struggling to be creative

Are You Struggling to Be Creative? This Might Be Why

struggling to be creativeI talk to my wonderful mother on the phone every night. We talk about everything from health to books to psychology to faith to whatever might be making us grumpy at the moment. This week while discussing health and diet, she shared something she’d read that said she was now at the beginning of the Third Act of her life. According to the same math (every thirty years equals an act), I’m at the beginning of my Second Act.

Naturally, as a storyteller and story theorist, this language appeals to me. It made me think about how my thirties are the opportunity not just for a deepening of my story, but for a new beginning of sorts. I quite like the idea of thinking of myself not as a thirty-three-year-old who is supposed to (and doesn’t) have it all together, but rather as if this were my second time to be an innocent, expectant, wonder-filled three-year-old—who just happens to have thirty years of experience and knowledge. (To expand the analogy, this means my mom is experiencing her third time being a six-year-old—but with sixty years of experience and knowledge behind her.)

I particularly like this right now as I find myself, rather painfully, stripping myself back to basics. As I examine the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical load I’ve been adding to for the last thirty years—some of it good, some not-so-good—I find myself longing to return to my three-year-old self’s easy trust in the sheer magic of life. As a professional creative, I not only want this, I need it.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is Neil Gaiman’s disarming response to someone who asked, “I want to be an author when I grow up. Am I insane?” He replied:

Yes. Growing up is highly overrated. Just be an author.

The older I get, the more I agree. Mostly, this is because the more and more grown-up I get, the less and less I see life’s magic and the smaller and smaller my window of creativity becomes. I know I’m not alone in this, even (especially?) among writers.

As I’ve hinted before, the last few years have turned out to be a crucible of sorts for me. Although there were contributing reasons and events, I now see them more as just an inevitable, if dramatic, conclusion to the growing-up pains of my twenties. After an unexpectedly stressful move a year ago, these growing pains bottomed out with me feeling more disconnected from my creativity than ever before.

During the last few years, I kept plodding faithfully, finishing one book and starting another. But during this time, I was also largely in denial of my growing panic. I had been creative my entire life. I had been a storyteller my entire life. I had felt life’s magic always. And now, increasingly, for years, that magic was becoming only a bare flicker in my soul.

Was my creativity leaving me? Was my writing meant only to be a short chapter in my life? And if I wasn’t meant to soar on the wings of my creativity anymore, then God help me, because what could ever replace that?

As of this month, I now believe this crucible of what has been a dark night of my soul has finally begun to reach its Climax. Perhaps the best and most encouraging insight I have uncovered from a larger host of insights glittering up at me is a realization about why my creativity seemed to desert me—and, even better, what I can do to reclaim this most precious part of myself.

If You’re Struggling to Be Creative, Ask Yourself  “Where Is Your Energy Going?”

Creation is a deeply energetic act. As we’ve covered in discussions of whole-life art, being an artist or an author isn’t so different from being an athlete. Both require not just talent and dedication, but the cultivation of holistic health so that we will be able to bring optimum focus and energy to the act of creation.

As finite beings, we each possess a finite amount of energy. Every day dawns with the same possibility for productivity, but each day also dawns with a limited (if renewable) supply of energy. Our ability to turn that energy into creativity requires we wisely husband it, allot it, and utilize it. Energy spent on one area of our lives—be it hanging out with a loved one or worrying about finances—is energy that cannot be spent on creating.

Because creativity is an output of energy, it necessarily requires an input. The well can be filled by feeding all parts of ourselves a healthy diet—books and art for our minds and imaginations, proper diet and exercise for our bodies, satisfying relationships and fulfilling work for our emotions. Whenever we find ourselves struggling to be creative, we rightfully turn first to checking that our energy inputs are flowing properly.

But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes you can be doing everything right to fill yourself up with good energy on every level—and still you find yourself struggling to be creative. This is incredibly frustrating. What else could there possibly be left to do?

That was the question I was asking myself. For a long time, the only answer I could see was “wait.” Wait and surely something will change. But if things were changing, they didn’t seem to be changing for the better. If anything, I felt my window of creativity getting smaller.

