I often ask artists, whose interviews and work I share on the site, “What do you do when you’re at a creative standstill?” A lot of times the responses are also creative, like writing or drawing, or picking up and experimenting with another medium. Sometimes they walk, or get together with friends. I think Kathryn Shriver described it best, as a “stagnancy [that] usually comes from a built up pressure to be productive all the time.”
But what about when that rut lasts weeks? Months? When the thing that usually helps you to de-stress is actually stressing you out? When you’re anxious that you’ve just totally lost touch with everything you’re doing, and why you’re even doing it?
I’ve got a confession to make.
I’ve been in a major creative rut. Like, lights-off, no-one-home, can-we-talk-about-something-else, I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING HOW AND WHY IS ANYTHING ANYTHING ANYMORE ?!! sort of rut. It’s hard to explain what caused it; at some point around the holidays, my drive to work on curatorial projects just went into hibernation.
I had to force myself to work on Young Space-related tasks, to answer emails, look at Instagram, to make posts about artwork. I was basically dragging myself to shows, studio visits… I just kept worrying that I had started to turn into a machine. The light bulb would go on and fizzle out in intermittent blips. I knew I loved looking at a certain painting, for example, but when it came to trying to imagine how it might fit into a show, or how I might collaborate on a project, my brain was just like, “……..”
I felt drained, a little like I might be faking it or going through the motions (that worried me the most), and I thought the project might be reaching a state of stagnancy. I started to have a little existential crisis over building a brand new website and simultaneously panicking that it may have reached some sort of conclusion. Had I just totally maxed myself out? Hopefully this never came across in my work, because one sort of just powers through, but of course it’s even more draining to keep the wheels moving when you feel like you’re running on fumes.
It’s easy to lose perspective.
I was so grateful to spend last weekend in New York City on a spontaneous trip to see a bunch of art at a bunch of international fairs and to generally soak up Manhattan. I spent an exorbitant amount of cash on champagne at The Armory Show, hugged and talked with so many people that I never before had met in real life but consider my friends at this point, ate so much food and drank any cocktail that included some ingredient I thought was weird, walked 20-some miles (looking up the whole time), felt small on top of the Empire State Building, and generally got the fuck out of my miserable, winter-induced bubble. The change of scenery gave me the clarity I needed to move forward.
I’m pretty sure travel is the only thing that can really shake me out of a rut, and remind me to occasionally pop the bubble. And let me tell you: this winter has been a monster of a bubble… sitting in a rut, in another bubble, surrounded by ruts. And the bubble started to feel like it was crushing me further into the rut. Maybe I could just blame it on bad cabin fever, Wisconsin winters, two full moons in January, social media psyching me out, career uncertainty, emotional crap, or the feeling of things moving too fast (or too slow, or both at the same time?!). Let’s be honest, it’s all of the above.
A lot of it comes down to a sort of habitual forgetting: that the world is so much bigger than me and my little bubble. Communication today, via current technology and social media, is simultaneously and ubiquitously limitless and strangled. So meeting people, traveling, and experiencing art and life–in person–is the best (and perhaps only) medicine for anxiety or doubt about one’s own creative path.
I also have to remember that the bubble appears and disappears in a rhythm; it comes and goes. Sometimes it’s good; it can be protective, so that I can process my choices in work or life. Sometimes it severs me from the rest of the world, though, and those are the times when I need to pop it. I need to force myself to be scared and take a leap. I won’t pretend to be one of those people who embraces the uncertainty — I never embrace it. It terrifies the hell of of me. But it’s necessary, like fiber in your diet is necessary but nothing with fiber actually tastes good. You eat it anyway.
Even a small movement forward counts for something, but the point is that nothing bigger ever happens if the first small step isn’t made. And even if that small step feels backward, it’s the overall forward motion that counts.
Figuring out the don’ts to get to the do’s
If I’ve concluded anything over the past few months, it’s that I learn how to do what I need to do, whether creatively or in that fuzzy “life path” sort of way, by ultimately learning what I don’t want to do. And often the period of figuring that out, in a word, suuuuucks.
When something doesn’t work out, like a relationship or a job or a project, it simply further whittles down the core thing that I actually want to spend time focusing on. In my case, it’s an “art thing” that is fundamental to Young Space, curatorial projects, the relationships I form and keep, and where I travel. When things aren’t going my way, that’s when I turn to projects and people who take me places and inspire me. I try to forget anything that brings me down, distracts me from what I love, or makes me feel inadequate about it.
That’s when I remember–every time–that creativity is not a straight and narrow path; sometimes I actually just need something to go wrong, so that I can turn my attention to something else that will go right.
It always works out, one way or another.
The thing about ruts, though, or bubbles for that matter, is that when you finally get out of them, whether spontaneously, or because, like me, you make a point to consciously exit them – one could simply call it gaining perspective – the regenerative feeling that comes with stepping into a new phase of productivity and creativity is the most wonderful, buoyant feeling there is. It’s all a part of the process. So I’m thrilled that there are a multitude of increasingly exciting projects coming up over the next year, which will take me around the country, out of the country, and in new and exciting directions!
Inevitably, we all go through creative ups and downs. In those moments when the work feels effortless, it’s amazing. In the moments when nothing seems to gel, the frustration can be crushing. But they’re both a necessary part of the cycle. Remembering that, and taking it in stride, is the tough part. I’m so grateful to have you along for the ride, and appreciate every one of you for your support of Young Space and all related projects – through all the ebbs and flows.
I’m seeking submissions from artists and writers! How do you handle creative blocks? What challenges or hurdles do you face when creating work, mounting exhibitions, etc.? How do you reflect on the work you make, the “job” of being an artist, or other topics? I’d love to hear from you. Shoot me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org!