Grief and Creative Block: Getting Your Groove Back
Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams/
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Many of you know that I’m a strong believer that grief and creative expression are deeply intertwined—especially for me. When my dad died, I started something that was a little bit regular 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 for coping with grief and loss. There is everything from music, to quilting, to creative use of social media… and on and on. It can all be amazing and powerful and inspiring and positive… that is, 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 day, you’re staring at your paper/canvas/computer/guitar/camera/whatever completely 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.
If 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 have been in a pretty bad place the last couple weeks. Eleanor is enjoying a well-deserved vacation and, as such, it was my job to post on Tuesday. Over the last week, I stared at dozens of blank computer screens. I started and restarted at least four 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… Nothing.
This morning, as my total creative meltdown continued, I was killing time on Twitter. (Give us a follow if you haven’t already!). I wasn’t tweeting, mind you, as that would have required an ability to write something. That’s right, I was not even capable of stringing together 140 coherent characters. But while scrolling, I stumbled on this article from the Harvard Business Review on Emotions That Make Us More Creative. It’s an interesting read—but don’t worry, I’ll give you the low-down if you don’t have time to check it out.
There is a belief out there, in both 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, 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 is, 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, our clients, our favorite artists, and the world around us. I mean, come one, think about how many people turn their pain and/or grief into poignant memoirs!
Luckily, the 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.
Okay, so let’s get into the nitty-gritty…
They argue instead that what matters is not positive or negative emotions, but rather if the emotion has high or low “motivational intensity” (i.e., does it make us want to do something or avoid something).
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. Likewise, they found that sadness, for example, has a low motivational intensity so it did open the door for creative thinking and increased cognitive scope.
In contrast, they found that emotions like intense desire or disgust can lead to a high motivational intensity. Because we are so focused on one item (the trees, not the forest), our scope narrows. That makes big-picture creativity more difficult, but completing certain goals easier.
Some of you have probably glazed over or closed your browsers by now. But, if you haven’t, here’s the take-home message:
The other part of this is that research has found that a combination of emotions that don’t usually go together—both joy and sadness, for example—can increase our aptitude and motivation for creativity.
In his research, Roger Beatty asserts this: When emotions that are usually at odds are experienced together, the brain is open to new and different connections that spark creativity. It created a cognitive environment that fostered new insights, inspiration, focus, euphoria, and calm.
Another study by Ceci and Kumar suggests that people who are prone to experiencing intense emotions, at either end of the spectrum, also score higher on measures of creativity. So, although 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. 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. I’ve been experiencing a low motivational intensity (and was thus have been able to see things), but have been lacking the narrowed cognitive scope to get what I see 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 ten half-written posts on my computer and a camera with an empty SD card in my bag. But, for now, here are seven 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 two minutes or twenty minutes, but just force yourself to free-form create something with no plan, no self-judgement, and no criticism.
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 by keeping 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
Do you usually paint? Try writing! Do you usually write? Try taking some photographs. Do you usually take photographs? Try sculpting! 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 struggling 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 Year of Magical Thinking (a must-read grief memoir, by the way!), famously shared that she always carried a notebook to jot down inspiration, observations, or whatever. 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 surroundings 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.
14 Comments on "Grief and Creative Block: Getting Your Groove Back"Click here to leave a Comment
~Debra August 31, 2021 at 11:33 pm
Hello and thank you all for sharing. So, my loss has been huge. Six family and friends of mine have passed in as many years. Cancer, kidney failure, and head trauma. My one son just came off 8 mo of aggressive chemo as the remains one out of nine locations was growing thru the chemo. Five years ago my mama passed, my husband and I divorced, my last son moved out and I had heart blockages and had to sell and move in with my daughter. I had a widow maker heart attack after I was back on my own and now I have vascular dementia. I have been soooo immersed in grief and loss that I am also diagnosed with severe mental illness. Bear with me please!! I have always created. I have a B. A. in Art with an emphasis in photography. But I saw an online art therapist talk about the four elements. When I read about FIRE I cried and cried. My fire has gone out. What stoked my fire was my family. My husband was a wonderful musician and encourager. My mom and my children. I have NEVER created in isolation and I live in isolation. My apartment is set up like a studio, three art stations. Nothing! I was in art therapy with other women. It was awesome really. Then the facilitator took off and we were to be assimilated into other groups. The final death of the flame. I don’t know how to make a new ‘flame’. I have no muse. I have tried coloring and stitching but they sit unused over time. I’m at a loss. Sorry to be the downer but it’s where I am. Wishing you all the absolute best for sure!!!!💜
Z’s Mom June 24, 2020 at 6:17 pm
I am a creative. I write, paint, make jewelry, & design things. Since my son died, none of that appeals to me right now. In fact, it makes me feel a bit shaky & queasy. (He was also very creative.) What I DID do was start taking a lot of close up nature photographs & running them through different filters, altering/designing clothing, and experimenting with making wildflower cordials. I have NOT abandoned the idea that I will write & paint & make jewelry & design gardens, hardscapes, & furniture again, it’s on the back burner waiting for a reboot. I am following a temporary shift in my interests that has given me a new outlet for my energies & seeing where it takes me. Anything that absorbs my interest enough to get me out of my head & stop time right now is a welcome diversion.