But then, just recently, I had a breakthrough. For years, I’ve been interested in depth psychology, including the idea of the “shadow” (the theory that aspects of the self are unhealthily repressed into the unconscious). In reading Beatrice Chestnut’s excellent book The Complete Enneagram, her description of the shadow as simply the place where we put the things (emotions, desires, pains, fears) we do not want to look at clicked for me. She wrote:

The Shadow represents everything we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves that nonetheless impacts the way we behave.

As I started examining afresh what it might be that I did not want to acknowledge, I was astounded to realize not just the sheer load of stuff I started digging up, but also how much energy I have been putting into resisting looking at these things.

That’s when it clicked. The reason my level of creativity had plummeted in the last few years was not that I was becoming “less creative,” but rather that more and more of my daily allotment of energy was being used to wall off more and more of the things I found too painful or overwhelming to face.

Creativity is an energy that wells up from our very life force. It is an energy of flow. It is an energy of opening ourselves to our own vulnerability and emotions—even our own pain sometimes. By its very nature, it is antithetical to the energy of resistance and repression.

What Are You Resisting?

Creativity is limited along a spectrum. The limitation might be as small as a block over an important confrontation between characters. Or it might be all-encompassing enough to induce the panic that maybe your writing days are ending.

Regardless, I now believe your first reaction should be to slow down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “Okay, what am I resisting?”

The answer might be a simple, “I’m afraid I’m not good enough to write this scene” or “I’m afraid of the painful memories this scene is going to stir up for me” or “I’m afraid of opening my emotions to the extent required to honestly portray this scene.”

But the answer might also be much bigger. For each of us, time inevitably encroaches upon the wide-open, unwounded innocence of the three-year-old. Some of us, as Gaiman suggests, are lucky enough to maintain creative outlets into our grown-up years. But even for us, the more we grow up, the more energy we end up devoting to all the stuff we’re silently and often obliviously refusing to acknowledge.

Sometimes the things we’re resisting are not hidden within us. Sometimes we’re dealing with real-life stresses—the same kind of outer-world obstacles we’re always throwing at our characters. Real-life jobs, relationships, and health challenges can steal our energy just as surely as can our own inner conflicts.

But for my money, it’s the inner conflict that is most insidious (not least because it usually rides the tail of any and all outer conflicts). Just as we demand of our characters, if we’re going to overcome the lies holding us back, we must be willing to face those lies. In my experience so far, it’s the facing itself that is the hardest part. Just zoning in enough to notice our white-knuckled grip on an unacknowledged pain or unfulfilled desire is often enough to release us from some of our unspoken fears.

With this release comes a slight opening in the wall we’ve created inside ourselves. A little of our lost energy returns to us. A little light shines through. A little fresh air starts its flow. And with that flow comes the first whiff of a familiar breath—creativity.

4 Faces of Creativity (or, You May Still Be More Creative Than You Think You Are)

As I begin walking myself back into what I hope will be a complete restoration of my creative energy, I find myself realizing that perhaps I haven’t spent these last few years in as much of a creative desert as I thought. No, my creativity wasn’t flowing to the same degree or flowing into the same vessels. But I never stopped moving. I kept husbanding whatever creative energy I had and using it as responsibly as I could under the circumstances.

In recognizing this, I also see that the return of my creativity may not mean an immediate deep dive into writing for hours on end every day. First, it may require that I use my creativity more… creatively.

If you too find yourself on the return journey after struggling to be creative, it’s important to realize you are even now probably employing your creativity in many vital ways. Creativity in life isn’t just about creating art. It’s shows up in other parts of life—all of which are equally important to actually getting yourself back into writing shape.

For example, you will need your creative energy for:

1. Healing

I recognize I am currently in a chapter of healing. Even though part of myself is impatient to really and truly get back to the writing and the creative life as I used to know it, I can sense my energy isn’t there yet. Right now, my returning trickle of creativity is best used to encourage the spiritual, emotional, mental, and even physical healing I need in order to return to the page in top form. After years of walking a path of mental resistance, I need time to sit with myself and remember how to be friends with the deepest parts of my imagination.

2. Growth/Education

Throughout these difficult years, I have never stopped reading or actively learning. Even when I could barely get myself to sit at the computer, I could at least still read a novel or a book on Jungian archetypes or a writing guide. Sometimes the reading came hard too. But I maintained enough discipline to keep at it, and as long as new information kept coming in, I always found the trickle of creative energy necessary to be interested in it, to think about it, to absorb it, and—eventually—make use of it.

