Overcoming Creative Block: How I Learned to Put Myself First in Creativity

This is gonna be a LONG one so hold your pants tight ya’ll.

Sorry not sorry

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The result of a creative boom – which often comes after the block! 

Anyone who works in any creative realm is probably familiar with the dreaded creative block. When I was a teenager the idea of complete creative block felt like an impossibility. More often than not I had too many ideas, too many things I wanted to try, and entire closets full of half-started work I could pick up to re-invigorate my juices. Every time I finished a piece I would spend what seemed like weeks marveling at what I had accomplished and fully feeling my oats. I was proud of myself.

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Art school – somehow the never-ending block and boom simultaneously, but the work always made me proud of myself

After graduating from art-school I started to feel differently. The impossibility isn’t loosing my creative energy, but instead keeping it. I still have entire drawers and baskets of unfinished work, but picking them up again isn’t exciting, but tortuous a chore. Even when I do finish work I immediately post it, put it up for sale, and move on. It no longer feels like an accomplishment I should be proud of, but instead a task I’m glad to finally have behind me. For those of you who are makers trying to make money ooh that alliteration I imagine you relate.

Why is this? What changes in our lives that makes the youthful exuberance of boundless creativity turn into just one more thing to get over with? A lot of the time it’s easy for me to blame my mental state – it’s hard to be a productive maker when flipping cycles of depression and anxiety tend to clog up your brain, and most of my energy tends to go to my actual job since that’s not a choice and making is.

I don’t think that’s a fair answer though. Some of my most prolific creative periods were when my mental health issues were the worst, and the history of art shows us countless tortured souls who used that energy to their advantage looking at you Van Gogh. Why then, as I move through the tumultuous second-puberty of learning how to be an adult, can I not harness creativity as a healing force in the same way?

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The 16 year old feet of a naive JCat. Check the anklet, I’ll be getting back to her.  

As with almost everything, I’m afraid the answer might be the many-faced beast we know as money, with an assist from the new kid on Satan’s block, social media. A little over a year ago I decided if I was ever going to have my passion and my livelihood be the same I was going to have to try and sell some of my work. I started using Instagram a lot to promote myself, set up an Etsy, and put my honest-to-gosh real name with a touch of branding on all my platforms, including this blog. It was so hard to put myself out there, but it felt liberating. Finally I could share all this crazy stuff I was making with others and find an audience for my work, maybe someday I could even make a living just for doing what I loved! This was obviously the next step in elevating my creativity.

Or so I thought.

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A funny thing happens when you start making for people other than yourself. At first you have all this work you were hoarding to put online, work you loved and felt immense pride at finishing. You think – I hope people will love this! Of course building a business takes time, and no-one – myself included – should expect people to come in hoards to snatch up your work, but I was ready for the struggle and the harsh critiques of the internet. What I wasn’t ready for was how much the responses to each piece I posted began to shape how I looked at my work. Oh they like the nature stuff? I guess I should make a bunch of nature-inspired forms. Oh wait no – they want drag portraits? I can do more of that – so what if it took 40+ hours and I’ll never be able to find a market – I’ll just under-price just a little! (SIDEBAR: Don’t do that ever. Underpricing sucks. But that’s a whole ‘nother post) Is it sophisticated enough, different enough? If I can just balance that with making what people like eventually I’ll have my business booming and I’ll finally have the life I want, right? Before you know it your work leaves your hands and feels totally dictated by the faceless mob of the market, and then *poof!* it’s just another job you’re doing for another boss, only you can’t see this one and he has 200 different brains.

What’s crazy is the whole time I was jumping from thing to thing trying to figure out what the people wanted I wasn’t even selling ANYTHING! except to my eternal patron, my mom ❤ I had large-scale expensive pieces, wearable pieces, pop-cultural pieces, small pieces, literally every single thing I could think of and none of it was selling. My brain should at that point have gone: Hey, this isn’t working AND you hate making things now. Maybe you need to find a different way of going about this. Instead, it said “You have to keep making the things people like, otherwise you’re never going to sell anything and you’ll fail.”

 

Uh-Oh. That dreaded word. Faiiillluuuurrreeeee. We can’t have that. And so I kept trying to figure out what to do to please the people.

