45 ways to spot, overcome and even enjoy a creative lull

Creatives share how they overcame challenges, creative block, indecisiveness or a lull in energy to turn a breakdown into a breakthrough.
45 ways to spot, overcome and even enjoy a creative lull

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Be it over the course of our careers in the arts, or even our day-to-day creative practice, it’s natural to experience periods of creative lull.

We may struggle to formulate a new idea, take a project through to the next step, or maintain confidence in our work and practice.

When in the thick of such a time, many of us fail to acknowledge that it’s temporary. Instead, we may convince ourselves that this lull is a signal that our ideas have officially run dry, or our careers have no foreseeable future. We’re not good enough, we’ve maxed out our creative potential, we are stuck.

But instead of taking our own creative lulls personally, we can learn to recognise the importance they play in the growth of our work.

'Creative lulls serve many purposes, and that's why they are so common. Some lulls are about maintaining and restoring the physical and psychological energy needed to be active, creatively,' explained Sarah Darmody, author and founding faculty member at The School of Life Australia.

'Our brains need rest and creative lulls to in order to tinker around with spare parts and connect them.' 

Simply, creative practice and working in the arts is difficult and you’re not a failure for simply experiencing the natural side effects of the work. 'It feels hard because it's really hard,' added Darmody. 'We live in a society that glorifies some kinds of creative output, with lots of associated pressure, but also ignores, punishes and derides the very parts of the creative process that lead to novelty and brilliance.'

For some, creative lulls stir a certain dread or terror that spurs them into action. 'I think creative lulls are designed to terrify you into being creative again,' puppeteer, writer and singer Heath McIvor explains.

For others, they provide a moment to reflect and procrastinate. 'I think when you're in a creative lull, you are more open to new input and ideas. Before you know it, procrastinating on the internet has planted a little seed that could blossom later,' said Jeroen Smeets, art agent and founder of The Jaunt.

Lulls or blocks can also be a warning sign. 'I think our lulls can be the body and the mind's way of telling us we are approaching burn out, and need to take some time out, for rest, self-care, or recharging,' said performer Mama Alto.

'Or alternatively, creative lulls can sometimes be an indication that we need to assess the situation from a different perspective, or rethink our methods and practices, and refine our approach. Plants lie dormant in between spates of abundant flowering,' Mama Alto added.

Artist Jasmine Mansbridge has recognised four main categories of creative lulls: those linked to your personal emotions; those linked to professional disappointments or rejections; those linked to external events such as having children; and those resulting from a resourcing lull when you don’t have everything you need to achieve your creative goals.

Whichever variety of lull you’re experiencing, there are various strategies that can help you move through them, while not beating yourself up in the process.

'I think that all the situations have specific challenges, but there are things you can do in each instance to help you move more quickly through a flat period,' explained Mansbridge.

Performers, writers, theatre makers, artists, singers and more share pragmatic and sometimes tongue-in-cheek advice to help you embrace, overcome and perhaps even enjoy a period of creative lull.

45 ways to spot, overcome and even enjoy a creative lull

1. Don’t be afraid to do what you want to do

'Let go of what you think you need to be doing to be taken seriously as an artist, because really, who do you want to really be taken seriously by? Once I decided to start dance classes at a nightclub, some people would tell me that it would make it hard to then make a name as a contemporary dancer. But if I get known for doing the classes and for making people happy and being able to pack out a room, that would be a really great thing to be known for! So let go of what you think is the serious or right way to do something. This is the time to take a fucking risk.' – Amrita Hepi, dance maker. 

2. Have a change of scenery

'I try to change my surrounds and put myself in uncomfortable situations when I need to jump-start my creativity. To write this year's Melbourne Fringe show for example, I rented a farmhouse in Colbinabbin and hired several local teenagers to psychologically terrorise me each night from 11pm - 3am. The results speak for themselves.' – Heath McIvor, puppeteer, writer and singer.

3. Create chaos around you

'If I have a personal breakthrough or something shifts in my everyday life, it tends to end up in my work. And if nothing is shifting in my life and I have a deadline looming I randomly select a friend, partner or family member and create some chaos around them to generate some creative fodder.' – Heath McIvor.

