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Advice from Artists on How to Overcome Creative Block, Handle Criticism, and Nurture Your Sense of Self-Worth

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Mastering the balance of restriction and imaginative play, or why unbridling your self-worth from your professional success is essential for happiness.

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. But true as this general sentiment may be, it isn’t always an easy or a livable truth — most creative people do get stuck every once in a while, or at the very least hit the OK plateau. What then?

Not too long ago, Alex Cornell rallied some of our time’s most celebrated artists, writers, and designers, and asked them to share their strategies for overcoming creative block. Now comes Creative Block: Advice and Projects from 50 Successful Artists (public library) — a lavishly illustrated compendium at once very similar in spirit and sufficiently different in execution, in which Danielle Krysa, better-known as The Jealous Curator, asks artists from around the world working in various media to crack open the vault of their unconscious and explore the darkest elements of the creative process, from overcoming idea-stagnation to dealing with both self-criticism and external naysayers. In addition to sharing their broader thoughts on the demons and rewards of creativity, each artist also offers one specific block-busing exercise — a “Creative Unblock Project” — to try the next time you feel stuck.

But what makes the project particularly noteworthy is that while it features reflections from visual artists, most of their insights apply just as usefully to other creative endeavors, from writing and to entrepreneurship to, even, science.

Trey Speegle

One of the recurring themes in dealing with creative block, which a number of the artists articulate, has to do with mastering the right balance between freedom and constraint. Mixed-media artist Trey Speegle puts it perfectly:

You have to set up the narrow parameters that you work in, and then within those, give yourself just enough room to be free and play.

Aris Moore

Multidisciplinary artist Aris Moore observes:

When I am stuck … I just search for excitement, but not too hard. It is when I find myself playing more than trying that I find my way out of a block.

Lisa Golightly

Painter Lisa Golightly adds:

I give myself permission to just make for the sake of making without any thought to the outcome, which can be surprisingly hard. … What I would tell my younger self is this: There is no “right” way to make art. The only wrong is in not trying, not doing. Don’t put barriers up that aren’t there — just get to work and make something.

Lisa Congdon

The wonderful Lisa Congdon — with whom I’ve collaborated for some time — offers a “Creative Unblock Project” to explore that interplay between structure and imaginative play:

Choose one thing you love to draw or paint (and feel comfortable drawing or painting) already: an animal, object, a person, whatever. For thirty days, draw or paint that thing thirty different ways, a different way every day. You can use different mediums, expressions, positions, colors, whatever. Each day, push yourself to do something much different than the day before, but keep the subject the same. See how keeping one element constant (in this case, the “thing” you love to draw or paint) can allow you to break out creatively in other ways.

Ben Skinner

Many artists also emphasize the importance of stepping away from the work when feeling stuck — a strategy that makes sense, given how crucial the unconscious processing stage of the creative process is. Multidisciplinary artist Ben Skinner captures this:

I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me.

Ashley Goldberg

And then there’s the Buddhist-like approach of just letting the block happen rather than resisting it feverishly or grasping after an immediate resolution. Illustrator Ashley Goldberg reflects:

If it is a bigger creative block, I try to ride it out and just let it happen. I will still draw, but most pieces will end up in the trash, and that’s OK. I think some of the biggest bursts of creativity and artistic growth I’ve had are usually preceded by a big creative block.

When asked to contrast the state of creative block with its opposite, most artists describe some version of what psychologists call “flow”. Collage and mixed media artist Anthony Zinonos describes that optimal state:

I have total clarity and nothing but great ideas bubble up in my head. It’s like being on a creative high; you’re on top the world and work seems to be just pouring out of you.

Mary Kate McDevitt

Hand-lettering artist Mary Kate McDevitt shares a similar experience:

I could be working without headphones, with someone right next to me trying to get my attention, and I am completely oblivious to anything but the task at hand… One minute it’s 8 p.m., the next minute I’ve finished my project and it’s 3 a.m. That’s pretty magical.

Ashley Percival

Illustrator Ashley Percival echoes:

I don’t want the day to end, because I need to be creative forever! Sometimes I forget to eat, then I realize that I must move from my desk—so I make breakfast at two in the afternoon.

Sydney Pink

And yet this state of “flow” isn’t the same thing as the mythic divine inspiration. Illustrator Sydney Pink captures this perfectly:

The idea of divine inspiration and an aha moment is largely a fantasy. Anything of value comes from hard work and unwavering dedication. If you want to be a good artist you need to look at other artists, make a lot of crappy art, and just keep working.

But the most powerful part deals with the darkest underbelly of the creative life — criticism. Some artists, like painter Amanda Happé, turn a deaf ear to naysayers and focus on satisfying their own soul instead:

It’s one of the most beautiful things about doing this — you don’t have to care. No one gets to have their say and have it stick. No one can wrestle the pencil out of your hand. You get to keep going in absolute defiance.

