Marja-Leena Rathje
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artist's block


From time to time, I hear about writer's and artist's blocks. I think I have both right now! I have good ideas and notes for blog posts. I have good ideas, quick sketches and a body of very interesting photographs to develop into pieces for my continuing print series. But what I seem to be lacking in is the energy and motivation to grab the bull by the horns and just do it! I fiddle around with "light" stuff, skirting the real meaty stuff with that guilty glance out of the corner of my eye. Actually it's not just a lack of energy; energy comes with motivation, doesn't it? It's amazing how much energy I have when I'm motivated, then excited by what I'm doing.

I've had artist's block before (as all artists do) and it usually comes when I've taken too long a break in my work, particularly when one series has ended and before I've been able to get immersed in a new one. Usually I work through it by looking at past work and doing some quick trials. This time, though I have the ideas and materials, I haven't had the motivation to make myself do any work. I know it's partly, and only partly, due to many distractions this past month in my personal life - house guests, a friend's death, ongoing but minor health issues and catch-up work around home and garden. But those kind of "distractions" are all part of life. I certainly don't believe in giving up my family, friends and home for the sake of my art! Meanwhile, I'm waiting for that bolt from the sky to shake me out of this rut!

So, my dear writers and artists reading this - what do you do to break out of your block?

Marja-Leena | 05/10/2006 | 34 comments
themes: Being an Artist


I like the photo you chose for this because it portrays a "block," an obstacle, but also shows a way through to the light on the other side.

There are many ways I break out of a block, but most often it has to do with making sure I begin with an attitude of play or exploration. Sometimes it requires trying fresh things, new techniques or perspectives, looking at new things or going new places for ideas. I also look at and read the work of others for inspiration.

Of course, there are times when life becomes just too much and I need a break, during which time I think of my creativity as being like a fallow field, resting, digesting, preparing, waiting for the right moment to begin again.

And, sometimes, just telling someone else I'm blocked has been known to unblock me!! ;-)

First, you gotta stop thinking of it as artist block or writer's block - you are filling your hopper. You can't spend all your time using up, you have to spend some of it filling.

Second, art is play. Don't turn it into "work." Keep playing. Keep it playful.

Third, I always like to have so much to do that even when I'm stuck on "this," I still can move on "that." Sometimes I have to go from this to that to the other, pushing where something wants to move. I do that often enough and I find, dang, this looks like it is almost finished. I like to have so much pressing that it just gets "squeezed" out of me.

Of course, your results may vary. Contents may settle during shipment. Not responsible for items left unattended.

Good luck!

Play is important but I think trying to keep to some kind of daily practice (blogging counts, here) is a good way to keep your eyes open to new experiences, and writing about them keeps you limber. Push through the block by, well, pushing. (This doesn't always work for me but sometimes it does...)

So, we're both in the same boat - sitting on pins n needles wondering what's going to happen next. I've got a bad case of writer's block although I'm looking forward to doing more research and putting pen to paper (tickling the keys)on a project that you've helped with from the outset. I think we might be suffering from a mild dose of procrastination. It's easy to loose your focus when you're tired, hurting, and perhaps on information overload. Your energy will level out rather than come in bursts. Don't be too hard on yourself - who's driving your bus today eh! Best.

Oh, Marja-Leena, I'm sorry, and I recognize what you're talking about! Sometimes I just need a real break - to "fill up again," as Tom says. And sometimes I need to give myself a kick in the rear and just get going - becasue once I'm really DOING it, I often feel the energy again. Sometimes it helps me to come at it sideways - in art, by using a different medium, maybe, or in writing, but writing something totally "other" - like some long letters to people I haven't seen for a while. Right now, having finished a big project, I am very much in-between and not ready to jump into something like that again. I'm more in need of replenishment - which means reading, knitting, giving myself time to think. So don't be too hard on yourself - I get the impression you are not a person who lacks discipline, so it's not that! Dealing with the death of friends and family is very hard, and I think it requires being gentle with oneself; it's like we get weak and wounded somewhere deep inside, even when we feel all right outwardly.

I find it can help me to get started if I solemnly set out to create something just dreadful. An awful mawkish poem, a stupid self-congratulatory blog post. Whatever I'm most worried about -- I try to drive right into the middle of it. Because weirdly enough, the good stuff is *inside* all that anxiety. If I turn away from the anxiety I'm turning away from the really good stuff too. So I have to sit down and tell myself, "I am now going to write the most stupid, hackneyed, superficial, sentimental poem that has ever been written," and go to work on it. Or, "I am now going to write the most blatantly self-promoting, self-absorbed, self-pitying blog post ever to blight the blogosphere," and let loose. Sure enough, it starts out awful. But after a few sentences, often, it corrects itself, and the whole poem or post can be built around the flaw.

When I find enthusiasm for my writing starting to flag, I try something new: new angle, new voice, new tone, new genre. Daily blogging is a great discipline. I have written some of my best stuff when I was trying to write something else, and was convinced I was "blocked."

