Untangling creative knots when shit is going down.


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This has been a really difficult post to write. Since my last one so much has changed and turned upside down that blog writing and doll making seems like such a small and lightweight contribution to make to the world. I never set out to make a massive contribution to the world but it’s hard to not want to when so much seems to be falling apart and changing and crumbling. That’s a bit heavy isn’t it!? It wasn’t mean to be. What I’m trying to say is that I, and just about everyone I know is struggling with fear, anxiety, sadness and frustration at what we are all witnessing around us.

I paint and sculpt to get a grip on reality… to protect myself

– Alberto Giacometti

This quote sums up what I want to feel about creativity at a time like this. Notice how Giacometti’s not saying that his artwork “insulates” him from reality. It doesn’t block it out or wrap him up in a comfortable bubble where the world is fluffy and cosy – it helps him get a grip on reality while protecting himself, which is exactly what makes us useful people when shit is going down.

There’s a reason why art can be such a powerful tool in dealing with even the deepest trauma. Creating can be a small but important act of self preservation which instead of being about insulating yourself from the outside, is about warming yourself from the inside.

Many times when I’ve been going through difficult times, people have advised me to go make art and “use” what I’m feeling and to “express” my difficult emotions and whatever in my work. The issue with that is that when I feel scared or anxious or just plain bad – I can’t work. I can’t do anything and then I get frustrated and then the work gets worse and then on top of having a shitty time in life, my work looks awful, my sense of myself and my creativity goes downhill and then I feel worse. Which makes it harder to work. Which makes me feel worse again.

I decided to take January “off” and focus on completely new work and ideas that may or may not work out. I thought I could set aside time to indulge in work that was stuck in deeper places that hadn’t yet had a chance to come out and show it’s face. I made sure I had enough money saved to work on new things without worrying about selling them, and materials ready and deadlines cleared. The thought of a free flowing, creative January carried me through a lot of hard work at the end of last year.

That was the plan. A whole month. No worries. Just unbridled creativity. How many people get that sort of time and opportunity? How lucky am I?!

It’s now February.

I’m just, in the last few weeks starting to get going because I’ve had what is commonly referred to as “creative block”.

I tend to visualise things in terms of yarn and fabrics and textile structures. I see creative block as more of a knot. A tangle in a ball of yarn. Pulling tighter will make the knots harder to unravel. I find that creative block is like insomnia. Sleep is natural, normal, essential and healthy for all of us. Insomnia is a bitch. Insomnia gets worse the more you try to fight it, insomnia becomes debilitating the more you try to remedy it because what you really need to be able to sleep is a quiet, calm mind that can accept sleep. Sleep is not something you should naturally have to fight for. It makes no sense to have to fight for a natural response to darkness, to tiredness and the need to rest.

A lot of people see creativity as something that needs to be strived for. I tend to see creativity as something that’s natural for just about everyone in one way or another.  While skill is something that needs damn hard work and patience and drive and dedication and practice, and quality and aesthetic judgement are things that take experience and self awareness to develop;  I see creativity as a naturally occurring flow.

That’s not what it feels like when you’re feeling like shit though.  When you need it most it seems backed up and congested with too much pressure behind it and too many obstacles in front of it.

Picture a creative block. It’s a wall. It’s a barrier. It’s something solid and immovable and in order to deal with it you need to break it, hack your way through it or burrow under it. In one way or another that wall or blockage needs to be attacked or broken. These are pretty aggressive ways of dealing with the situation. They sap energy. They get you on the defensive, preparing yourself for a struggle. Also, the next time you come up against one, (and you will!) you’ll be bracing and tensing yourself for another battle.

If instead, you try thinking of it as a knot in a natural flow, things change. The way to deal with the issue is to loosen up, to tease it out.

Here are some of the things that help me smooth out the tangles and find my natural creative flow.

One hourp1090359

Last year I decided to start my day with work that didn’t matter. A small piece of something that would take no more than one hour of my time and that would only exist for itself. No thoughts of where it would go, or how it would progress or of posting it on Facebook or Instagram. And it could be anything, but it had to take no more than one hour of my time.