Ashley Percival puts it even more simply:

You can’t please everyone — people will have art that they like and dislike — the main thing is that you as an artist are happy with your work.

Ceramics artist Mel Robson offers one of the wisest meditations on the subject:

I think it’s important to remember that making art is a process. It is never finished. The occupation itself is one of process, exploration, and experimentation. It is one of questioning and examining. Each thing you make is part of a continuum, and you are always developing. You don’t always get it right, but I find that approaching everything as a work in progress allows you to take the good with the bad. You’re never going to please everyone. Take what you can from criticism, and let go of the rest. When it comes to constructive criticism, I welcome that and think it is important to have people you can discuss your work with who will give you honest and constructive feedback. It’s not always what you want to hear, but that is often exactly what is needed. It can be very confronting, but very useful.

Hollie Chastain

This brings us to the most poignant question: How to unbridle one’s work, whether lauded or criticized, from one’s sense of self-worth. Collage and mixed-media artist Hollie Chastain reflects:

I think as an artist it’s very easy to [equate self-worth with artistic success] because of the nature of the work. If you think of art as a job, then your product is so much more than hours invested. The product is a piece of yourself, so of course if the reception is not the greatest, then it can feel like a direct hit to who you are as a person. I think this happened a lot more when I was younger and still finding my way around. I would doubt my direction when a viewer wasn’t thrilled. The trick for me is not to put more distance between my work and myself, but to close that gap completely. I can see myself in the art that I create, and that builds a wall of confidence.

Julia Rothman

Illustrator Julia Rothman — who gave us the immeasurably wonderful The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists — strips this sentiment down to its bare, most vulnerable essence:

When you put so much of yourself and your time into something, it’s hard to separate it from who you are.

Emily Barletta

Embroidery and fiber artist Emily Barletta reminds us that soul-satisfaction requires defining our own success:

I make art because the process of making art makes me happy. Being successful with it and doing it for personal fulfillment are separate ideas.

Creative Block. Complement with Brian Eno’s prompts for overcoming creative block, then revisit Bukowski’s bold poetic debunking of the ideal conditions and myths of creativity.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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The Six Motives of Creativity: Mary Gaitskill on Why Writers Write

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The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.

Why do writers — great writers — write? George Orwell attributed it to four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love.

But one of literary history’s most beautiful answers comes from Mary Gaitskill in her essay “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” titled after Nabokov’s famous meditation on the art of storytelling and published in the 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library) — an altogether fantastic collection, featuring David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “The Nature of the Fun” and other notable reflections on writing from Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rick Bass, Norman Mailer, Rick Moody, and more.

1. To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

Mary Gaitskill by Ben Handzo

Her second motive reflects Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” Gaitskill continues:

2. To give form to the things we can sense but not see. You walk into the living room where your father is lying on the couch, listening to music. You are small, so he doesn’t hear or see you. His face is reacting to the music, and his expression is soft, abstract, intensely inward. It is also pained. It is an expression that you have never seen. Then he sees you and smiles, but the music still fills the room with that other expression…

Quoting Nabokov’s famous words — “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” — Gaitskill reflects on that ability to give shape to the ineffable as the essence of storytelling:

Stories mimic life like certain insects mimic leaves and twigs. Stories are about all the things that might’ve, could’ve, or would’ve happened, encrowded around and giving density and shape to undeniable physical events and phenomena. They are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.

Gaitskill contrasts this intense outrospection and sensitivity to the world’s unseen layers with her third reason — which coincides with Orwell’s first motive — and writes:

3. To feel important, in the simplest egotistical sense. … Strong thoughts and feelings about what you see and feel require a distinct point of view and an ego. If you are frequently told that your point of view is worthless, invalid, or crazy, your ego will get really insulted. It will sulk like a teenager hunched in her room muttering, “No one ever listens. No one cares. One day they’ll see!” To make them all see — i.e., see how important I am — was once a big part of why I wrote stories. As a motivation, it’s embarrassing, it’s base, and it smells bad, but it’s also an angry little engine that could: it will fight like hell to keep your point of view from being snatched away, or demeaned, fighting even when there’s no apparent threat.

But just as one begins to raise a skeptical eyebrow and summon Alan Watts for a counterpoint, Gaitskill herself acknowledges the existential paradox therein:

The only problem is, the more your ego fights, the smaller your point of view gets. For a while, I needed to take great pains to make myself feel safe, to the point of extreme social isolation, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to fight. The angry engine quieted down a bit, and I began to learn about other points of view.

