According to Christine Mason Miller, a mixed-media artist and author of Desire to Inspire: Using Creative Passion to Transform the World, it’s normal to experience ebbs and flows in your creativity. A creative rut, however, goes beyond these regular vacillations and lasts longer, she said.
Miller believes that a sense of powerlessness contributes to creative dry spells. “It is challenging to tap into our creative well if we are dealing with unsettling issues related to our health, family dynamics, friendships, professional environment and finances,” she said.
Jolie Guillebeau, an artist who uses paintings as a way to tell stories, views fear as the biggest factor in creative ruts. “I find myself afraid to change things, because they’re working, then I find myself in a rut.” For Guillebeau, that rut can lead to self-doubt, which only fuels her fear, becoming “an ugly spiral.”
In the same vein, “habitual ways of thinking and reacting” sabotage creativity, according to Keri Smith, an illustrator and author of several bestselling books on creativity, including Finish this Book. “It is often tempting to recreate our past successes but this does not lead to new ideas and conclusions,” she said.
Our traditional view of work — “time plus effort equals results” — doesn’t help either, said Jen Lee, an independent media producer and performer in New York City’s storytelling scene. “We think, if only we had more time or had the energy to try harder we could get around to the creative projects we dream of or finally finish the ones we’ve started.”
When we look at creative work this way, Lee said, it becomes another task or chore. “Inside this model, our creative work is just another thing on our list of things we ‘should’ be doing, and the variables we think we need can seem outside our control to get.”
Breaking Out of a Creative Rut
“To get out of a creative rut, you don’t need to work harder or longer,” Lee said. But you might find the below ideas helpful.
1. Create space.
According to Lee, space is “a sense of availability, a kind of listening, an orientation of the soul.” Space invites creativity, “giving thoughts, ideas and inspiration room to land,” she said.
Creating space can be anything from taking a walk to looking out the window to taking a shower. In other words, it simply means doing something else – that is, other than stewing in your dry spell.
“The subconscious mind is always working on things for you and will often present things to you when you are doing something else,” Smith said.
Both Smith and Miller find walking helpful. Smith shared this quote from Annie Proulx on the benefits: “Walking induces a trance-like state that allows the mind freedom and ease and encourages exploration of odd possibilities and improbable connections.”
Mason Miller also likes to play with her dog. But if she only has a moment, she stretches her body and takes a deep breath.
2. Be present.
How often are you doing something only to find that your mind is somewhere else? Maybe your mind’s on the past or the future? “Presence is about aligning our attention in the moment, instead of letting our minds be endlessly divided by internal worries, chatter [and] reminders,” Lee said. Being in the present is what lets you access inspiration and creative energy, she said.
3. Change something small.
For instance, Guillebeau cleans her studio, paints the walls or buys a new pillow. “Something about nesting and creating order in my physical environment helps nudge me out of a rut,” she said.
4. Shake things up.
Smith suggested trying new things on a regular basis or doing the opposite of what you’ve been doing. “Creativity is enhanced by our ability to look at things from as many different perspectives as possible — not repeating the same thing over and over,” she said.
“Even if [new things] feel uncomfortable, even if they seem small or insignificant, [these] little changes can lead to bigger changes over time,” she said.
5. Commit to a project publicly.
Committing to a public project didn’t just help Guillebeau emerge from a creative rut; it opened doors. In 2009, an especially tough year, Guillebeau didn’t get to paint much.
In 2010 she decided to change that, and resolved to paint 100 paintings in 100 days. Every day she emailed her clients a snapshot of her painting. “It was a little intimidating at first, but the project ended up being so successful that I continued daily paintings long after the initial 100-day commitment,” she said.
“There are many nights that I feel lazy and don’t want to paint. But I’m reminded that there are people on the other side of the screen expecting something from me. And so I pull out my brushes and get to work.”
6. Celebrate your failures.
“They can be a great source of new ways of thinking,” Smith said. Here’s an inspiring quote from the late Ray Bradbury on failing (cited in this post):
[S]tarting when I was fifteen I began to send short stories to magazines like Esquire, and they, very promptly, sent them back two days before they got them! I have several walls in several rooms of my house covered with the snowstorm of rejections, but they didn’t realize what a strong person I was; I persevered and wrote a thousand more dreadful short stories, which were rejected in turn. Then, during the late forties, I actually began to sell short stories and accomplished some sort of deliverance from snowstorms in my fourth decade. But even today, my latest books of short stories contain at least seven stories that were rejected by every magazine in the United States and also in Sweden! So … take heart from this. The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.
And here’s an excellent post that features the failures of some of the most brilliant minds. So if you’ve failed before, you’re in great company.
7. Simply show up.
“With more time, I find that if I simply show up to whatever it is I love to do — those activities that feed the well of creativity within me – I am 90 percent there,” Miller said.
For instance, when her goal is writing, she sits at her computer or with a journal and pen. The quality of the writing — or whatever you’re working on such as knitting or gardening — doesn’t matter, she said. What does matter is the follow-through.
“There have been days in my art studio when all I did was organize my supplies and waste time on Twitter, but it was important I was there, in my creative space, tending to it and giving it attention,” she said.