrote a powerful post about 3 Steps to Killing the Starving Artist. The post's illustration is what took the post viral.

Many artists struggle because there is so much of "them" in their art. It can be a painful process to put work in the marketplace and have it treated it like a product rather than a piece of yourself.

Napoleon Hill writes in his book, Think and Grow Rich, "The majority of men meet with failure because of their lack of persistence in creating new plans to take the place of those which fail."  He also writes, "Reduce your plan to writing. The moment you complete this, you will have definitely given concrete form to the intangible desire."

Writing down what you ultimately want as a "concrete desire"—no matter how hard it seems to get there—rallies your imagination and influences the hundreds of decisions you make each day.  Hill encourages us to create a definite plan for carrying out our desire and most importantly to begin at once, whether we are ready or not, to put this plan into action. By writing down the desire and figuring out our next step, we can often break through inertia.

4. Feed your creative soul by engaging with people and ideas which are different than you.

One of the challenges of being “production-centric” is that it is easy to become creatively dry. Sometimes we know when we are low on internal provisions, but other times it sneaks up. We’ve poured out all of our emotion and life experiences into our craft, then find ourselves recycling the same stuff over and over. (This isn’t only true of artists. It happens in business, academia, art…) Without fuel, the creative spark dims.

There is a great quote by Theodore Zeldin…“Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts; They transform them, reshape them, draw different conclusions from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards, it creates new cards.”

We all need new cards from time to time, and they aren’t actually that difficult to generate. But it takes a willingness to break our comfortable routine. We have to read authors we’ve never read, engage people with different life experience, have different life experiences ourselves. That exposure creates richer, deeper, more interesting human beings and gives us a deeper well to draw from.

If you feel stuck, try something new. Let yourself become curious. Who knows where that could lead?

5. Soar above overwhelm. Focus on short assignments.

Anne Lamott has a great book on getting unstuck: Bird by Bird. The book is aimed at writers, but applies to any creative….painters, sculptors, musicians, playwrights, graphic designers. One of the pieces of advice she gives is to focus on short assignments.

This from Lamott…

The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments. Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of–oh, say–say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop.

First I try to breathe, because I’m either sitting there panting like a lapdog or I’m unintentionally making slow asthmatic death rattles. So I just sit there for a minute, breathing slowly, quietly. I let my mind wander. After a moment I may notice that I’m trying to decide whether or not I am too old for orthodontia and whether right now would be a good time to make a few calls, and then I start to think about learning to use makeup and how maybe I could find some boyfriend who is not a total and complete fixer-upper and then my life would be totally great and I’d be happy all the time, and then I think about all the people I should have called back before I sat down to work, and how I should probably at least check in with my agent and tell him this great idea I have and see if he thinks it’s a good idea, and see if he thinks I need orthodontia–if that is what he is actually thinking whenever we have lunch together. Then I think about someone I’m really annoyed with, or some financial problem that is driving me crazy, and decide that I must resolve this before I get down to today’s work.

So I become a dog with a chew toy, worrying it for a while, wrestling it to the ground, flinging it over my shoulder, chasing it, licking it, chewing it, flinging it back over my shoulder. I stop just short of actually barking. But all of this only takes somewhere between one and two minutes, so I haven’t actually wasted that much time. Still, it leaves me winded. I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

What if part of your stuckness is that you've plotted the path too far ahead? Focus on short assignments.

6. Did you divorce your muse? If so, buy some flowers and win her back.

Ever wonder why some amazing singer-songwriters stop producing once they make it to the top?

I’m curious if sometimes it is because they divorced their muse. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and as much individualism as there is to our art, none of us become great on our own.

What if in our quest for reinvention we sometimes distance ourselves from the very people, background, or circumstance that drives the creator in us? What if the loss of that connection costs us? This isn’t about embracing unhealthy things that tear us down; it is about being conscious that we are not a solo act. There are people around us who make us better. Those who focus us, inspire us….make us who we are.

So gut check: have you created distance between yourself and your muse?

Maybe it is time for a reconciliation.

7. Be provocative. Lust after what is good for you.

We become defenseless when we ignore the things our bodies need.  Exercise, eating right and sleeping aren't just valuable to our physical health.  They have dramatic impact on our artistic health, too.

Artists are especially vulnerable to the depletion that comes from ignoring the daily things that are good for us. We resent routine, and all that it implies. That streak of resisting the ordinary and ignoring the “should” is part of what makes artists great. It allows them to say things that others leave unsaid, and engage the soul at levels others can’t touch.

Yet, when it comes to the most important asset…our physical being…we need to get better at the “should.” Self-destructive patterns ultimately destroy the art. And we know the patterns that take us down. They are personal to us. It can be as simple as running on a diet of coffee and nicotine or as complex as engaging in harmful relationships.

Quite frankly, it is easier to ignore the patterns and pretend like we don’t have control. That it is happening to us rather than a situation we are creating.

The truth is: we control what we put in our mouths, if we carve out time to rest, if we find a physical activity we love. It is up to us to get help with our addictions, to choose healthy friendships and to embrace the small things that create joy.