4. Ask, what would you rather be doing?

'Ask yourself if you'd rather be doing something else. If the answer is yes, get out while the going is good. If the answer is no, get back to work.' – Heath McIvor.

5. Recognise your own creative cycle

'What I've learned about myself over the years is that the projects that I work on have their own creative cycle. I'm really enjoying the creative energy in the start of a project, trying to make it work, introducing people about the project, and getting the project to be successful and sustainable. Once the project has gone through the first part of the creative cycle, it comes into sort of "steady waters". When this happens I don't feel enough challenges anymore and I can feel a lack of motivation to give it my 110%. Looking back at the different projects and jobs I've worked on, this cycle seems to be a 5 year cycle.' – Jeroen Smeets, art agent and founder of The Jaunt.

6. One thing leads to another

'I was once on a trip in London, to get out of my own bubble, and was walking down Brick Lane where I got tired of seeing the same type of street art over and over again. My girlfriend wanted to go and check out a gallery in a basement, and I couldn't be bothered. But she convinced me to come down to the gallery, and here I stumbled upon the work of an English artist called Joe Holbrook … After coming back to Amsterdam I got in touch with Joe to tell him how much I enjoyed his work. A couple of months passed, and I got invited to organise an exhibition in Amsterdam, and Joe Holbrook was the first artist I wanted to bring over and showcase. We developed a close friendship from that first exhibition we did, and worked very closely together. Through the creative energy that we shared, and the work that we had done together over the course of a year, I was eventually able to open up my own art gallery in Amsterdam. One thing leads to another.' – Jeroen Smeets.

7. You should only worry if you’re never in a lull

'Challenges, blocks, procrastination, and lulls are very much part of the day-to-day creative process. I'd be worried or sceptical of people who wouldn't have them in one way or another.' – Jeroen Smeets.

8. Focus on the process

'We are such an outcome-driven society, with little patience for or interest in the long, awkward and often meandering route that artists must take to get to the point where they can share their work with others …You can learn to take pride in and identify with the act of doing and making, rather than the having, publishing, and showing, which are the smallest, least creative parts of the process but the parts we give the most psychological attention to.' – Sarah Darmody, author.

9. Remember you’ll have a good day again

'If I have a bad day with writing a book, the more my confidence grows, the more I can trust that I'd have a good one again and keep writing towards that good day.'­ –  Sarah Darmody.

10. Create an 'evidence locker'

'I used to imagine each good paragraph or fresh idea as the evidence file in a police case – every good session was added to the file of "can write" and "this is working." At the end, the evidence drawer had become a locker, and now there’s an evidence room for me to check through. I needed proof of my ability to overcome creative hurdles and to entertain or surprise myself. The point at which proof overtakes hope is a lovely one, but it can take a long time to get to. Trusting that is very helpful.' – Sarah Darmody.

11. Start small

'Crafting small experiments for ourselves is a great start in dealing with blocks and confusion, but the key is to keep these experiments small and achievable. Don’t write notes commanding yourself to "find agent!" or "finish album!" but commit, instead, to a dedicated hour of research here or there, writing and sending a single email, setting up a meeting.' – Sarah Darmody.

12. Keep calm in the face of a lull

'Understanding that no matter what we choose to do, we’re naturally going to end up with some blocks and lulls and dissatisfaction is a good way to stay calm about those blocks and look for a sensible way out. You can crawl through an open window or find a spare key for a door, you don’t always need to blow up a wall to get out, but panic will tell you otherwise.' – Sarah Darmody.

13. You don’t need to create a product for something to be valuable

'Take some comfort in knowing that you’re alive at a time and place in history where dedicated creative thought is still so important to the collective human experience but that the leisure time, whimsy, thrift and non-competitive collaboration required to fuel a creative life are deeply at odds with our current world-order. There’s so much dignity and joy to be found in the attempt. It doesn’t need to be a product to be valuable.' – Sarah Darmody.

14. Use the lull to examine the project

'A hesitation or lull is in my experience a part of the process – it generally means something’s not right in the story or form or process of working and the work is telling you to get it right. It's a good sign because it helps whittle down what something is by eliminating a lot of things it is not.' – Chris Isaacs, playwright.