3. Faithfulness in Projects

Early last year, someone asked me how to keep writing when it was tough. It was a pertinent question for me at the time. I only remember part of my answer, but it has stuck with me as a sort of personal challenge throughout the hard times. What I told him was that there were many days when I didn’t want to show up and write. There were many days when I wanted to just give up and take a break until life was clearer and my creativity returned in force. But when I looked into the future, the one thing I was sure of was that I would be much happier to have a completed novel under my belt rather than nothing.

And I am. During the period of my creative doubt, I wrote a massive novel and half of a massive outline for its sequel. I didn’t feel creative during that period. Clearly though, my sheer faithfulness in chipping away at my projects a little every day proved I was much more creative than I knew.

4. Excitement and Passion

The best kind of creativity is the kind that whirls you into that ecstasy of excitement. When you’re so passionate about what you’re writing that you can’t think about anything else, it’s the best high in the world. Life is filled with meaning and purpose, love and joy, satisfaction and anticipation. Even the comparatively hard days when you’re sure what you’ve written is terrible, there’s still that urgent sense of life itself buzzing through your body.

It’s awesome, in every sense. It’s the reason we create. I daresay it’s even the reason we live.

I look forward with a true and homesick longing for that creativity which I have not felt in so long now. In gaining a better understanding of why it seemed to have drifted so far away from me, I have total faith it will return to me and I to it. But in the meantime, I also see that my creativity is still there, manifesting in all the ways necessary to recreate a foundation solid and healthy enough to sustain future surges of excitement and energy.

***

Writers always joke that the writing life is hard. Sometimes it’s hard in ways that we, in the innocence of our First Act, didn’t always expect it would be. But life goes on. Energy is renewable. Our stories have more than just one act, and with patience and discipline, we all get second chances. If you find yourself in a period of creative doubt or difficulty, know at least that you aren’t alone. If you happen to be walking in this tunnel with me, it may be that I am now a few steps ahead of you on the path, and from here I can tell you the view shows me there is a light at the end. Keep writing, friends.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever found yourself struggling to be creative? What helped you? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Aimeé Blake says

    Hi, K.M Weiland !!!

    I’ve always wanted to drop you a comment but my fellow writers have always expressed what I wanted to say …

    First of all, I think you’re BRILLIANT and an AMAZING WRITER and so
    HUMAN…
    I deeply admire your discipline, passion and commitment to study the craft and yet
    share it with us.
    (Even though, when you put too much of the CONSCIOUS brain in it, it can be dangerous. Everything FLOWS better after we let go of thinking TOO MUCH and trust in our DEEP. Not that I don’t like learning the craft myself that’s why I’ve come across you. And like you, I LOVE learning how a writer I LOVE does it and absorb his insights)
    I guess that sometimes it must be a real struggle to keep going and this is so
    HUMAN…
    After reading this post I’ve just fell even more in love with you cause you’re so
    HUMAN…
    I just love the EMOTIONS I feel reading your post and the others your WORLDS full of human passions and limitations invokes in me.
    We need it!
    We want to feel.
    We want to experience.
    That’s what makes us alive, right?
    It’s so much disasters, reactions and sequences that our MIND goes spinning out-of-control with so much to acknowledge every single day.
    And we need these outlets to keep going, to give us hope, to give us faith…
    But, I firmly believe all of us, in the end, are going to be rewarded beyond our wildest dreams for our courage to FEEL all of them.
    For our courage to be HUMAN.
    Don’t worry!
    As long as you’re HUMAN, you’ll never run out of creativity.
    Your ability to imagine and create will never, ever, ever, leave you.
    It’s your very breath…
    Keep pushing through your SECOND ACT.
    Your FIRST ACT was FABULOUS already!
    You’ve done so much, that I on the sideline can only stand in awe and
    only dream of writing as beautifully as you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Aww, thank you so much, Aimee. 🙂 This is a great pep talk for all of us humans. 😀

