The empty page, the blank canvas. As an artist, this can be both exciting and horrendously daunting. On one hand: it’s a fresh start. When you begin anew, anything is possible. Old mistakes can be forgotten and your vision can come to life without being held back by the past. There is freedom in the nothingness that stretches out before you, waiting to be filled with your energy.
And yet, there is nothing more terrifying than this nothingness, because within it lies the possibility of failure.
Overcoming Creative Doubts
When I stare at the nothingness that exists before creating, the series of thoughts that run through my head are usually some combination of the following:
“What if I run out of motivation? What if I’m wasting my time? What if my art, quite simply, sucks?”
It’s hard enough to overcome these doubts even when you’re at the peak of artistic motivation, but what if you’re running on fumes? What if you’re recovering from a break, or a creative block, or a period where you fell so out-of-touch with your art that you grew to resent it?
I’ve been through all the above, particularly the latter. At the time I chose to hit the restart button on my career and abandon life as a professional artist, I had completely lost sight of my passion for art. I had no motivation to work on anything. Sketchbooks were vessels of empty promises. My sewing machine had become a silent, vicious creature lurking in my peripheral vision. Dozens of unfinished stories taunted me from various journals and computer folders, as if they sensed I had no energy with which to finish them. My camera watched me from its raised perch, an ever-growing coat of dust building upon it with each passing day it continued to go untouched.
I felt no joy in art anymore. Pursuing it as a career had nearly destroyed me. Why bother trying again?
Turning Doubt Into Will
In an attempt to distract myself, I dove into the challenge of cleaning out my room. Most of it had been cleaned out during the previous summer for a renovation project, but there was still plenty of childhood memorabilia stowed away in various boxes and storage containers. I set about emptying these, and while doing so, I stumbled upon exactly what I needed to see.
School craft projects. Sketch after sketch, comic pages, character designs, illustrations. Notebooks positively bursting with story ideas. Photos of things I’d sewn for the theatre, for Halloween, for no reason other than fun.
Spread out across the floor, it was all there. My legacy of undeniable passion for art, for creating.
I refused to let it be taken from me.
Finding Your Motivation
To do that, though, I faced a serious challenge: how could I reconnect with something that I had no motivation to do? I’d spent years relying on deadlines and career pressure to force me to create, and without that pressure, it was too easy to talk myself out of working on any of my creative projects.
“This doesn’t need to be done anytime soon, why bother?”
“No one’s going to see this or care, what’s the point?”
“Am I even getting anything from this?”
Of course, once those thoughts ran through my head, I was able to see them for what they truly were: a manifestation of my own insecurities. I was afraid to try to do anything creative because I was afraid I would still hate it. And once I acknowledged those thoughts as insecurities, they were easier to combat.
Why bother? Because I wanted to create.
What’s the point? Artistic expression doesn’t need a point.
Am I getting something? Satisfaction, fulfillment, a sense of accomplishment, improved skills — hm, that sounds like a decent amount of benefits, wouldn’t you agree?
After reassuring myself, I began the process of reengaging with my art.
Techniques for Reengaging Your Creativity
Tip #1: Focus on passion projects.
One technique I used to do so was to pick the projects for which I felt the most passion. I’d spent so many years working on things I didn’t truly care about, and that was one of the biggest detriments to my career that ended up sapping my creative energy. It’s hard enough to generate motivation for things we are passionate about, and forcing yourself to be creative to work on things you have no interest in is a pretty good recipe for disaster. So, with that in mind, I focused my attention on a selection of “dream projects,” i.e. projects that had been on my to-do list for close to a decade and that, when I thought about them, filled me with a rush of excitement. That excitement would be one of my greatest allies in the battle to reclaim my artistic spirit.
Examples of Projects:
- Sew a ball gown.
- Start a blog.
- Start a podcast.
- Write a book.
