(One Artist’s Idea About Why Creative Block Happens)

Like other professionals, working artists are subject to deadlines.  We have timelines for show entries, ad-copy submissions, delivery of product, (blog posts, ahem…) and so forth.

But deadlines (you know… those hard number, time-related atrocities?) and “flow” (you know… that anomalous, free-flowing, un-pin-downable phenomenon that is at the absolute heart of all good creativity?) are not necessarily good bedfellows.

Creativity is a funny thing.  When it’s flowing, look out—it’ll blow everything else out of the water in terms of taking up my time and attention. But when it isn’t flowing, it’s really, really obvious.  Here’s what creative block under a looming deadline looks like at Casa de Hurst:

  • no energy
  • irritability (sorry, babe)
  • watching too much television
  • pacing while staring at a blank canvas
  • spending absurd amounts of time on inane household projects
  • did I mention irritability?

While I don’t by any means claim to have all of the answers, one recent bout of creative block gave me a clue as to the cause of at least some of my artistic slogginess… and it was pretty funny when I realized what it was—because it’s something I actually take a little bit of pride in:  my competitiveness.

Ugh.

I had a show deadline approaching not that long ago—a show about which I felt fairly intimidated. I had committed to submitting at least two paintings, and I had a couple of weeks to get them both done. Ordinarily, this schedule isn’t a problem. But when you add in the fact that I was going to be competing against people painting similar subject matter… and I’m still a relatively new fine artist… and I felt like I was going to get the pants painted off of me by these better painters by comparison… BOOM.  Down came the creative block.

ME:  Excuse me, please—but I have a deadline.

MY CREATIVE BLOCK (CB):  I’m sorry, what?

ME:  A deadline.  A deadline!!!  It’s slipping away!  There is so much work to do! 

CB:  Did you say something?

ME (panic rising):  I’m not kidding!!  There’s a HARD DEADLINE!  I made a commitment!!!

CB:  Too bad you’re not a better/faster/more proficient painter, huh?

Ugh.  Again.

Suffice it say that I did, JUST BARELY, manage to complete my paintings and send them into the show.  But it wasn’t at all a joyful, flow-filled process.  The whole thing was buried under a fear of being not good enough—but feeling like I had to produce anyway.  Ever have that feeling?  No?  Just me?

Gee, I can’t imagine why I wasn’t doing my best work…

I know for a fact that this is what happened, because the second the paintings were on the back of the FedEx truck I felt a HUGE WAVE of creativity:  total, unblocked flow—in spite of the fact that I was at that very minute under another deadline for an ad submission.  

Why did the flow return? Because I was back to doing exactly what I loved:  designing and creating whatever the hell I felt like without a fear of having to compete (from an unfavorable position) against other painters.  I went into my studio and created a painting that felt like a holiday at sea in comparison to those two other paintings.

The moral of this story, of course, is that absolutely nothing was different about the two deadlines save for the fact that under the first one I was laboring under the concept of competition (A concept that I myself created, adopted, and implemented as my own special torture device). 

We don’t live in a shiny, happy world where everyone gets a medal for participating.  Nope—art shows are about sales.  It’s valid to feel as though one should be able to compete, to produce a product worthy of entry.  But the catch-22 for me is that if I feel that I have to perform up to some perceived standard beyond my own actual ability, I usually actually perform way below my own actual ability (and suffer while doing it).  It’s only when I’m rooted in the knowledge that whatever I produce is the best I can in the moment, and I understand that there will always be someone better, that I can relax, get into that flow, and produce a far superior (and certainly more enjoyable to paint) painting.

Let’s see if I can remember that next time!