 

Here lies the real problem in the type of creative block I was having – at this point I wasn’t doing work because I loved it anymore – I was chasing success whatever that meant. When I was young I had infinite creative energy and felt immensely proud of my work because it was FOR ME. I didn’t make things to sell myself to other people – I made things to learn to love myself in environments where others didn’t. This was the missing piece – the key to my lack of energy. I had no self-esteem in my work because I wasn’t doing it to fill my soul anymore. 

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Getting the passion back. 

Over my Christmas holiday my mother suggested we go to the craft store so I had something to do during the inevitable snow-storms we were going to get in Maine. I had been getting an itch to do some thread knotting to see if it could work for broad bracelets and small tapestries, so I decided to pick up a pack of DMC variegated thread to make up some quick samples. It had been years since I had done anything of this sort, so I did some research and found one of those amazing craft resource/tutorial websites like those I had poured over in the early days of the internet: http://friendship-bracelets.net/

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The site still has that early-internet/geocities vibe that is so nostalgic, and to my  delight still has a multi-page database of THOUSANDS of bracelet patterns. With the variegated thread I picked up I realized I could turn those thousands into millions of ideas if I just used my materials to their full advantage, and suddenly my creativity flooded back. My brain hadn’t been buzzing with so much excitement to swim into a project since I was 17 and I was exhilarated.

But wait – what if friendship bracelets don’t fit my “brand?” What if they are too crafty, too kitschy, too childish, too hippie, too common, too unfashionable, too simple? Was I going to devote all this energy to making something I wasn’t sure I could sell in an already full market, or that wasn’t going to build me up as a “professional?”

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Beautiful to me, is it to you? 

At that moment I had a choice – make simple, happy stuff I love for me or make “sellable”, professional stuff for them. The art-school graduate in me said “What’s revolutionary about this?” I thought on that for a second, then I realized FORGET THAT! Who cares if something is silly, or kitsch, or “crafty,” I was going to make what I wanted. And I wanted to make friendship bracelets, dammit!

And so I did – and have been for the last three weeks straight. I’ve made at least one bracelet a day, if not two, in that period. I went through 4 different methods of anchoring my work in a way that was secure but also portable, I started working through the bracelet patterns from the easiest to the hardest to retrain myself all the knots and movements I needed to make, and I re-discovered the beauty of simple color shifts and contrasts in fiber work. I worked so hard my hands hurt – and worked more. I was afraid the energy would leave when I returned home from my childhood home maybe there’s something in the Maine water? but it didn’t – I found BETTER ways to anchor my thread, I found BETTER color combinations, and I moved onto the even harder, more complicated patterns. My creative child was back – and my creative energy woke up.

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This “old yoga mat anchored by a table” set-up has since improved, thank god. 

So what do I do with all this? I might end up putting them on Etsy, though there are lots of people doing incredible work in this field already. I might end up keeping them or giving them away. I’ll share some on Insta, some I won’t. At the end of the day I don’t really care about that stuff – I feel confident and good because I am making things that please me and make me feel confident and happy as a maker. I know I am in a privileged position because I have a job that pays the bills and allows this sort of freedom with my work, but I feel thankful that I chose to keep that job instead of trying to make craft my only source of income because I might have lost the energy forever and also probably my home. Maybe at the end of the day some of us just aren’t cut out to be full-time makers, and I’m happy to stay a hobbyist. I won’t turn away chances to share my work, but ultimately I like living a simple life and I like keeping my making for me and me alone instead of planning a brand, even if that means I never get the level of recognition that could pay the bills.

All of this being said I think instead of putting all my energy into my social media and Etsy I will post here MUCH more often. It feels great to share my work in this way – no money, no transactions, just sharing the love of making. That’s what we all started this for, and I want everyone to remember that. To me conquering your making goals shouldn’t mean making lots of money or advancing your brand, it should mean doing something you love knowing you might not get any of that – and doing it anyway just for the joy. 

So remember to keep conquering your craft and your life! If you want to see my stuff I have social media up top, and I will still put things up for sale if you’re interested. If not, I’ll be seeing you all again here real soon.

 

-JCat-

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