Indeed, this impulse for empathy and for giving voice to the marginalized realities of others brings us to Gaitskill’s fourth motive:

4. To reveal and restore things that I feel might be ignored or disregarded. I was once at a coffee shop eating breakfast alone when I noticed a woman standing and talking to a table of people. She was young but prematurely aged, with badly dyed hair and lined skin. She was smiling and joking, but her body had a collapsed, defeated posture that looked deeply habitual. Her spine was curled, her head was slightly receded, and her shoulders were pulled down in a static flinch. She expressed herself loudly and crudely, but also diffidently. She talked like she was a joke. But there was something else to her, something pushing up against the defeat, a sweet, tough, humorous vitality that I could almost see running up her center. I realized that if I hadn’t looked closely, I would not have really seen this woman, that I would not have seen what was most human and lively in her. I wondered how many people saw it, or even if she herself saw it…

That kind of small, new, unrecognized thing is very tender to me, and I hate it when it gets ignored or mistaken for something ugly. I want to acknowledge and nurture it, but I usually leave it very small in the stories. I do that because I think part of the human puzzle is in the delicacy of those moments or phenomena, contrasted with the ignorance and lack of feeling we are subject to.

Gaitskill moves on to her fifth reason, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous emphasis on receptivity and reflecting on the osmosis of reading and writing:

5. To communicate. … To read well is an act of dynamic receptivity that creates a profound sense of exchange, and I like being on both ends of it.

Citing one of her favorite passages in literature, from Saul Bellow’s The Victim, she captures the highest potentiality of literature:

It opens life up down to the pit; when I read that, I can’t ignore how extraordinary it is to be alive.

In her sixth and final reason, Gaitskill returns to Nabokov:

6. To integrate; to love. One of Nabokov’s early novels, Laughter in the Dark, has an apparently simple, almost hackneyed plot: a foolish, wealthy middle-aged man (Albinus) falls in love with a vulgar, heartless sixteen-year-old girl (Margot). She and her lover, Rex, proceed to destroy Albinus and his family in a ruthless, ultimately grotesque fashion. On the face of it, it’s a soap opera, but what makes it extraordinary, aside from the beauty of the prose, is the author’s gift for inhabiting every energetic strain of his breathing animal creations. Rex and Margot are absolutely evil, but they are also full of fierce life, with, and supple, eel-like charm. Nabokov can step inside their cruelty and vitality almost as if it were an electrical current, then step out again and enter the much slower, cooler ambience of their poor stooge Albinus, or the person of Albinus’s bland, taffy-sweet wife, and emerge again, all in a flash. … The ability to do this requires a great understanding of and regard for life that is, I think, a kind of love.

Gaitskill concludes by reflecting on this “kind of integration [that] requires holding many disparate elements together in a fluid mosaic” in her own experience of writing, from the depths of which emerges the light of the creative impulse:

When I start writing a story, I don’t feel like I’m integrating anything; I feel like I’m marching through mud. But at least some of the time when there comes a moment when I feel I’m carrying all the elements I’ve just described and more in a big, clear bowl. It doesn’t feel like I’m containing them. It feels like I’m bringing them into being and letting them be, exactly as they are. My perplexity and upset may still be there, but they are no longer the main event. I feel sadness because much of what is in that bowl is sad. But because of that tender sadness, I also feel humility and joy and love. It’s strange because much of what I write about does not seem loving. But to write it makes me feel love.

Why I Write, while out of print, is still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with its contemporary counterpart, one of 2013′s best books on writing, then revisit famous writers’ advice on writing.

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The River: Exploring the Inner Seasonality of Being Human in Gorgeous Watercolors by Italian Artist Alessandro Sanna

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A beautiful reminder that despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and above all ever-flowing.

“Love the earth and sun and the animals….read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,” Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass. In The River (public library) from Enchanted Lion — the wonderful Brooklyn-based independent picture-book publisher that gave us such treasures as Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Seasons, and People, the existentially profound The Hole, and the boundlessly soul-stirring Little Bird — Italian illustrator Alessandro Sanna exposes with remarkable sensitivity that gossamer connection between the physicality of the land and our transcendent experience of the passage of time, the inner seasonality of being human. Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.

In each of the four chapters, a new season unfolds, beginning with autumn and ending with summer, and out of it spring to life vignettes of different experiences along the banks of a shared river, waves of permanence and impermanence washing together. A subtle recurring motif of opposing forces — subjugation and release, celebration and solitude, fear and freedom — reverberates throughout the nearly wordless visual narrative, at once stretching it sideways and pulling it together into a vortex of coherent emotion.

For Sanna, who lives on the banks of the Po River in central Italy, this deeply personal project, years in the making, is in many ways a meta-meditation on the passage of time and the unfolding of life, in constant flux even at a seemingly static locale.

Glowing with quiet optimism, Sanna’s vibrant, expressive illustrations whisper to us that, despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and, above all, ever-flowing. As his river flows, one can almost see adrift in it the words of Henry Miller:

It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

The River is easily the most breathtaking book to come out so far this year. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s heartwarming treasures, such as My Father’s Arms Are a Boat and Little Boy Brown, both of which were among the best picture-books of 2013.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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