Melissa June 8, 2019 at 5:56 pm
I’m a licensed massage therapist and I can tell you that massages will absolutely help open your mind and creativity! Massage WILL relax your mind, body and spirit. I guarantee you will see the difference after your massages! ?
Claire Cansick April 21, 2019 at 2:48 am
I am a painter and have been stuck in creative block for 6 months after my daughter attempted suicide for the third time. Weirdly I was able to carry on creating after the first two attempts, but not this time. My creativity almost came back but then she had a bad relapse and went into hospital and it has gone again. I have read many many articles on creative block, most say the same things, but your take on changing tack and creating in a different format really resonated. After bursting in tears for several minutes I decided to write a poem as I was always quite good at this at school but hadn’t written one for many years. It is very emotional and self indulgent and I will never show anyone (!) but it feels like a good release, something I couldn’t quite access through painting. Painting involves exposure and maybe I didn’t want anyone to see this? Maybe these emotions make me too vulnerable? Thank you for this insight.
Melissa March 29, 2019 at 10:24 pm
I find that people who have writers block are under stress or suffering somehow. Getting massages regularly helps your whole body and mind to relax. After that watch the creative juices flow. I personally have massaged many people with blocks. After their regular massages it just clicked on what to write ..that’s what they told me ! ?
Lucy January 18, 2019 at 2:50 am
I was super creative after my grandpa passed away. The year after he died I made 98 videos on my YouTube channel and I wrote a 700 page book. But for some reason my creativity is slowly get less and less. In 2018 I made about 20 videos, I started outlining dozens of videos that I never even made. And I’m trying to make a sequel to my book but I’ve rewritten it about four times and I hate everything I write. I feel like I can’t enjoy any of it like I used to, and I don’t know how to get it back. I was a lot more creative before my grandpa passed away, and after he did I used it so much as a coping mechanism. But now I feel like there’s not point in doing it if it can’t be perfect. And I know that’s a horrible mindset, but it seems to be where my mind goes every time I try to write lately. I’ll be so excited for an idea and then suddenly I’ll fee like it’s the worst idea in the world. I don’t know how to get my motivation and creativity back, but I’ve really been sucking at it this past year.
Frieda May 11, 2017 at 2:33 pm
I have always been a creative soul. Most often when things looked bleak I threw myself into my creative work and I just got going again. I also experienced what could basically be described as “stumbling blocks” as I am a performing artist. I sustained physical injuries. I also had a long illness that sidetracked me career wise.
At a certain point (after a lot of years), I recovered my physical energy and enthusiasm began to blossom again. Soon I met a new boyfriend who was a very creative guy too. I was sort of moving along once again!
A few years later he left (in a very mean way!) and shortly thereafter 3 of my closest friends passed away.
I got stuck in the “block” mode again. It is interesting that I have often just amped up my creativity in certain times of emotional crisis. However more recently I have become ground down by it. Empty gas tank.
I know this is not the “upper” that the other posters write, just my story.
I do believe that emotional crisis can lead to creativity, which then takes on a life of its own. Lately my ability to “rev it up” again has, unfortunately, ground to a standstill.
Perhaps this is just another “resting period”.
I sure hope so.
Beth July 1, 2016 at 2:58 pm
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 https://ourem19.blogspot.co.uk if anyone fancies a cry or giggle. x
Julie March 27, 2016 at 2:39 pm
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.
Mike August 25, 2015 at 1:33 pm
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).
Vicki August 14, 2015 at 1:57 pm
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.
Mary G August 14, 2015 at 10:51 am
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!
D. Johnson August 13, 2015 at 9:15 pm
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.)
Jennifer August 13, 2015 at 6:39 pm
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.