When we are trying to create something new it’s all too easy to heap impossible importance onto our task. We think it must be fucking ground breaking!!! It must change the world, make up for any previous screw ups and/or disappointments, and ensure your future creative and possibly material happiness for ever. You need to do this, and you need to do this today, maybe in the next few hours because time is running out, there is stuff to do and you’re getting old. And you’ve wasted loads of time already. So take all this grinding weight, all of this necessity and pressure and strain, heave it up on to your shoulders and go make something that looks, you know, effortless and awesome. If you can’t do it you’re a failure and you’re wasting your talent and dare I say it, life.

No, you’re not that important, you’re tiny, one tiny voice, which makes you precious. Your voice is yours no one else’s. Use it to say whatever’s true at that moment.  When you focus on just one small act of creativity with only a short amount of time to complete it, it takes the pressure right off and you can make whatever comes to you in that moment without any fear or anxiety about how important it will be in the grand scheme of things.  The benefit is that it eases you into a creative frame of mind where you can then take on big important projects without the strain and stress.  img_3247

I collaged. I took scraps of paper and fabric and thread and made little compositions that were about the same size as a notebook page. When they started to get boring to work on, I moved on to layering coloured tissue paper in my sketchbook. Sometimes I stitch into scraps of fabric instead. p1090346

 

I don’t do this every day, because there isn’t always time, and sometimes I don’t feel the need to, but when I feel blocked or frustrated with what I’m working on I go back to this one hour exercise to loosen myself up.

I often feel creatively knotted when I have pressure to meet a deadline or produce something for someone and it’s at these times in particular where this one hour exercise works really well for me. The hour spent on a piece of work that means nothing makes the “important” work flow so much more easily that it actually saves time in the long run. It’s a big risk to take the first couple of times, but it works for me.

Meditation

I try to meditate for about ten or fifteen minutes every morning. I say try…. sometimes I end up kind of doing it on the train on the way to the studio or while I walk my dog.

I’ve been meditating for most of my life and studied various ways of approaching it. There’s a lot of mysticism and religious weight sometimes attached to meditation which can put people off and add all sorts of unnecessary attachment to the process.

Here’s how I do it.

  • Find somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, your back straight and breathe. Pay attention to any tension in your face, neck and shoulders. Keep breathing and try to gently relax anything that feels stressed and tight.
  • I imagine any weight that’s on my mind as a giant, heavy grey coat. Huge, wet, heavy, thick – and every single thing that is weighing on me is in that coat. Feel the heaviness of it, feel the itchiness, the discomfort, the burden of it. Then shrug it off your shoulders. Let it fall to the floor. It will still be there in ten minutes and you can pick it up and deal with it then, but for now it’s on the floor and there is nothing you can do about any of the things that need your attention or worry that can’t wait ten minutes while you enjoy the feeling of being out from under the grey coat.
  • Take your attention back to your face and neck and shoulders and ease out any tension you find there or anywhere else. It is very hard to hold on to difficult thoughts and emotions if your face is relaxed. I don’t know why but it is.
  • Any time a thought or worry or anxiety comes to mind, let it stick to the coat on the floor. You can deal with it later.
    Stay with the feeling of being out from under the weight of the “coat” for as long as you like, and get familiar with that feeling. Once you get used to that feeling you can tap into it when you need it.

For me, meditation shows me what my mind is like when it’s not occupied with external factors. The aim isn’t to get rid of any stress and burden and worry in life, but to connect with a part of you that can think and feel clearly, which in turn helps you to deal with what ever shit comes along much more effectively. The point is that the coat isn’t you. You may have to heave it around with you but there’s a clear thinking, fully functioning mind underneath it that needs air.