These projects weren’t all happening simultaneously. (Some still aren’t happening!) But it was a list I kept in clear view at all times so that if I felt I lacked motivation to work on a current focus, I had a reminder of all the other passion projects I wanted to accomplish.
Tip #2: Set manageable goals.
Another technique I used was setting incremental goals — note the use of the word “goals,” not “deadlines.” I didn’t want to stress myself out or let myself feel like a failure if I didn’t meet deadlines, and referring to these checkpoints as goals framed them in a positive way. If I didn’t meet a goal, it was okay; I simply adjusted the goal to set myself up for success. You can’t “miss” a goal as you can a deadline. A goal moves and changes with you so you can continue to pursue it until it’s achieved.
Examples of Goals:
- Engage in one creative activity every day.
- Ball Gown Project: By the end of July, construct a crinoline.
- Blog: Set-up in July, launch in August.
Like the projects themselves, not all of these goals were pursued simultaneously. For example, once I managed to do #1 consistently, I moved on to setting more specific goals, such as #2 and #3. Those goals could then be broken down for each week (i.e. “Order crinoline supplies” or “install blog layout”) to ensure that I kept moving forward. Being able to break those goals down into smaller steps also helped with my motivation, since they were less overwhelming and finishing each small step encouraged me to pursue the next.
Tip #3: Practice self-care.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I had to learn how to be kind to myself. Practicing self-care as an artist is stupidly hard; for whatever reason, we have it drilled into us that if we aren’t constantly creating, we’re failing. If we aren’t drawing every day, we’re bad artists. If we aren’t writing every day, we’re bad writers. If we aren’t sewing every day, we’re bad seamstresses. If we aren’t taking pictures every day, we’re bad photographers. And so on.
This mindset implies that any period of rest should be served with a generous topping of guilt. Because if we aren’t being creative, we’re being lazy. We’re growing rusty. We’re letting our artistic spirits wither and die, making excuses for not working harder, letting our inspiration go to waste.
Everything about this mindset is unhealthy. So, so unhealthy. How can we nurture our art if we neglect ourselves? Should we really be trying to pour everything into our art if we have nothing left to give? We can’t approach our art with energy and enthusiasm if our mental, physical, or emotional health is lapsing.
By ignoring our needs because we feel guilty for putting ourselves first, we’re only harming our art. That sort of creative practice isn’t sustainable, and it’s one of the leading causes of artistic burnout. That is how we fail as creators.
Therefore, I made it a priority to learn to nurture myself. I had to learn to forgive myself, to prioritize my own happiness, and to evaluate the cause-and-effect relationship between my creative drive and self-care. I did so with a few different mantras and reflective questions:
1. It’s okay if I truly don’t want to work on this today. If it’s done when I’m engaged with it, that will save me from wanting to redo it down the road if I force myself to “crap something out” just for the sake of not feeling guilty. In the mean time, maybe there’s something else I can do to support the project, such as research, planning, or cleaning my work space.
2. It’s okay if I try something and it fails. The only one I have to make happy is myself. If I’m happy with it, that’s all that matters – and if I’m unhappy with it, I can always remake it until it meets my personal standards.
3. If I don’t want to work on a project, there’s a reason. Have I been sleeping well? When did I last exercise? Have I given my body the fuel it needs by eating a good meal? Is my space messy and distracting? Is there a personal matter I’m worrying about that’s demanding my attention? Once I was able to pinpoint the cause, I was able to take steps to resolve the issue that was limiting my motivation.
Creativity: A Skill, A Mindset
Reconnecting with creativity isn’t easy, and it isn’t a process that happens overnight just because we want it to happen. Just as with learning any new skill, it requires strategy, dedication, and patience. Just remember: you’re not alone in this struggle. It’s been my experience that nearly every artist faces it at some point; it’s something we can all relate to and help each other overcome.
That being said, I hope some of these techniques help you rekindle your artistic spirit. If you’d like to share your story or your own techniques for creative recovery, please feel free to leave a comment or write back to me directly! Best of luck in your own healing journey!