The Creative Slump: 4 Tips For Finding Your Way Out Of Them

Usually, the ideas come easy. But sometimes, just sometimes, they don't. What do we do then?
Publish date:
July 8, 2013
creativity, tips, writer's block, diy life, creative slump, making things, writing things, How-To

I had an ex-boyfriend, a writer, who didn't think I approached writing with the right kind of serious attitude. I'm a discovery writer, so I generally sit down without a plan. I open my laptop and I see what happens next -- and that's the fun part!

It made him angry. He'd settle in at his computer, all sorts of srs bsns, and I'd sit on the couch with my laptop and just kind of type my way into something. I think I had a lot more fun than he did -- and I should have known that was a sign of our ultimate incompatibility.

Discovery writing is a little like hacking through the underbrush of your own mind, startling animals and making your own trail. About half the time, things are probably a lot harder than they needed to have been -- once you reach the end, you can see a way clearer, easier path that you should have taken. Hindsight and all that. But the process is enjoyable -- if I know how something is going to end, I don't really need to write it down, yeah?

But every now and then I find myself standing in the middle of my mental landscape and I realize I am totally lost and confused and I've left my machete at home and I'm wearing short pants so I'm probably going to wind up with ticks and chiggers and mosquito bites. (Ticks and chiggers and mosquito bites are part of why nature and I have a really unfriendly relationship in anything other than a metaphorical sense.)

That's when I know I'm in a slump. No matter what I try to do, it's uninspired and I hate it. I pick up my knitting -- and then I set it back down because it's tedious, no matter how much I was enjoying the pattern a week ago. I open my laptop -- and then I refresh Twitter for an hour and a half. I pull out my sketch book -- and then realize that the only things I ever draw are beluga whales and snails and who really cares about beluga whales and snails?

Obviously, it's a long dark teatime of the soul in these moments.

I think anyone involved in creative work faces these moments -- we hear a lot about writer's block but sometimes I just look at all my art supplies and have no idea what to DO with any of them. Rather than actually believe what my brain is telling me during these times (that I will never ever ever have another idea ever again), over the years I have developed a couple of tricks to survive the doldrums and navigate the metaphorical scrubby palmetto bushes in between me and productivity.

(Palmetto bushes are mean, y'all.)

1. Appreciate Other People's Creativity

When I know I'm not going to make any progress on my own work, I make extra effort to expose myself (not THAT way) to other creative works. I use the time to read books I've had on hold or to go to galleries. I check out art prints on the Internet and visit local museums.

This can serve to get you out of the house, which sometimes helps a lot on its own, but it also feeds your brain. New creative input is stimulating! You get a chance to see how other people are making new things or making old things new or making new things old or whatever it is that they are doing. (There are so many options!)

The other day, I drove me and Ed over to Tampa just to visit Oxford Exchange -- I knew the environment was going to excite me and make me think about things creatively again; it's just that kind of place. We looked at other people's art in many forms (I really need to go back to the pottery studio, oh my goodness) and when we left, I felt like I'd been on a miniature creative retreat.

2. Don't Sabotage Your Creative Space

Sometimes I get very frustrated when I'm in a creative slump, because I KNOW I'm in a slump. And I'll have the TV on and the dog will be running around and Ed will be talking to me -- and I'll close my laptop with more force than is advisable and take my inability to write in that environment as proof that I'm never going to write anything, I'm never going to feel better.

Obviously, that's absurd. I know what I need when I want to be serious about writing -- all of that distraction is not what I need. Even if I had the best idea ever, I'd never be able to get much done on it while also talking to Ed about dinner and keeping the dog from hassling the cat.

If you know what you need to be creative, sit down in that space. You might not create anything, but that's OK -- because you're giving yourself the opportunity and the environment both. A creative slump is no reason to sabotage yourself.

3. Establish A Creative Routine

Plenty of people talk about the importance of setting a regular routine for yourself. I think that daily routine is not always possible for people who do other things full time, be it day jobs or family (or day jobs AND family), but coming up with some kind of routine for yourself really can help. I have designated days now for designated activities and while it's sometimes frustrating to be really excited about an idea on a Tuesday when I know I won't get to the co-working space until Thursday, it's also kind of a delayed gratification that gets me really excited.

And come that Thursday night, I'm so ready for sitting down to get work done. I don't have to rearrange my schedule or hope that nothing will come up -- I've set myself up to succeed.

Maybe I don't succeed -- maybe Tuesday's idea is gone or flat or just plain bad. But maybe I also have a ton of different ideas that have just been waiting there in the swamp of my brain for me to sit down like I was supposed to.

Routine is the hardest thing for me, so I admit I am not great at this one. Unfortunately, it's the one that works every time.

4. Breathe Through It

Right now there is so much big and scary stuff going on. I'm fighting off a head cold and every time I check out world events, there's something else awful going on. I feel anxious -- not just for myself but for my friends all over the place. And anxiety is not a friend to me being able to focus on anything.

Now I am going to say the most hippie-ish thing ever: Sometimes you just have to accept that you aren't going to create anything in this exact moment. Then you have to breathe and just ride it out. You've always had ideas before. They're just a little further below the surface than usual. You'll find them again.

Patience is, like, the worst tip ever. I apologize. But stressing out over not having any ideas is not going to make you have any ideas. (Maybe that DOES work for some people -- I can't handle living with that much panic.) I tend to feel a lot of guilt over not doing ENOUGH (whatever enough even is -- I sure don't know), but when I can successfully back away from that feeling, I am far more likely to find myself with ideas again.

What do you do when you are in a creative slump? What tips do you have for finding the focus you've lost because of stress or lack of sleep or whatever?

And apparently I imagine my mental landscape to be like North Florida pine scrub forest. Ugh, there's a lot of bugs there. What's your mental landscape like?