Finding something bigger and older than me

I like feeling small. I like feeling insignificant in the grand scheme of life and culture and history. I love museums and I’m lucky enough to work with one of the finest museums in the world. I like seeing something that existed before all the things I hold dear. All the things I think I can’t live without. I especially like to see things that were pretty mundane in their life times – a little glass bead or broken bit of pottery that has somehow survived the last five thousand years and is now here in a glass cabinet in Glasgow where thousands of people look at it and marvel at just how incredible it is. I love that once it was sitting on someone’s shelf being completely unremarkable.

My friend Matt makes incredibly beautiful arrowheads and recently he sent me one made from petrified wood. The fossil is a couple of hundred million years old. It used to be part of a tree that actually lived then died then became fossilised and I can now hold it in my hand. That gives me perspective.

Walk ( or just move)

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I am very lucky to have a beautiful dog who needs to be walked every day without exception. Before I adopted him I would never go out in rain and wind unless it was absolutely necessary. Now I need to, even if it’s just for ten or fifteen minutes. There’s something about walking that helps me process tangled thoughts and a lot of it comes from the fact that for the time I am walking my dog, or walking to work, all I need to do is walk. I can’t do anything else but walk, so the pressure’s off and ideas and solutions start flowing. I find this works really well when I can’t find a practical way to do something – a technique or stitch or structure that just isn’t working in the studio tends to make more sense when I’m walking somewhere else.

Get off Facebook

Or Instagram or Pinterest or whatever. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the one I struggle most with. It seems so bloody harmless to just go check on things just in case someone has sent me a message or reacted to something, anything that might have been posted or shared or whatever. Seriously, what the hell are we doing? Checking for some kind of connection every five minutes.

Leave it alone for a while. It will still be there when you check it again later. If anything really important happens you will catch up.

Stop looking at other people’s work

You will never, ever be able to do someone else’s work the way they do it. And that applies to all of us. There’s no point in overwhelming yourself with images of all the wonderful things that other people have made. It also gives you a false idea of other people’s creative output. You’re not seeing all the failed attempts or years or dodgy work that’s led up to the perfect, original and beautiful piece of work on their website. It’s hard to look at your own messed up attempts when other people seem to have easily nailed their own and put it out into the world for all to see.

By all means use the internet to help you learn, to see what is possible in terms of skill, craftsmanship and technique, but keep in mind that you might be just starting out and you’re judging yourself against someone who may have spent decades honing their craft. Be inspired by what’s possible, not intimidated. However, when it comes to aesthetics, to the voice of the individual artist, I cannot see a reason to try to imitate anyone. All it does is compound whatever insecurity you already have about your own work.

Another weird side effect of being constantly looped into other people’s work online is that you start preempting the Facebook and Instagram posting potential of your own work. You see someone else’s beautiful vintage cottage studio space and start decorating yours accordingly so you can look just as whimsical and eccentric on Pinterest. You start making work that will look fabulous while it’s still in progress. That is not the right frame of mind to be in when you’re feeling knotted.

In the end it all comes down to measuring yourself against strangers.

Do something completely differentp1090342

Go sing in the shower. Knit socks. Play the ukulele. Walk in a forest. Chat to a stranger. Take a bus to a strange place.   Do
something you’ve always fancied doing. Do something you usually go to great lengths to avoid doing. Engage your brain and mind in an unfamiliar activity for a while. Enjoy the feeling of not knowing what’s happening next.

Alternatively do something mundane that needs doing – clean the rabbit hutch, empty the rubbish, sort the recycling, do your tax return.  Even a short break doing something else can ease the pressure of having to create something awesome, important and earth shattering.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, more an idea of what works for me and what might work for you.   People are very tense and scared and angry right now, and this is by no means an overly simplistic solution to what’s going on in the world.  It’s not about making the world awesome by embracing creativity.  This isn’t my answer to everything.   It’s what I have to work with though.

In the time it’s taken me to write this post, two projects have come along that will help me contribute in a larger way to the changes I want to see in the world. And both of them rely on me using my voice and skill and experience as an artist. I wouldn’t be able to do either of them if I had chosen a different path in life. Both of them are small, both of them are local. Call it synchronicity, call it cosmic ordering; I call it paying attention and having the focus and clarity and confidence in your own mind to grab hold of a chance when it comes along – I am bloody well doing this and it’s my creative flow that’s going to sustain me.

