Thursday, November 12, 2015

Make Art, Not Procrastination! - 10 Tips to Overcome a Creative Block

Step 1: Go to wherever you usually work.
Step 2: Get started.

Procrastination ... It follows us everywhere, and sometimes it haunts us even when we're doing something we enjoy. I think the only thing you can't procrastinate is watching cat videos on YouTube. And as an artist, you can procrastinate art. In fact, I believe that a creative block is nothing else than procrastination. Just plain, banal procrastination. So just erase this romantic "creative block" euphemism from your vocabulary. It's procrastination. And in order to overcome it you have to treat it as procrastination.

You don't believe me? Well, this is how I experience a "creative block": First I notice that I didn't write anything for a long time. I don't really feel like writing, I haven't been feeling like writing for weeks, but I don't wait for "inspiration", open the file and stare at the white space. My head feels numb and squeezing out words from my brain feels just as reasonable as trying to squeeze toothpaste from an empty tube. All depressed because of the failure I decide to make a pause and watch cat videos on YouTube. I watch and watch and watch until I realize that it's time to go to bed. Nonetheless I open my file, hoping that "inspiration" will come, since night is its favourite time of day. Yet after staring at the empty space for some more time I call it a day and hope that tomorrow it'll be better. But the story just repeats itself.

What is it else than procrastination? Instead of doing at least something I just give up for now and try later. I. Give. Up. And giving up is not what art is about.

(By the way, right after writing these paragraphs I discovered that Eric Ravenscraft has the same opinion, quoting Jodi Picoult.)

So how do you treat procrastination?

Step 1: Go to wherever you usually work. Step 2: Get started.

That's it. And you know it's that easy. And yet, getting started can be the hardest thing ever. So what to do in order to actually do step 2? Here are 10 suggestions:

1. Have a fixed working place.

It's really hard to concentrate where you usually relax, and it's hard to relax where usually work. If you associate a room with entertainment you'll think about entertainment every time you enter it. And if you use a room only for work "working mood" will affect you whenever you're inside. So if you have a room where you make all your art your creativity will stay and live there. However, problems may crop up if you move. Personally I usually find it difficult to continue writing a story after moving or when I'm on vacation.

2. Make sure you won't get distracted.

Distraction isn't only other people. YouTube is also one. Never ever open YouTube while working.
Things related to other activities are also distracting. When I'm trying to write prose I always make sure I don't see my bills and other unpleasant stuff. When I try to make art I pretend certain things just don't exist.

Just ... just get everything too entertaining or bothersome out of your sight, okay?

3. Have multiple tasks to choose from.

It's always easier to stick with something you don't feel like doing when you could choose between several alternatives. When I really, really didn't feel like writing the actual chapter of my master's thesis I sometimes allowed myself not to do it and did some other important work concerning the paper instead: I made a draft for the next chapter, refined the overall plan or proof-read the previous chapters. I didn't progress at writing the chapter, but I still progressed at writing the thesis as a whole. And by doing something about the thesis I gradually got the "mood" for continuing the chapter, new ideas that couldn't wait to be implemented, new ideas for formulations ...

What's important about having alternatives is that it should be tasks you didn't do already. If you proof-read a chapter over and over again and don't do anything else you're actually procrastinating. Do alternative tasks, but these should be tasks that really haven't been done yet.

And don't worry about this rather academic example. You can do the same with art. Personally I really hate drawing outlines and can't do it for a long time, so I make pauses and use this time to sketch out the background or colour something I've already outlined instead. Or when I just can't write that one scene right now I would scroll through my text and look out for logical mistakes or do some research for future chapters.

4. Stick to a schedule.

Calculate how much time you have for your artistic project. Calculate what an appropriate working speed would be. Fix intermediate deadlines. Leave also space for delays. And don't forget about setting a daily schedule, based on your individual habits and needs. Good organization and self-discipline are half the battle.

5. Don't be afraid of making crap.

Just do something every day, even if it's crap. Because ... You know what? Crap often turns out not to be crap at all the next morning. And even if it's really crap: When you call something crap you usually know what's wrong with it, so you can go and fix it, since there's no excuse for an empty head and procrastination anymore. Usually it's easier to force oneself to make corrections of something already existing rather than to force oneself to put something onto a blank page/canvas/whatever.

6. Compile a soundtrack for your piece.

Did you notice that you can "save" information in sounds and objects? When I go to bed and want to make sure I won't forget something very important the next morning I would put an object next to my alarm lock - an object that doesn't belong there. Waking up I would see the object and instantly remember why I put it there.

There's also a trick some people use in school. When they need to remember a fact or a formula for a test they stare at an object in the room and concentrate on the fact or the formula, so their brain links the object to whatever they try to remember.

Music, too, is good for remembering. Especially if it's about remembering emotions and "moods". If you don't "feel" like doing a certain task you can "remember" this "feeling" by listening to certain music if you've "saved" this "mood" in that music earlier: Not only many of my stories have a "soundtrack" - music tracks I listen to while writing -, but also my academic papers. As I wrote a paper on the question whether Brutus and Cassius would've been able to save the res publica from becoming a monarchy if they were victorious in the Battle of Philippi I used to listen to Metallica's album Reload, so whenever I heard songs like Low Man's Lyric or Carpe Diem Baby I immediately started thinking of Brutus and Cassius and everything related to my paper. The "official" soundtrack of my master's thesis on the interaction between past and present in historical prose are the fight scores from Naruto and Fairy Tail.

The only disadvantage of making such "soundtracks" is that after finishing the piece it's impossible to listen to that music for a while. One gets sick of it and associates it with work. But don't worry, this doesn't last forever.

7. Have a break. (Have a Kit Kat.)

(No, they didn't pay me for this one. Kit Kat is really what I always think of when I hear: "Have a break." It's horrible. ;) )

Always remember: A good schedule includes time to have a break. There's no human who can work efficiently without recharging. Nobody can concentrate on one and the same task for a long time. Accept that you're human and give yourself at least ten minutes to aerate your brain every hour. An aerated brain is a biotope for new creative ideas and inspiration. And if you're forcing yourself to work because you're not in the "mood" for making art the breaks give you something to look forward to which is highly motivating.

8. Give yourself treats for achievements.

Children and pets gladly work for a little treat. You're not any different. It can be extremely motivating when you know that your favourite candy awaits you when you finish the chapter, the outlines, whatever. Be careful with alcoholic self-treats, though.

You can also ask other people to help you. Ask your mother/sibling/roommate/spouse to hide your favourite candy and give it to you only when you've achieved a goal. Or go out with your friends only if you've managed to stick to your schedule.

9. Work with an empty stomach.

A full stomach usually lulls living beings to sleep. Don't eat when you need to concentrate. Have (healthy) snacks, but don't have bigger meals, because if you do have a meal ... Well, believe me, all your willpower will be definitely crushed afterwards, and for the rest of the day you won't be able to force yourself to do step 2. If you have a lunch break or something just make it ... a bit longer and go for a walk, so your stomach has time to digest the food. Return to step 2 when your stomach is a bit emptier.

10. Consume art of other artists.

There was a time when I was writing almost every friday. - Why? Because one of my favourite fanfiction writers released a new chapter every friday, and I got so inspired by reading it that after finishing it and leaving a comment I went on to continuing my own story.

Whenever I watch painting videos on YouTube I get new ideas, the desire to try new techniques and the ambition: "One day my art will be just as good - or even better! - than that of these great professionals!!!!"

These were two examples of how inspiring it can be to consume the artworks of your colleagues and senpais. Consuming and thinking about their artworks can revive the artist within you. And apart from that, it broadens your horizons and enables you to make your own art more original. (See my post on originality.)

Do you know other methods to fight procrastination? Do you agree with me that an artistic block is in fact procrastination? And one specific question concerning my advice to compile a soundtrack: What could/do musicians and composers do? Is there some similar trick? Viewing paintings, perhaps? Please share your experiences with fighting the artistic block / procrastination in the comments!

And don't forget to share this article!

In joyful anticipation of your precious experience and tips,
Feael Silmarien

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