I get those blocks so often I could build a house with them! The reasons are partly what you mention, M-L, and partly, I guess, the usual fears of committment/failure/success etc. Recently I explored this on the Blaug when stuck in procrastination (another word for "blocked'?) but now I seem to have got out of the blocked state and into all-stations-go state. What gets me going is often something more mundane than inspiration: it's panic. Panic that time is going by and I'm missing the boat. Once I'm in the work-flow, the panic vanishes and the inspiration returns and all is well. The best advice I got was from the great Michel Seuphor who told me that you don't have to have good reasons to be motivated to work. A bad reason will do just as well.

For me a block means that my creative brain needs fuel and/or a shake-up. I look back through past work both finished and sketches etc. - ideas which never got anywhere, were abandoned, floated off, .... I also go out for some input. Yesterday I was feeling the same way and went to a new Borders store which has opened nearby. I bought an Australian Craft magazine and a Finnish International Art magazine, had a coffee, then came home and looked through some work from the 80s - and now have ideas for a couple or three new works. Relaxing about it all helps too, I find. Good luck.

When able to work, enjoy working.
When unable to work, savor the desire to begin working again.
When unable to desire to work savor other desires.

From this you might be able to tell I'm not much of a disciplinarian.

Life is a miracle. Good health is a further miracle. Having the time and the inclination to pursue art is beyond the moon.

Oh, wow, thank you everybody for all the wonderful, thoughtful and helpful insights! The heartwarming empathy from Beth, Bill and Roger (including your beautiful email, Rog!) moved me greatly and I will allow myself the benefit of taking it slowly. You have all inspired a great deal more thinking on my part, resulting in a better understanding of what I'm going through. In a sense, what you've all said I know already, but it's good to be reminded of the options and not beat myself up about it. The guilt complex is something I'm always trying to shake, as part of my Protestant work ethic upbringing, I suppose.

The need for replenishment or "filling your hopper" as Tom wrote and MB called "resting, digesting, preparing, waiting for the right moment to begin again" is so true, but maybe I do that for too long a period in the summer and get lazy physically, mentally and creatively. My trip to Writing-on-Stone in June was "filling" but maybe I need more of that kind in my life, a little more often. Yes, when the hopper is full, it must expel the contents (but sometimes it gets stuck,Tom!).

Then again, another name for "blocked" is procrastination as Natalie and Roger mention. I think that is really the situation for me right now because I do have the ideas, but not the motivation to work. Natalie's motivation was "panic", which I experienced to a mild degree last fall as I prepared for my exhibition. Sometimes something new (Dave) or a need for fuel or a shakeup (Omega) can do the trick, I agree.

Some of you said blogging is a good discipline and yes, I agree if you are a writer. For me, though it has many benefits, blogging and blog-reading have become a distraction (or an obsession!) that takes away from my time to do art - a lack of self-discipline on my part! When I was doing "traditional" printmaking, I would spend long days in the printmaking studio doing all the work there. Since I started working so much digitally, more of my time is spent here at home in front of the computer, with all its related distractions.

Finally, as MB, Tom, and Pica said, play is very important, and it has been a technique I've used in the past and must get back to doing in the studio (not just blogging or gardening, hmph). So, off I go now to play! I'm going to go cut up some proofs and play around with layers and collage, then hopefully feel inspired to do the same digitally! Wish me motivation and inspiration! And the same to all of you, with love!

Oh Dale, I just found your comment in the "junk comments" of Movable Type, so I've just rescued it! I think your suggestions for doing the "worst" work sound very original and worth a try! You must be strong though that you aren't going to berate yourself for being a terrible artist! Thanks so much for your input, Dale.

A block by any other name

oh I had a serious block a while back, I was paintng at a fevour pace for months then in one set down of the brush it stopped for months, it was like a divorce, a separation.

I looked a lot at what i had done, i visited other artists studios, a I walked alot, blocks, or blank canvases as I call them, as I have learned are important reminders to me to reflect on what has happened contemplate a blank canvas, sheet of paper or lump of clay for exactly what it is and listen to your dreams.

seems for me to help integrate.

vegetable/fruit stamping! I was so stressed out this week that I got sick to my stomach, an overall horrible feeling, plus a headache. but having fun with some paint and a child's technique helped me to loosen up. i'm feeling inspired by the greatness and exciting feeling of some of my classmates' work, and the prospect of knowing i can now start putting articles up on my site. i think some inspiration will come out of writing, like some visuals in my head came out of listening to music. try another medium... you have a great instrument at your disposal and i don't!

Hi Kerry! I've missed your blog but I'm glad you are still reading them! Sorry to hear about your very abrupt block, but obviously your body was saying "enough", time to refuel and refresh - which you've done. Thanks for dropping by and sharing.

Erika, I'm glad you've gotten past the stress and you're being creative. I'm not sure my piano playing is up to snuff anymore, more stressful than inspiring! But I did go into the studio this afternoon and played with some transparencies and prints - which gave me some ideas and got the juices warmed up a bit.