 

 

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64 thoughts on “Untangling creative knots when shit is going down.

  1. Although I know it can be hard to be in that place of not being able to work I love your post about it. I have a lot of the same solutions you do use. Just hang on, we will wait and see what will come out of it. #curious #silent #takeyourtime

  2. Thanks for sharing your process!! I felt like 2016 was a year of hitting walls. Its always nice to hear what other creatives go through and how they break through!

  3. Great advice for creative types, and really anyone. Thank you, this came along at just the right time for me. I will look less and do more!

  4. Oh god thank you for saying all this.. I’m in the middle of all that knotty mess and struggling with aches and pains and fury at the state of the world. Nothing I’ve made this week has gone right and it’s so hard to just allow yourself to stop and take a breath and wait for the muse or whatever it is, to return. I think it’s a bit like when you can only see certain stars if you catch them out of the corner of your eye… If you look straight at them they disappear. X

  5. Thank you! I enjoy reading your blogs. I appreciate your honesty and understanding of the artists and the artistic process. Everyone I know are dealing with the insanity happening in the executive office of our country. Take care, Lauri

    Sent from my iPad

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  6. So enjoyed your thoughts. I’m an elder woman with a quilt making background. Now I do small projects so as not to feel rusty. My problem is I have no one to show my work to. I miss belonging to a group of kindred! They would enjoy the way I had stitched that yellow in that other art piece. Friends tend not to just be very polite, and not honest. Never could be my own critic, or supporter!

  7. Thank you for this buoying post — I can relate to many of the things you describe here. So many of my creative attempts seem trivial and hollow against the backdrop of upheaval and uncertainty that seems to be gripping the entire globe. But as you show so beautifully, taking care of ourselves in even one small way can send positive ripple effects into the rest of our lives. Thank you for providing so many concrete examples; I expect you’ve helped a lot of “stuck” artists and writers today!

  8. Thank You Johanna my dear! You are so in tune, everything you have written here resonates with me….Again!! ;)….Get off facebook etc. My biggy is to Stop looking over other artists shoulder for that elusive permission or breadcrumb to do my own thing, or even if mine is good enough, or proper!…..as you say “In the end it all comes down to measuring yourself against strangers”…WHEW!! Thats my mouthful right there! Then you say “Enjoy the feeling of not knowing what’s happening next”…. I really love that bit, You are a star! XXX .B.

  9. You write so eloqently, and always seem to write about things that are currently going on in my world too. My confidence and self-esteem was crushed last year, both with personal crises and my doll work. I have also suffered from chronic insomnia in the not-so-distant past too, so can totally relate to your words about that. So much fear and uncertainty going on, both within myself and the world around me. It’s so hard to work whilst feeling so low, especially after falling flat on my face trying to further my doll career into galleries and exhibitions…they didn’t sell after raising the prices to accommodate the commission they take (and not having a positive experience in general either). It was such a horrible feeling and I totally panicked; felt my whole future come crashing round me with regard to being in my 40s and having nothing, no security of house or savings. My anxiety levels were (are) at an all time high. I’ve now gone into protective ‘safe mode’ and making dolls that I know is popular and the people following my work get a lot of joy from seeing them emerge and can relate to on many levels. I can’t explore new experimental work as that all too familiar cycle of feeling shitty so make crap and feeling worse because I’ve made crap! Not sure what I shall do when my doll series finishes. You are right about not looking at other people’s work and making comparisons…I’d not acknowleged that before now I can see how harmful that can be when in doubt about ones own work. I did it a lot before Christmas, seeing lots of sales and Etsy shops emptying within hours knowing mine used to do that. It squeezed the last bit of life out of my heart and soul. I shouldn’t have looked.
    I’m so pleased you’ve worked through your low ebb and really look forward to seeing your beautiful work again. I hope your next blog will be on a happier note that will, once again, also reflect my current state of mind (happier). Keep smiling. Jx

    1. Hi Jemima, the situation you’re describing sounds a lot like the state of mind I was in in the few years leading up to me making dolls. I can firmly believe that meditation was what got me through it and opened up the work I’m doing now. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it really helped me out when I felt completely lost about what I wanted to do.