    • Aimee, wonderfully said! I couldn’t agree more.
      And Katie, you are a magical beautiful soul and writer. I, too, am in awe of what you’ve accomplished at such a young age. My first thought when you said you were 33 was “to buckle up, dear! You’ve barely just begun this wild rollercoaster ride we call life!” LOL! BTW, wasn’t Jesus resurrected at 33? I’m not Christian but 33 and 3 are very powerful numbers with angels and in numerology. This is a 3 year of creativity and Sept. is a 3 month so were getting it full force and there are many many spiritual teachers talking about shadow work right now (there’s good reason for that!) so your bringing it up is perfect and I loved your perspective. Debbie Ford is the one who brought it to the forefront decades ago. She really was an angel on Earth and her past was quite dramatic, which she used for inspiration to help heal so many.
      Timing and the astrological forces and the amazing solar energies we’re getting from the Sun and the heavens are blasting everyone in ways this year like never before so you have not been alone in your long struggle that’s been intensifying for even the most advanced spiritual teachers and as people are finally waking up all over the world. I believe our creative forces will be rising in such powerful, positive ways like no one has ever imagined after this next new moon. An exciting time to be alive.
      It’s taken me all the way to my 54-years to learn how to embrace my shadows, work with their gifts, love and listen to my body’s language, and begin to take my writing seriously rather than giving away my power by selling it to corporations on subjects that weren’t even my passion, for material rewards.
      So I’m continually in awe and inspired about the future of our world when I read such deep HUMAN feeling and wise words from young people like yourself. This post really spoke to me in that way and was so heart-centered, even if a bit monkey-minded (who doesn’t do that?), that I just wanted to hug you! You are so blessed to have a close, wonderful relationship with your mother.
      Devouring more and more information has long been a driving force for me (always will be), but now I’m committing myself more to a focused practice to what I already know, listening to my higher Self, and not running away from the necessary, patient waiting inbetween times (a long-running programming in my body’s cellular memory so tbc…)
      But I just wanted to thank you for all you do and acknowledge how far ahead of the curve you are at this stage of your life, further than most have come in a whole life in prior generations. You are a gifted, talented, beautiful teacher with so much more to come I can’t wait to see what else you create no matter how long it takes. To the ever-evolving journey…much love!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Thanks for sharing your wisdom, experience, and kindness. Your words are very encouraging! Keep being awesome. 🙂

  2. Robin Lythgoe says

    @Aimee hit the nail on the head. You are doing—and have done—such a fantastic job with your creativity, your dedication and self-discipline, being a hugely helpful mentor, and so much more… Fast approaching my third act, and struggling with an overwhelming challenge, you’ve given me hope and perspective. Thanks so much for this post. It was just what I needed to read.

  3. I, too, am in a season of healing and change, and have not been as productive creatively as I would like. These words hit home for me and are very encouraging. Thank you for your vulnerability and wisdom.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s comforting to know what we’re experiencing, however unique it may be for us, is not abnormal. 🙂

  4. Dear KM:

    As one who is two-thirds through my third act, I believe one’s creativity increases as memories and living itself become more meaningful. By eighty years old, I have known such a variety of people, traveled to thirty-four countries, and experienced so many emotional states, including the death of my spose and the murder of my daughter. I have watched young people grow into adults and parents. I believe the secret to creativity is loving life and all things alive.

  5. Three years ago I began my Third Act. The year before at the end of my Second Act I took a fall which started a journey of pain that was unrelenting and led me through a morass of medical opinions, tests, surgeries, and ended with a complex spinal fusion (my third) in March of this year. Not all things go as we wish, and this recovery is the longest I’ve experienced. I’m told by my surgeon it will last another 18 months or more. These nearly four years I have felt the draining of my creativity. I lost my focus to pain and pain meds. I’ve been living in a fog, and I’ve not yet returned to seriously working or writing anything other than my blog posts.

    I can’t begin to tell you what your courage in writing the words in this post have done for me tonight. I’m battling among other things depression from what I feel I have lost. You’ve given me hope and shed light on what I’ve been believing about myself and my chosen craft. Now I can respect you not only as an exceptional writer and teacher, but as a woman who takes in hand her problems and works them out. Then she turns around and shares her answers with her followers. Bless you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So sorry to hear about your painful journey. You an unrelenting force of cheerfulness and goodwill! I wish you absolutely all the best with your recovery.