15. Do the bit you can

'I was stuck on a scene once and had rung up Kate Mulvany to give me a hand, push me through it so to speak, she said "Do you know what happens after this scene you're stuck on?" and I said "Yeah I do. I can't wait to get to it." So she said, "Then write that scene, you can always go back and rewrite the scene in between, if you need it, but if you know a part of the play you want to get down, then get it down. Skip the hard bit for now."' – Chris Isaacs.

16. Embrace doing something badly

'Learning that the writing will be bad before it is good is helpful. Knowing it's all disposable and actors, directors, designers etc are going to be looking at it with a curating eye anyway is probably the most helpful.' – Chris Isaacs.

17. Recognise your work needs time

'Stephen King has a line that I love which is "The Book is Boss". You're not in charge of your play, it's in charge of you. You can't make it be something it is not, so if you're in a lull it's probably because the play and you need time to figure out what it is. And if it is easy and the play comes in one whirlwind burst then so be it. Don't stop there though... work it and rework it to make it better.' – Chris Isaacs.

18. The only person you have to prove anything to is yourself

'It's not unusual, it's not uncommon, to feel blocked. Perhaps the best thing to realise is that when it comes down to it, if it's not making you happy then consider not doing it. You have nobody to prove anything to but yourself.  Free yourself of that pressure and maybe it'll becomes a little easier. Or maybe it won't. Hell I don't know really, I'm still trying to figure it out myself... whatever works for you... do that. Chances are you're a good person either way.' – Chris Isaacs.

19. There will be times in our lives other things require our focus

'I had a verrrrry lengthy lull a little while ago, at the time I called it ‘a big rut’. I wasn’t making at all or planning anything for the future, even though I wanted to. I just didn’t seem to be having any ideas, or time. There were a lot of other things going on that required my energy and focus, which didn’t leave much for art. It definitely didn’t feel great and it was a pretty shitty time generally for me.

'But lulls give you the chance to focus on other areas of life, like relationships with friends and family, health, earning/saving money, travelling…' – Experiential artist Kinly Grey, The Size of Air art installation.

20. Gradually make changes

'I gradually made changes in my life, where I could, to work on my general well-being. I did a lot of self-assessment trying to work out how I could fix things. I moved house. I quit the job that was sucking out my soul, which was followed by a stressful period of unemployment. I’m still working it out. It’s hard, uncertain, confusing, and ongoing.' – Kinly Grey.

21. Try to maintain perspective

'I try to maintain perspective on it, which is very hard to do when you’re in one. There are a lot of external expectations for being an art practitioner, like high volumes of production and frequency of exhibition, and a lot of importance placed on constant creative success. When you’re in a slow patch these ideas can be really damaging. I try to remember that everyone works differently, in their own time, at their own pace, and try not to beat myself up because my pace is slower.' – Kinly Grey.

22. Watch Oprah

'I have learnt much from consuming large amounts of TED talks, Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey on YouTube! All are a form of cheap therapy really and I can highly recommended any time you feel stuck.' – Jasmine Mansbridge, artist.

23. Ride the highs and lows

'Over the years I have learnt to better ride the highs and lows of my emotions. I think it comes with age and with getting to know myself better. I am getting better at being kind to myself, and while once I would have been consumed by the melancholy feelings of a low point, I now know it will pass and that my energy will return.' – Jasmine Mansbridge.

24. Create a protective bubble

'I have learnt to be careful about asking for feedback on my work if I am feeling low, or insta-stalking successful people! Both things can easily make me feel much worse, very quickly!' – Jasmine Mansbridge.

25. Freshen up

'Not only is it natural to experience challenges, blocks, indecisiveness, and lulls it’s a certainty, and if your not your totally deluded. Go surfing or its equivalent in your life, you tend to get back feeling fresh.'  ­– Stephen Ormandy, artist and designer.

26. Allow yourself to feel rejection

'Every time I am rejected from a festival or venue, or similar opportunity, I face an immense lull. My confidence is undermined, my sense of the viability and sustainability of my career disappears, my motivation plummets, my anxieties skyrocket. There’s a real sense of worthlessness: it feels as though, if these gatekeepers who are experts in our field have little or no faith in me and my art, why should I have any faith in myself? [But] I allow those feelings in, and sit with them for a while – trying to dismiss them or ignore them will only make the struggle worse!' – Mama Alto, performer.