      Personally, I think your work is beautiful, I hope you get back to a point where you’re happy with it again soon.

      Johanna x

      1. Thank you, and it means a lot to hear that as I’ve admired and loved your work so much for a few years (as mentioned on Sam Crow’s page the other day)!
        I’ve only ever tried meditation once, many years ago to help with stress, but I had such a weird sensation it put me off. I felt like my hands and head were swelling and growing huge…I kept having to open my eyes to check they weren’t, and hold my head!! The teacher said I’d had an out-of-body experience and I’ve not done it since. But you’re right in that I need to find a way to channel my energy and thoughts and deal with my lack of confidence. I do love making my sock characters very much, but hoped to move forward in some way with them….or I must find a way be content with how things are and not set my sights too high!! I’ve definitely felt lost these last few months but will get there eventually.
        Thanks again for your thoughts and taking time to reply. Jemima x

      2. Exactly the same thing happened with me when I started meditating after a few years of not doing it. My head felt like it was swelling up and I even felt like I was choking. I don’t know if I would call that an out of body experience, to me it was a physical reaction so all the pent up tension I was carrying around at the time trying to release.

  10. Thank you. As ever, you nailed it totally! I’m sure a thousand people feel the same, but it feels personal, I identify with all that. You always imagine that other creative people find it easy, and the process is so satisfying and rewarding. But it isn’t, it’s hard. Social media, Pininterest, you need enough to connect and inspire, but not so much that it overwhelms and takes too much precious time! Love the hour idea. I will try that! Nx

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  11. Fine words that make sense. We live in strange times. Walking, mind clearing and paying attention to what is good in the whirled may not keep us sane in the end, but it will take us a long way along the path.

  12. I really needed to see this blog this morning. I’ve been feeling blocked and uninspired for a while now. Some good ideas you have shared to cut through that funk. The world has changed, we all feel it, but artists are needed now more than ever to create beauty where there may only be gloom and despair. I no longer listen to the mainstream news as it boils my brain.

  13. Hi there. I opened my ipad this a.m. And this post was up on the screen. I don’t know how it got there but i do know why. It’s brilliant and i thank you for starting my day off with such a sense of being supported–of knowing others feel the same inertia because of the current world situation–at least that’s what it is for me. And thank you for your “methods” of dealing–

  14. Thank you for the kick in the pants that I so desperately needed this morning! I’ve been in a state of inertia for a while now and just haven’t had the gumption to get off my arse and do something about it. Knowing that I’m not alone has been sufficient to get me off of my pity pot and into the ‘kitchen’, so to speak. The gloom and despair that I feel is of my own making as I have the choice to ignore the bad and negative, replace it with the good and positive and get on with things in high spirits and gratitude. I find that negativity is impossible in an environment of gratitude. And I just needed reminding; so, Thank You!

  15. (cough) its Facebook which has brought me here to find a really good read. When I am really worried I find that creativity leaves me… its something which has sustained my entire life, but when I feel I need it most I can’t make at all. I often turn to something simple like crocheting a scarf. Usually working it til the yarn is used up. I’ve made a few so I now term them my therapy scarves. Its easy, mindless creativity, suspect it grounds me, as I’ve been crocheting since 7. Sometimes we need reminding that not onlynis ot ‘normal’ or OK to have moments like this… but its possible to find a workaround to guide yourself back to creativity. Thank you for your words.

  16. It’s kind of like going through a hurricane…youi can find comfort in knowing you’re not going through the suffering alone, nor will it last..onward and upward.