    • Sherrey, I’m so sorry you’re going through so much. My husband was in a car wreck 2 years ago and had his 3rd spinal fusion last December and his second knee replacement in August. I’m sure he could relate to everything you’ve said here. Between the pain and the meds, he’s stopped making art, and some days are a struggle just to get up and function. But together we try to find the bright spots, even small ones, in each day. I hope you heal soon and well, and your bright spots grow more frequent.

  6. This is one of the most moving posts I can recall from you; it resonates with me. I appreciate your openness and directness and clarity in addressing something that can’t have been easy for you (or any of us). This sounds like what I have needed for a while now, without even letting myself realize it before. Thank you.

  7. Thank you. Your companionship was exactly what I needed this morning. I was, for the first time in my life, considering giving up writing for just the reasons you talked about. My creativity has abandoned me and I’m on my knees asking my inner child, and God, and The Creative Force of the Universe – Why? What have I done? Why have you left me? I am frustrated and discouraged, filled with self-doubt in ways I have never felt before. Reading that you have experienced this as well has given me a glimmer of hope that perhaps it’s not just time to give it up and walk away, that perhaps it is just part of the process and I am still a member of the Writer’s Club #imstillwriting 🙂 I know many before me have written to say your words are helpful, your creativity is inspiring, but I wanted you to hear it again and I hope the light and the passion returns to both of us soon. Also, as a mother of a very busy daughter who lives thousands of miles away from me, I loved how you started this post sharing that you talk with your mom every day about everything and nothing. Mom’s are grateful for continued connection with their daughters. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      #imstillwriting

      I like that. I’m keeping it. 😉

      And I wish you all the best as we continue onwards and upwards!

  8. Thanks once again for sharing your struggles with us, Katie. It brings me hope, having gone through similar experiences.
    It could just be me, but I’ll bet every serious writer has known that terrible time of feeling uncreative at some point.
    I think you’re dead on when you express the need to face our own fears and shadows in order to refill our dry creative wells, otherwise we end up continually spending our energy putting it off.
    I also agree, creativity is so much more than making art. If we allow it, creativity can seep its way into everything we do. Of course, it comes at a cost (energy being one of them) and we have to decide what is worth expending creative energy on.
    This is often a hard decision, but I think any regular use of creativity helps one grow in all aspects of a creative life, even though the results aren’t always apparent.

  9. Thank you for sharing the things that God is teaching you through the dark night of the soul. My writing has been extremely dry lately. Reading your article encourages me because I can see how the struggles of life have been eating away my energy and thereby stealing my creativity. The fact that my creativity can return in time is bliss. God will restore the years the locust has eaten. Perseverance is only built by pushing through the hard times with the grace the Lord provides. He’s not done with me yet, and will get my writing where He wants it. Your encouragement through your vulnerability in sharing is a big blessing. May the Lord restore your creativity by the boatload.

  10. Thanks for such an encouraging post and for the great advice. I’ve been struggling too, it seems like for almost the last decade, due to various family problems and job problems. But your advice about faithfulness to projects has worked well for me. I try to just show up and write each day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Sometimes that’s all it takes to pull me into the magic and passion of creating. Other times, I grind out an obligatory paragraph or two and call it good. But forward motion, however small, gives me the encouragement I need to show up the next day and do it again.

    I also want to thank you for your wonderful books on writing. I’m using Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel to lay out my second novel (and to get ready for NaNoWriMo), and they are both super-helpful.

  11. Leonie davuds says

    Thank you so much for this wonderful blog and the wealth of information and teaching envouragement in every post that you so unselfishly share with everyone.

    It is my first time commenting. Ive always felt i dont know enough to be a writer.
    Iam sixty two this year and have still not completed any writing.

    Since my laptop was stolen i have been scrambling around for drafts which i could work from but havnt had any success.

    I have found myself in that tunnel with those shadows lurking around me still wanting to drain my creativity. Thank you for this awesome post you have encouraged me, it truly gave me a wake up call to forget about my losses and stop waiting for the creativity to return.

    I can now start by showing up with pen and notebook day by day revitalise energy and create new ideas.

    Once again thank you so much for your brilliance and love tha you share.i have learnt a great lesson today. God bless.

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