27. Go where the love is

'I will listen to the little voice inside that says “go where the love is” - and continue taking my work to the venues, festivals, audiences, colleagues and collaborators who appreciate and support what I do. I’ll then bolster my sense of faith in my art by revisiting old reviews, accolades and audience responses, which will have me feeling better enough to begin thinking rationally and dispassionately about each rejection: a place where I can see that venues and festivals have certain restrictions, certain agendas, certain budgets, certain logistics, and other realities and circumstances, behind their decisions. A rejection doesn’t mean my art is worthless - a failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.' – Mama Alto.

28. Avoid comparing yourself

'I think the breakthrough came when I accepted that, artistically, there is no point in comparing yourself and your art to others, and there is no point in trying to compete with anyone. That is a futile, miserable and frustrating path. I realised that the only person to compete with is myself: constantly improving and working at my craft, not trying to live up to anyone else’s successes or progress. It’s not a race, or a marathon, or the Olympics - it’s life, it’s love, it’s humanity channelled into expression. But that’s something I have to remind myself of every single day.' – Mama Alto.

29. Go back to the 'why'

'Why do I, why do we, make art? For me, this is how art is about people and stories and emotions, and what music can do in people's lives. Focusing on the "why" can motivate us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start again.' – Mama Alto.

30. Seek advice from those you trust

'This is not just those in the arts or creative sectors, but anyone with a work ethic, practice, or career you admire. And it’s not just advice from those you know, given directly to you in conversation, but seek advice and inspiration in books, online, anywhere where ideas are communicated.' – Mama Alto.

31. Fill up the tank

'Soak up other arts and media to feed your soul and your creative mind. Movies, theatre, books, music, art galleries, online or in person - soak it all up. It’ll do you good. But never think about competition or comparison - only compete against yourself.' – Mama Alto.

32. Rethink self-care

'Creative lulls, artistic blocks and career confusion can be the result of, or the cause of, depression and anxiety – so my advice would also to be engaging in self-care practices. The concept of self-care is an interesting one, and one which is often very controversial and can be clouded by our own subjective positions and privileges when it comes to class, gender and race – so we must be mindful of the fact that what might be perceived as self-care to some is actually a luxury to others. When overwhelmed or exhausted, or when in a negative mental health place, my self-care and unwinding comes down to essential tasks, such as hot showers, and luxuries such as moisturising, temporarily logging off or unplugging from media coverage of hate speech or so called ‘respectful debate’ over the legitimacy and existence of fellow human beings, drinking copious cups of tea, and connecting with loved ones.' – Mama Alto.

33. Learn from mistakes

'I procrastinate terribly. Which is awful, and particularly tricky to tackle when I'm working on scripts I've written myself, because the writer in me tends to take over any rehearsal session and tries to solve any problem by re-writing the script, so the actor doesn't have to do anything. My second solo work, Ode to Man, really suffered in its first season for this reason. Writer-Emma was so present throughout the rehearsals that Actor-Emma simply didn't get the time she needed to be ready for opening night, and hence forgot her lines onstage. This experience, freezing onstage in front of some of the most wonderful Melbourne industry folk I admire and respect, is something I hope I never forget. There's a visceral memory in my body now that is so strong I won't make that mistake again.' – Emma Mary Hall, theatre maker, Ode to Man.

34. Seek external accountability

'I procrastinate because I am terrified of acting, even now, I resist the vulnerability and physicality of it. I also find scheduling acting coaches or voice coaches to work with me on particular sections helps me to focus and gets me there.' – Emma Mary Hall.

35. Trust the back-brain

'Keep breathing, keep sleeping, trust that the back brain is working on your creations, and nurture the generous within you. Give yourself some down time.' – Emma Mary Hall.

36. Know when you need to kick-start the process

'I've gone through periods of months and even years where I barely picked up a guitar and felt really uninspired to write or create anything. Obviously you can't always be writing and creating at full capacity and its just part of the normal process of any creative work to have breaks. But it can be hard to get that balance right. Feeling the pressure to create can totally kill the desire to do so, but sitting around waiting for inspiration usually doesn't lead to anywhere unless you at least make some kind of effort to kick start that process.' – Jess Locke, musician and painter.