  17. Well said. And kudos to all who posted in response; in fact I am eager to visit all who have a blog or site or Etsy shop. I have written on this subject as well. I am older than you, my dear (just turned 69) and so what works for me now is simply to let the block flow in a natural response to whatever tangle of events and emotions are trampling on my spirit. For several reasons and changes my slump has continued for several months. And then came the horrifying election here in the US. My approach to riding it out works for me (after many trials and errors over the years). I use this fallow time to indulge in looking at other artists’ work and blogs, I peruse my decor books for the purpose of noticing the artwork; I get on FB to see what a couple fav artists and friends are up to; I look at Etsy shops…. all in the name of ‘research’ and recharge my batteries. I am ‘resting’ for a reason although I don’t know what and now at age 69, am OK with that. What I do know is that I’m not competing with anyone; I have my own styles (yes plural I think!) as we ALL do. I am confident that this time of being knotted will unravel and either little by little, or in one Big Bang! something new will emerge. Hold on to your faith in yourself!

  18. Thank you for writing and sharing this, once again you have touched on so many relevant points that resonate with me. You kindly wrote a message once to me about my daughter after she was diagnosed with ASD and that act of kindness really helped me look at her differences as a blessing, not the negative. The month of January has been a very bleak time as my wonderful mother lost her battle with cancer. She taught me to sew and I feel closer to her whenever I pick up a needle and thread but that doesn’t always mean producing marvoulous works of art when your heart is broken. I love the way you talk of just doing something for an hour, not for anyone else, I’m going to try that. Thank you xxx

  19. “I never set out to make a massive contribution to the world but it’s hard to not want to when so much seems to be falling apart and changing and crumbling.”
    -Maybe that’s why so many of us produce so much when we are overwhelmed.

    “I decided to take January “off” and focus on completely new work and ideas that may or may not work out.”
    I think this is so necessary. Sometimes we have to “turn-off.” The professionalization of creativity has made a lot of us into machines with schedules. It’s like we’ve almost condemned ourselves to create.

    “… it’s my creative flow that’s going to sustain me…”
    Our creativity is bank. And it’s all about balance. We have to both withdraw and deposit.

    best,
    flacoali3

  20. I just LOVE this post! It says everything I feel. All those insecurities and feeling of smallness in the face of seemingly insane events – trying to make work that doesn’t feel frivolous or insignificant – is put into perspective. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  21. Thank you for taking time to write that. It’s stuffed with useful things, all the more useful because they come from your own experience. You’re sharing what has worked for you. You’re our forward scout!

    I especially liked your image of the “giant, heavy grey coat. Huge, wet, heavy, thick” and the fact that you shrug it off to let it lie on the floor, rather than making it magically ‘vanish’ while you stride about sipping from coconuts on a tropical beach. We weave our own heavy grey coats of worry and your way of dealing with yours is a realistic method of looking at it as a separate piece of work, like any other piece of sewn cloth; to dry it out, to repurpose it, to take the arms off and sew them into hot water bottle covers for cold nights, to take the pockets as pan holders, shoe cleaners or a solid purse. To find the use in the grey coat, rather than carrying it on your shoulders as is.

    In shaky times artists are more necessary than ever. To remind us of ourselves. All your tiny acts of creation twinkle in a dark sky. But they twinkle.

  22. love your way of sharing and communication,brilliant to read and uplifting.Thank you.One of the many things for me from the way you manage to convey what a huge number of us are silently going through as well, is your ability to engage and motivate us all who read your blogs into allowing us to voice our own insecurities,and that is priceless.To be able to identify and recognize ( from you whose work I think is so beautiful) all the things you have written and expressed, happen to us all at some stage, it gives us all hope we can go on and enjoy the ability to create our way with out feeling lost and incapable, just to hold on and work out a way of getting through.Thank you.

  23. Your writing and art is beautiful and really inspiring! I related so much to your opening sentiments. Its easy to get discouraged in this world when there is so much fear and grief about us even among our own communities. Lately I’ve found myself asking the same question a lot: my art and craft seem so insignificant to the problems around me, how can I possible do any good with it? Your post was an encouragement to keep creating and the rest of your blog is equally beautiful! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

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