Hope you have inspiration. Maybe the stones will suggest a new path. You could always listen to the drum. aloha.

Maija, thanks for the good wishes! And welcome to my blog. Your name is Finnish - are you writing from Finland?

I'm simply being blocked from writing by having no time! But these are all great suggestions. Thanks for opening up the discussion, M-L.

I am saami and mixed. I live on the Big Island, Hawaii. I like your website and your work. Are you still travelling or home? You are inspirational to a person like me. It is the high path to get out there and live.

Leslee: Time - yes! That IS an important ingredient in the mix. You have a job and commute, so you don't have many options. Maybe you could "talk" your ideas into a recorder while you drive - like Tom!?

Maija, how interesting that you're part Saami, and live in Hawaii - pretty far from the north. Have you seen some of my articles on the Saami in the archives? Are you an artist too?

I'm at home right now, not travelling much, except in my chair! Thanks for your very kind words, I've never thought I could be an inspiration to others, wow!!

I haven't read all the archival material. The folk material and geneology will be my first focus. Yes, I am an artist, mostly in clay now. My work is not commercial. I like to carve porcelein...a strange fascination....

Maija, I wish you well in your reading and your art! Carving porcelain sounds fascinating.

I am someone who tends to do too much writing and art work, with so many ideas and inspirations all the time that often I can't sleep. It's as if my head is pouring out ideas like a waterfall. It's espcially bad when I am working on an intense project; for the time that I'm immersed in it my body and brain switch into a new mode, in which it seems more of my life exists in my mind and imagination than in the real world (often missing meals because I forget the time).

So, when the doldrums hit and I have the time, I just quit everything, leave behind, all traces of the writing or art work, all tools, all references, all conversations and inspiring books and such, and just go away somewhere, usually, for me, the mountains. I resolve to think of nothing and just completely "be". After a day or two, hopefully more, I feel as if I have been laundered of old ideas and imaginary lint and can start afresh. That is when I return and look at more work with new eyes and a new drive. Always works for me.

Miguel, thank you for telling me about your work practice - you are amazingly focused! And now I understand even more how important the mountains are for you. And here's a lesson for other artists, though we all work differently.

My focus on my artmaking tends to be concentrated on a few days a week, and often it's a battle with other aspects and interests in my life. As I've gotten older and the family's grown, some of those other distractions have lessened but I've also slowed down in my energy levels. And blogging has been a new creative as well as a distractive element in the past two years.

yea,miguel. going to the mountains, going to the
sea...dreaming of the ocean, dreaming of the sea...Marja-Leena, how much do you feel mitochondrial dna and memes are a part of our lives? Sometimes I feel like I don't know anything, and then turn the corner and feel like a small song in the universe...

Have you ever read Art and Fear?

Maija, you may want to read Miguel's blog - it's very inspiring, just like what he wrote here! Oh, I think mitochondrial DNA is a strong part of who we are! I don't know "memes" in this context, do you mean genetic memory? I think it is a fascinating concept and I'm inclined to believe there may be truth in it for some. What do you think?

Hi Nancy, pleased to meet you! No, I haven't read Art and Fear. You probably have - do you think it's valuable for artists? Did it help you?

This has been a fascinating discussion. Any and all methods of getting back to the work/play of creating sometimes work, sometimes don't. However, it is so reassuring when I'm in despair to find others understand, even if their solutions seem out of reach when I'm in that low place. Sometimes, after everything else seems useless, it's a matter of time...allowing time to do whatever mysterious thing time seems to do.

Hei Kati! Yes, very fascinating and still going strong, which amazes me. This subject obviously touches a lot of people. And I agree that time does its work, even magic! I hope you aren't expereincing a block right now, though you are blogging quite a lot. Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts.

And I'm happy to say that this week I've been able to play and create some interesting little pieces that are getting the creative juices flowing. These may inspire some new approaches in the bigger prints I'm planning. I wish I'd remembered the camera and taken some photos to share - maybe next week!

I haven't expereinced a "block" in years. I understand the concept - I just don't get them anymore. Its not so much a boast, as it is knowing the reason for my good fortune:

My "Immersion Travel Art" idea keeps me hopping, creatively. The constant relocation is the answer. I get the benefit of travel combined with comforts of home. Always experiencing new cultures with the bonus of having a studio always at the ready. - DN

Daniel, I'm happy that you've chimed in too! I think you are very blessed that you have been continually motivated and creative. You must also have good energy levels and health and a very supportive environment that keeps you free from distractions.

As I think you know, I'm stuck too, but working on getting through it. Just got a new commission which has meant a lot of looking at photographs, talking to the client's reps and generally working up the idea in my head. And when the time comes, I have no doubt that I'll have reached the stage where the work will flow.

And experience has shown, once I've started again, I won't stop.

Until the next block.

Hey Mr. Zip, it's been awhile, so happy to see you here! A commission is a great challenge to help spark the creative flow. I hope your block is gone soon and stays away for a long while! Good luck and thanks for sharing.