Whisperings from the Wormhole with @talluts

Unblocking Creative Block
A drawing of a person lying in pyramids

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Louise Bourgeois Fear 1999 Drypoint from 11 Drypoints

Recently, I was making coffee, and I know it’s bad, but I love sweetening it with granulated sugar. I was trying to pour some out from a box, but only a few grains were coming out because the whole thing was full of clumps. And those clumpy lumps became for me an analogy for artist’s block, a condition I was suffering from at the time. As artists, we are like the sugar box with our sweet, sweet creativity trapped inside of us. Those heavenly granules are abundant and want to pour out to make coffee more delicious, but they can’t because their own selves are blocking it. And, as I was squeezing the box, trying to crush the bigger blobs, or choosing violence and stabbing a spoon handle in there, I started to wonder what other artists do in this predicament. So, I went up periscope, past the crystallized chunks, and spied about to find ideas for overcoming it.

First, I leafed through this great book, Creative Block, by artist and writer Danielle Krysa. In the book, Kryssa asked artists to share their anti-block techniques. For example, artist Shannon Rankin suggested that artists should “use a cropping tool to find new compositions from an original piece. Enlarge this small portion of the original piece. Create a new piece based on the enlarged composition.” And artist Fiona Ackerman offered this tip: “Do a painting that is nothing like anything you would usually do…Dare to go against what you know…Try to do something that no one would recognize as yours, that people would look at and say, ‘Really? You did this?’ And they need not mean it as a compliment.” And, I’ll add that sometimes what may be needed is accountability and/or guidance (if the block is particularly block-y), We might find a group of artists to report back to and help put a fire under us. Or we might consider finding a mentor. You, like me, might be the kind of person who never kept in touch with professors, or you may feel too old and post-school to benefit from one. But consider asking an artist you think could really help if they would take you on as a private student, maybe meeting one time a month or so. Many artists teach, and so having a paid private student isn’t a crazy proposition. It might be just the thing to take out a sizable clump.

Agnes Martin Little Sister 1962 Courtesy LACMA

I wondered, too: Were there any famous artists from history who also suffered blockages and could offer some tips and tricks? I think all artists must go through it, but artists such as Agnes Martin, William Blake, and Louise Bourgeois notably suffered from the disease. Claude Monet was rumored to have suffered too, and I like to think maybe those quirky caricature sketches that he made were a fun diversion on the rocky road back to his painting practice.

The blocked creative spirit inside us is like a mule refusing to budge, with all four hooves stubbornly gouging into the earth. This resistance can be a message that what we’re trying to do might be past its prime or not true to our voice. A mule will only choose to work if it’s asked nicely by someone it likes. Similarly, our creative block is like an inner mule digging its heels in. And if the mule won’t move, our approach needs to change. But how do we shift our work to something new and come up with fresh ideas? Easier said than done, right?

Strange as it may seem, new ideas often come when we least expect them. Usually, they pop up when we find ourselves in a sensory deprivation chamber of sorts. For example, taking a shower and being alone in the car can function like this. When we are left alone with ourselves and free of the “tyranny of the home,” that’s when ideas tend to find us.

Claude Monet Caricatures 1858-59 Courtesy of the Musee Marmottan

In Wired to Create, Authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire say that “a shower is, quite literally, a place of incubation–a change of scenery from the rest of our everyday lives–that’s relatively free of stimulation and distractions. Showering insulates us from the external world so that we can focus all our attention on our inner desires, daydreams, and memories—thereby increasing the likelihood that our mind will come up with creative connections.” And Harvard psychologist Shelley H. Carson, author of Creative Brain, says “a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.”

I think knowing we need to try something new but fearing failing at it might also contribute to artist’s block. We fear going out on that shaky, creaky limb. We’re convinced we’ll fall into the chasm below or look foolish, especially in this age of social media posts. But when we feel that fear, that’s our signal to move towards it, not away. As our Queen, Cher, says, “Until you’re ready to look foolish, you’ll never have the possibility of being great.”

A person sitting on a chair with his hands up

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William Blake Job’s Despair Object 8 (Butlin 550.8), 22.0 x 26.8 cm Courtesy of the William Blake Archive

In Creative Block, Artist Holly Chastain gives this tip for breaking out of creative inertia: “Ask someone close to you to give you an assignment. Make sure that it’s not an idea you have frequented regularly in your work. Keep true to your vision and technique as you work.” Artist’s block might be rooted in a fear of new ideas and change. When a fear pops up, i.e., I can’t make that. It’s not what I do… we might instead remember that our work evolves constantly. And truly, if we pulled out our old work from five or ten years ago, we’d probably see a range of different approaches on display

Let’s line up those fears and knock them down one by one like an amusement park shooting gallery.

Take: I’m not good enough, and let’s just try it. Or: I don’t do that kind of work. I bet we once did. And I don’t have the time right now to start anything major. Great things get done with baby steps. Also, let’s try the “One-Hour Rule” and force ourselves to work one hour a day until momentum takes hold.

The Empty Picture Frame, 1934 by Rene Magritte
Rene Magritte The Empty Picture Frame 1934

Often, the blocks that our fearful creative minds come up with are simply manifestations of our brain’s attempt to keep us “safe.” Risk was a thing to be avoided by the caveman and his fellow cave-people as their psyches were evolving. But as artists, we don’t want safe. We prefer to be like Bruce Willis, dangling by a pinky from the elevator shaft, shouting, “I know it’s strange that Diehard is a Christmas movie, but it just is, and I’m not afraid to defy expectations!”

And, sometimes, an explosive shock just like that is what’s needed to disrupt our nice, quiet, predictable systems. Enrique Celaya echoes this idea in his book On Art and Mindfulness: “Constantly push against yourself and against what you have been. Nothing good comes without a rupture…without a tear in your view of the world. Cultivate those ruptures. A linear path will not take you where you need to go. Some fracture has to happen.”

Benjamin Eisenstadt, Inventor of the sugar packet and Sweet ‘N Low (inset), and his son, Marvin Eisenstadt, posing with a bus advertisement in front of Sweet ’N Low’s Brooklyn offices circa 1960. Photo courtesy of Sweet ’N Low

Back to my clogged box of sugar: Maybe the solution to artist’s block wasn’t to stab at those clumps at all but rather to think of other ways to access those stubborn granules. I recently stumbled upon the story of Benjamin Eisenstadt, inventor of the sugar packet, and it gave me food for thought. In the 1940’s, Eisenstadt had run a cafeteria in Brooklyn across from the Navy Yard. As a cafeteria owner, he had gotten frustrated with unclogging all the sugar dispensers set out on the customer’s tables. When his café closed, he converted the space into a teabag factory and even invented a machine to fill the bags. Later, after his factory tanked, he had the idea to use that machinery to fill single-serve sugar packets. And Eureka! No more clumps or clogs! Sadly, he forgot to patent his idea, and big sugar swooped in to make huge profits off his invention without cutting him in. The jerks. But Benjamin was nothing if not a pivoter. He went on to invent a formula for powdered saccharin sweetener, the still popular Sweet ‘N Low.

Regardless of how you feel about sugar or the eco-cost of tiny packets everywhere, you must admit that the story shows an amazing example of thinking outside the (sugar) box. We, like Ben, have a clumping problem, and our usual methods keep clogging up. Perhaps we should consider tea bags?

When artist’s block next strikes, we, of course, must crush it, squish it, knock it down, shake it, think about it in the shower, and shove it into tiny bags. But most importantly, we must listen to it because, like a tinny voice transmission echoing out from the wilderness, it might be trying to tell us something.

Maybe it’s time for a change.

About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.