37. Don't be fooled by expectations

'It sounds obvious, but its really easy to get sucked into this abstract music 'industry' and into what other people are doing instead of what you want to do. When I can feel excited about writing or playing or get inspired by something someone else is doing, the creative process becomes a lot easier and smoother. It's also really easy for creativity to be stunted by the pressure of creating a particular song. Again, it seems straight forward, but it's important to keep open minded, To try not to have too many expectations and see where things go. Most ideas probably won’t go anywhere but that's all part of the practice. Most of my favourite songs that I have written have come out of me just messing around while watching TV or something. It's important to take it easy but still pick up the guitar and see what happens.' – Jess Locke.

38. See overcommitting as the enemy

'The two greatest challenges I face on a consistent basis are overcommitting, and asking for help. Once I’m overcommitted I unfortunately stop enjoying the process and find myself thinking about how great it’ll be once I finally get some free time. The asking for help part, well, I just never want to be a bother so it causes me great stress to have to do so.' – Jeremy Neale, musician.

39. Build routine into your calendar

'Keeping a physical calendar and adding some routine into my life has been really helpful in dealing with overcommitment.' – Jeremy Neale.

40. Ask for help

'I made a really conscious effort to try and get comfortable with the idea by asking so many people to help with different aspects of the creation of my new album and its associated assets (film clips, artwork etc). At the end of the day though, I find I still need to remind myself that I’m very willing to help other people with their creative pursuits so there’s hopefully a good chance that the same is true for them.'  – Jeremy Neale.

41. Read 

'I've started to read more broadly, and listen to opinions of those I disagree with; sometimes to inspire a thought I've never had before, sometimes to get my rage fire going to I can write some sweet, angry music. I try to listen to a podcast a day, so I have fresh opinions flying into my head.' – Alice Tovey, performer and theatre maker.

42. Back yourself

'You have to back yourself and your creative instincts no matter what everyone around you thinks. Some of your early work won’t hit the mark you’re aiming for, but you just have to keep moving ahead. A creative career can feel like endlessly pushing a rock up a hill, but that rock is your rock and no one else’s, and that is a satisfying thing.' – Julie Koh, author and writer.

43. Careers can be twisting, turning waterslides

'My career shifted in an unexpected way after the publication of my first full-length book. The book’s done really well but because my energy for so many years had been directed towards the goal of just getting that book published, I hadn’t really thought about what would come after. Or, more accurately, I thought that everything after publication would be a walk in the park. But it hasn’t been – it’s been a twisting, turning waterslide. It’s been like starting a new job in an area I haven’t been trained for, and trying to keep up.' – Julie Koh.

44. Go back to, what do you enjoy doing? (Hint: it can be Netflix!)

'A friend of mine recently listened to me rant about my lull and said: ‘So what do you actually enjoy doing?’ And I couldn’t give him an answer because I’d been working so hard in recent years. His advice was to spend some of my time doing things I actually want to do. So I’ve been going to public lectures in various disciplines, and watching terrible Netflix shows. Another friend of mine calls this ‘filling the well’ in between major works – a way to hit ‘refresh’, or creatively recharge. It’s hard to do this when you’re impatient to achieve big things and so you always want to be working, but it’s necessary because it’s hard to engage in creative play when you’re beating yourself over the head about not producing enough tangible work.' – ­Julie Koh.

45. Know a creative lull is not creative death

'I don’t think anyone likes creative lulls, mostly because you’re likely to mistake a creative lull for creative death. The worry is always that you’ll never get back to peak creativity – that your best days are either behind you, or will never arrive… I think it’s healthy to recognise that life will often take you away from your creative work, and you just have to deal with what comes up. It’s okay to be in a period where you aren’t creating much, as long as you’re still holding onto your creative dreams, and taking small steps in that direction when you can. Time away from creative work isn’t always a waste – it can bring in new material and inspiration, so that you can come back with fresh ideas and renewed passion.' – Julie Koh.

Madeleine Dore

Monday 25 September, 2017

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator