Grief and Creative Block: getting your groove back

Grief and creative expression, for me (and Eleanor and I am sure many of you) are deeply intertwined.  When my dad died I started something that was a little bit journal, a little bit art journal, and a little bit scrapbook.  It got me through some very dark moments when not much else did.  You couldn’t have paid me enough to go to a counselor or a group back then.  Cut me some slack, I was in college!  But that journal did a lot more than you might imagine.  Eleanor’s story isn’t too different, though for her it was photography that helped her to express emotions and cope.  Here at WYG we have talked about tons of other creative options beyond journaling, art journaling and photography.  There is everything from music to art to quilting to creative use of social media and on and on.  It can all be amazing and powerful and inspiring and positive, until you hit a block.

Creative blocks can come on slow or, in my experience, they can hit like a ton of bricks.  One day you’re expressing your heart out, working through the complex emotions of grief, the next you’re staring at your paper/canvas/computer/guitar/camera/whatever unable to move.  Soon you’re laying on your sofa watching a Criminal Minds marathon feeling bad about your grief, and even worse about the fact that you can’t find whatever spark it is that allows you to create.
writers-block 2If you hold your breath and count the days between WYG posts, you may have already guessed that I am writing this because I have been in a bit of a creative funk.  For a zillion reasons (I’ll spare you the details), I have been in a pretty bad place the last couple weeks.  Eleanor is enjoying a well-deserved vacay and it was my job to get a post out on Tuesday.  Over the last week I stared at dozens of blank computer screens.  I started and restarted at least 4 posts.  I tried to resurrect old, unfinished essays that have been saved on my computer just waiting to come out of hiding.  I tried to put the post aside and journal instead, just to get things going. Nothing.  I blew some dust off my camera and threw it in my bag, determined to get out and take some photos to get the creative juices flowing.  You guessed it . . . fail.

writers block

This morning, as my total creative meltdown continued, I was killing time on twitter.  Not tweeting, mind you.  That would have required an ability to write something and I had clearly demonstrated I was not even capable of stringing together 140 coherent characters.  But I stumbled on this article from the Harvard Business Review on Emotions That Make Us More Creative.  It is an interesting read, but don’t worry, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes if you don’t have time to check it out.

Basically, there is a belief out there, in psychology and business, that positive emotions make us more creative.  So, if we feel good we create more and better, not to mention problem solve better and have greater adaptability.  On the one hand, this would seem to fit with the logic that if I have been in a bad place emotionally for the last couple weeks that I would be having trouble with writing and creativity in general.  On the other hand, that doesn’t fit at all with something Eleanor and I have suggested many times here at WYG, that the deep emotions of our grief can give us deep inspiration to create.  This is something we have seen time and again in ourselves, our readers and clients, artists, and the world around us.  I mean, come one, think about how many people in their pain or grief feel inspired and compelled to write memoirs!  A zillion (give or take).

Luckily the HBR article goes on to make sense of a lot of this, drawing from a number of different research studies that have been done on the topic.  They cite a recent study that questions the validity of past research and assumptions that negative affective states restrict our creative cognitive states.  They sum up the existing assumption as this: “positive affect causes one’s mind to be more open or more likely to see the forest, whereas negative affect causes one’s mind to be more narrowly focused or more likely to see the trees” (Harmon-Jones et al).  They argue instead that what matters is not positive or negative emotions, but rather if the emotion has high or low “motivational intensity” (does it make us want to do or avoid something).  So, for instance, if I watch a bunch of funny youtube videos (which you all know I love to do) I may be in a positive affective state, but my motivational intensity will probably be pretty low.  I feel pleasant, able to see the big picture and able to be creative, but my focus, motivation and drive may be down in terms of making progress on a certain goal.  In contrast, they found that emotions like intense desire or disgust can lead to a high motivational intensity and can narrow our cognitive scope, because we are so focused on one narrow item (the trees, not the forest).  That makes big-picture creativity more difficult, while making it easier to focus on and complete certain goals.  Sadness, they found, had a low motivational intensity, so it did open the door for creative thinking and increased cognitive scope.

Eeeek we’re in the weeds.  Some of you have probably glazed over or closed your browsers.  But just real quickly, the other part of this is that research has also found that a combination of emotions that don’t usually go together – so both joy and sadness, for example, can increase our aptitude and motivation for creativity.  In research by Roger Beatty they found that when emotions that are usually at odds are experienced together the brain is open to new and different connections that spark creativity.   They found it created a cognitive environment that fostered new insights, inspiration, focus, euphoria, and calm. Finally, another study by Ceci and Kumar found that people who are prone to experiencing intense emotions, at either end of the spectrum, also scored higher on measures of creativity.  So though those intense mood swings may feel debilitating, and feeling joy and despair simultaneously may feel totally confusing, it may be that you have the perfect cognitive habitat forming for creativity and creative expression.

So what does all of this mean for my creative block.  Well, in my funk I will say I had SO MANY IDEAS about things to write about.  Every day I was observing things in myself and the world around me that I wanted to share so that other people could connect,  know they weren’t alone, they weren’t crazy, the usual.  But the motivation to actually WRITE those posts, that’s where the problem was.  Low motivational intensity (able to see things and create) but lacking the narrowed cognitive scope to get it done.  Womp womp.

So what do you do when you are in a creative funk?  If I had the perfect answer I would have had a post out on Tuesday.  Instead I have 10 half-written posts on my computer and a camera with an empty SD card in my bag.  But I know from experience that when creativity is working well it does help me tremendously, so here are 7 tips if you are suffering with grief and creative block.

1) Drop the perfectionism, just do SOMETHING.
Sometimes we get so hung up on creating something perfect or amazing that we get ourselves stuck in the rut of doing nothing.  Let it go and just challenge yourself to do anything.  Whether you write, draw, paint, take photographs, create music, dance or anything else, set yourself a timeframe and just GO.  It might be 2 minutes or it might be 20 minutes, but just force yourself to free-form create something with no plan, no self-judgement and no criticism.
writers block three

2) Take a break and do some self-care

Though creativity can be positive and therapeutic, it can also be exhausting.  A block might be a sign that you need a little space.  Take a break and do some other sort of self care- exercise, get a massage, meditate, whatever.  Recognize the ways that your creativity might be overwhelming you and, when you do refocus, try to keep that in check and  keep up with self-care on regular basis.

3) Don’t beat yourself up

Blocks aren’t always a bad thing.  Really.  Sometimes when we bounce back from a block we are especially inspired and rejuvenated.  Sometimes blocks break us out of a rut or box we’ve been stuck in, or give us time to pursue new things.  Consider that there just might be a silver lining to your block.

4) Try a totally new medium

Usually paint? Write!  Usually write? Take photographs.  Usually take photographs? Sculpt!  Or whatever.  You get the idea.  Maybe your emotions and creativity aren’t coming out in the usual format, so give them another outlet and see what happens.  You just might surprise yourself!

5) Seek inspiration from others

Most creative types know how this goes.  You can find inspiration in the work of others.  If you’re struggling to write, focus on reading and go to some book or poetry readings.  If you’re struggle to paint, photograph, draw, etc hit up a museum or take to the internet for some inspiration.

6) Always carry a notebook

Joan Didion, who wrote the amazing Year of Magical Thinking, a must-read grief memoir, famously shared that she always carried a notebook to jot down inspiration, observations, or whatever.  She even wrote about keeping a notebook.  You never know when inspiration will strike, so always have that notebook!

7) Find a new place to be creative

Sometimes your workspace can really start to get you down, especially if you have been sitting in it being discouraged about your block.  Shaking up your surrounding can spark something new and inspiring.  Hit a coffee shop, the park, or even just your front porch for a change of scenery!

We know creativity can be great for coping with grief!  Leave a comment telling us how you use creativity to cope and how shake things up when dealing with grief and creative block. 

March 28, 2017

7 responses on "Grief and Creative Block: getting your groove back"

  1. Hello,
    I lost my little sister last year after her nineteen year battle against a cruel genetic disease. I’m from a literary background, and this website and all on it has convinced me to start writing again. My blog (recently started) is simply full of all my memories, and precious photographs. Some of it is quite dark, and some of it is funny, but its all brutally honest. It’s http://ourem19.blogspot.co.uk if anyone fancies a cry or giggle. x

  2. Thank goodness we have creativity to help get us out of a stressful period of grief. You’ll often see people throw themselves into something creative to occupy their mind during this time.

  3. I cannot confirm this more. Having lost my wife of 33 years in May, I was struggling with how to survive, yet alone find my new self in the coming months and years. 30 years ago BC (before children) I liked to paint. When I lost my wife we had been talking about me taking it back up again now that the children were grown and out but I hadn’t had the chance as I was full time caring for her til the end. On the trip to return her home (we took her ashes to Mt. Rainier) I was so moved by that day that I knew I had found my muse. I promised my niece (who was my rock from day 1 when we lost my wife) that I knew what I needed to do. And I came home and started sketching out my mountains. I had painted by never sketched. The outcome (so far) have been 2 beautiful (so I’ve been assured) charcoal mountain drawings which I’ve had printed and mounted to share. My boss told me I should do something else now…I happily told him, no, you don’t get it. The mountain is my inspiration. And on a bad day at work, when I can’t do it anymore, I go to my therapy store, browse frames and supplies and go home and sketch some more.

    I’m 4 months into this loss (the worst thing I have ever had to endure…more than the ER trips, the ICU stays and ambulance trips) and still struggle every day to get through, but knowing I at least have something at home I can work on helps. The worst is when there isn’t anything to do. I count on my distractions to help me come out on the other end of this in one piece (whenever that will be).

  4. I just do what Stephen King said; write stories when the creative juices are flowing like crazy, then use one in a time of creative block. He called these stories “squirrel’s nuts.”
    I’m going to be writing professionally, I need a job and half just to pay all these ridiculous bills, so I’ve been reading about professionals who have writer’s block. Ignoring the one who said “If you have writer’s block then you’re not a writer you’re something else.”
    With all that said, I still don’t have any squirrel’s nuts. I don’t come up with ideas as fast as Stephen King. I think I have a nut from the 90’s but it’s terrible and not able to be published. I didn’t know formal writing skills then.
    Stephen King admitted to having it. I assume the one who made the comment about “you’re something else” wants to think he never runs dry.

  5. Wow, I’m the queen of block I guess. After my husband died suddenly, the will to be creative, among many other things, completely left me. And I mean …completely. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t DO it, I just felt nothing, or more accurately, dead inside, plus 100 different emotions all at once. Creativity just died. At nearly 7 years out, my creativity is blooming back, more and more, as I have healed and moved forward; making a conscious daily effort move and better my life; to just let go and do, regardless of the outcome or level of perfection. The process of grief cleansing has been especially helpful (putting pen to paper for 30 minutes of free form writing) in identifying blocks and otherwise. A newfound Pinterest semi-addiction has helped get the creative ideas flowing too! It’s all there, all the creativity (and inspiration) one might want and more. Thank you for sharing this research and information, it really resonated with me!

  6. In order to attain that peculiar mental state where you are both very happy & very sad, use neurolinguistic programming. (What did you love about ____? What was the best _______? What was the most annoying thing about [boyfriend, job, etc.]? What broke your heart? What enraged you?). If you can’t get one thought out of your mind, make a “North, South, East, West” graph. Place old idea at “North”, then examine the complete opposite. Then variations on the theme. (Beach vacations, ski vacations, cottages vs hotels. Cutting the budget, imagining unlimited funding, allocating for your favorite programs, giving $ to those with lowest priority.)

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I am living it: an artist with recent creative block but lots of ideas plus the desire to keep creating. A month after my dad died, I started making art at a ferocious pace. His death and my grief touched the depths of my creative soul and brought forth an awakened, inspired, heartbroken, grieving artist. The only way I knew how to navigate my grief was through making art. A recent move to another state and stressful life circumstances have left me feeling static, unable to produce much art. In June, I started creating a daily index card (ICAD through the Daisy Yellow website) as a way to jump-start my creativity. It worked, if only temporarily. In all, your post gives me hope in that I’m not the only one going through this artist block and that there is a way out. If you’d like to see my art, check out my website: http://www.jenniferrodgersart.com and I’m also on Instagram @redhenjen.
    I am so greatful to have found your blog and website.

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