I’ve been involved in a number of creative projects ever since I was old enough to peel back the paper on a crayon, so I can confidently say, with no hesitation, that being in a creative rut sucks. It’s frustrating, it’s time-consuming, it’s not productive, and it often leads to questioning your self-worth (although for the purpose of this entry I’ll just focus on the rut itself and leave the topic of depression for another time).
One of the biggest issues is that you really do want to produce something, but you just don’t, for whatever reason. For me, it usually starts out with not knowing where I want a story to go or how one of my characters should behave. I end up having these staring contests with the blinking cursor while I try to figure out what to type next. Which is actually pretty normal for a writer, but then these contests last longer and longer, and I end up spending a couple of hours only writing one page. One page eventually turns into half a page. Then a paragraph. Then a sentence. And I’m not satisfied with what I wrote at all. Not just normal artistic self-doubt. True dissatisfaction and disgust with myself that this is honestly the best I could come up with in such a large amount of time.
And it just keeps going downhill from there. Eventually you go a week without making anything, then two, then a month, and all the while you keep having thoughts and ideas that you want to put into some kind of form. For me it usually happens when I’m unable to write, like while I’m driving, or in the shower, or at work (a lot at work, actually). You start getting overflowed with all this pent up energy, but by the time you get home and can actually do something, you just can’t. And it’s usually because you got into a rut and are out of practice, and now you’ve been overthinking and may or may not have a ton of new ideas but have no fucking clue where to start. And now there’s all this pent up energy and desire to do something but you can’t and you’re about to freak!
Well, first of all, if you’re reading this in a situation that will allow it, scream (if you can’t, make a point to do it later). Ready? One, two, three…
Okay, take a couple of deep breaths now. Feel a little better? You should. If not, try again.
There are a couple of things you should keep in mind as a creative person. First of all, it’s okay to be in a creative rut. This is normal. What’s that? You’ve been in a creative rut before? Lots of times? Good. That’s normal, too. I would be very suspicious of the person that confidently says that he or she’s never been in a creative rut and can regularly produce quality work.
Second, you’re not going to produce quality work most of the time. In no way do I mean this to be demoralizing, but it’s something a lot of us, especially myself, seem to forget. A big reason we stop producing content is because we try forcing ourselves to make work perfect the first time. Sometimes we do it because we can’t stand looking at ourselves do mediocre work, but like I said, we’re not going to make something great most of the time. The sooner you can truly accept that there’s going to be more crap than good, the sooner you can start regularly (and reliably) producing more work, which will in turn eventually lead to producing more good work. I mean think about it, do you really think those books written by what’s his face are the only things he’s written? Or the handful of albums by creative band name contain the only songs they’ve written? No. It’s easy to think the “pros” produce gold all the time, but they’ve got their shitty work, too.
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, take a couple more deep breaths. Scream again, if you need to.
Keeping those thoughts in mind, there are some ways that may help get you out of that obnoxious rut. To start off, keep absorbing content. By this, I mean if you’re a writer, keep reading. If you’re a musician, keep listening to music. If you’re an artist, keep looking at other artists’ work. You can’t be a good whatever if you don’t know what makes stuff good, and you find that out by absorbing content. A lot of it. Don’t be afraid to branch out of your comfort zone, either. Read books by people you’ve never heard of. Listen to different genres of music. Look at a lot of crappy stuff and teach yourself why it’s crap. It’ll help you learn what makes good art. If you aren’t regularly absorbing content, start immediately. Do it every damn day. If you’re not producing your own work, you can at the very least say you’re doing something to help you learn more about your creative field.
Do something new. Like, with yourself, or in the world, not just creatively (although never hesitate to try out something new in your own work). Add a new routine. Go for a walk somewhere and get some fresh air. Or go walk somewhere new (and safe; let’s not walk through dangerous alleys at three in the morning). You’ve probably heard something like this before, but it can be very refreshing, especially if you haven’t taken one in a while. Do more exercise in general, too. You have all this pent up energy from being unable to express ideas anyway, so you may as well let out some steam through more exercise. Try working in a new place, too. I get so much more writing done when I’m at the library or a computer lab than I ever do at home. Don’t know why, but where you are can make a difference. And again, don’t be afraid to change it up, too. Don’t use one specific place as your savior for getting out of the rut. A lot of people like having a study or office or some other room in their house dedicated to being creative, but for me, it never helps if I limit what I do to one specific location. I’m a writer; I shouldn’t be limited to doing my thing in one place. I should be able to do it anywhere.
Do something nostalgic. Nostalgia can be dangerous, I used to be particularly prone to getting lost in nostalgia during depressive episodes, but if you can reliably handle it, go and revisit some old stuff. Go read the books that made you want to be a writer. Go listen to the music that first sparked intense emotions in you. Whatever media that helped your imagination grow, go revisit it for a while. Take a good look at your roots, see your beginnings with a new set of eyes, and evaluate how far you’ve come. Retrospectives aren’t bad, so partake in one every once and a while.
And finally, if you can’t do something right now, just don’t do it. At the end of the day, you may just need a break. If you’re really struggling with something, put it down and come back later. Give yourself a few days or a week off. While you do need to keep working towards something on a regular basis, sometimes you just need a little time off to breathe. You’re only human, after all. Just make sure you get back to work. Set a specific amount of time off. As soon as it’s done, get back to work.
So I guess that’s my thought on creative ruts. I need to get my ass up and back to work myself. Hope this helped out in some way. Just remember, you’re not the only artist that gets stuck, don’t be afraid to make crap, and always keep trying. Good luck.