There is a romance to Van Gogh cutting off his ear and there is no doubt that the Kurt Cobain’s of the world produced powerful music. But for every great artist with a tragic story, there are a thousand the world never hears of because they self-destruct before they have the opportunity to truly become great.

Engage the strength of will that creates your art as a positive force for your well-being. Find out where that takes you. You may unlock things you didn’t think possible.

8. Take a defiant step. Show up for yourself.

It’s embarrassing really. Sometimes our “stuckness” is our own fault. For as much as we talk about our dreams and aspirations, if we were really, truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that most of the time we don’t even show up. We get trapped in our heads with all of the the reasons we can’t do what we really want to do, so we fail to create.

A great book on this is Jon Acuff’s, Quitter, and a reviewer on Amazon captured it beautifully:

I feel like a jerk telling you to read this book. I loved reading it but hated the implications. Jon Acuff cuts right through all the crappy excuses that we put between us and our dreams. This book haunts me a month after I finished it. I can’t fritter away time on the internet anymore with a clear conscience. I wake up earlier so I can take time to write and focus my thoughts for the day. I find myself trying harder and doing more work at work. It sucks. I miss my life as a slacker...I might try to kick him in the shins for suggesting that a work ethic in your current job will help you prepare for your future dream job.

If you’re taking time to read this review, you obviously have time to read something more substantial like a book. Go ahead and buy Quitter. Read it yourself. Give it to your whiny friends who can’t figure out why they’re not living their dreams...You could also do what I did and give this book away with a break up note to your boyfriend, gently implying the relationship is doomed because he won’t put away the X Box and become a grownup.

If you find there is a gap between your day job and your dream job…or if you find you aren’t creating because you are failing to show up, this book is a healthy dose of laughing at ourselves and a great interjection of advice to move forward.

9. Unlock the deadbolt with a pencil. Write morning pages.

One of the most interesting ways to get unstuck is Julia Cameron’s idea of “The Morning Pages.” In her book, The Artists Way Cameron writes: In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it. I ask you to do this by an apparently pointless process I call the morning pages…the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness: “Oh, god, another morning. I have NOTHING to say. I need to wash the curtains. Did I get my laundry yesterday? Blah, blah, blah…” They might also, more ingloriously be called brain drain, since this is one of their main functions.

Cameron asserts that there is no wrong way to do the morning pages. They are not intended to be art. Or even writing. It's a simple process of writing–longhand–whatever comes to mind. Cameron says “although occasionally colorful, the morning pages are often negative, frequently fragmented, often self-pitying, repetitive, stilted or babyish, angry or gland–even silly sounding. Good!”

The idea is to bleed out the things that stand between you and your creativity. We all have what they term in yoga and meditation practices as “monkey mind.” The morning pages give all of that a place to flow to. They provide a mechanism to rid yourself of the chatter.

Cameron adds, The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right…

If you find yourself right now in a place where you are creatively stuck, commit to a three week practice of morning pages. Every day. No matter what time you get up. Without exception. Many artists before you have found that it makes a startling difference.

10. Defy your own rules.  Shake it up on a small scale.  (Or, if you are feeling brave, a big one.) 

We aren’t meant to be stuck. Sedentary is unhealthy. Movement creates life.

One way to break a block is to create change in a completely different area than the one you are stuck in.  In fact, we can make a small series of unrelated changes as a strategy to create flow and break through what is stagnant.

Could you...clean out a closet and donate old stuff? Change where you sit? Paint a wall in your office? Let the small balls hit the ground that are someone else's responsibility that you resent covering? Take someone at work a latte?

Find what you can do different and change it just to change it. Experiment. You may be surprised at how movement in one area can spark motion in the area you most care about.

11. Tell the critics to [insert expletive] off.

Criticism is an odd thing. If we didn't have it, nothing would ever get better—even creative endeavors. However, it does have the power to shut down creative flow.

Another great piece of advice from Anne Lamot is to stop writing as if your mom were looking over your shoulder. The point of art is that it needs to be authentic—and you can't do that if you listen to voices that might be judging you.

One of the challenges with criticism is that most of the time, it comes in a form that there is nothing you can do with it. The statement "that isn't very good" isn't actionable. More sophisticated versions are "you over-designed it" or "that looks dated."

Many people who can't create, criticize. (My personal theory is that they've listened to their own internal critics for so long that their natural creative flow has stopped, so criticism is the only way they can participate.)

We have a saying in my office, "No critique without contribution." If you can't put a live, viable alternative on the table, don't whittle away what's there. Because at the end of the day, a Grade B idea with Grade A execution is worth far more than the other way around. (To quote Stephen Covey.)

If you suspect that criticism is what stopped the flow, identify it and throw it out. (This may require extracting yourself from certain relationships on a permanent basis.)

And, if you feel you are not creative whatsoever...ask yourself, do you have an internal critic that stops you? Because, my friend, deep down, we were all designed to be creative. Maybe not painters or writers, but something. Find the place where you feel the flow and stop being stuck.

Take a chance. Test drive a solution. 

Any action is better than no action—and it doesn't have to be big.  Scan back through the strategies above and test drive the one that sticks out to you.  You don't have to do it perfectly.  Just take that small step.

Your art is waiting for you to re-engage.

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Maira Gall