Guest Post: Frustration in the Creative Process

Mal | Guest Posts,Resources | Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Welcome to our latest installment of the Guest Post Series. Holly chose to write about the creative process and some of its frustrations. There are some choice phrases in here that have stuck with me for weeks, so I’m pleased to present you with her words. In the meantime, if you’re interested in writing about your creative process, your emotional connection to your artwork, or thoughts about a specific project, please contact me!

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The creative process is powerful but it isn’t always wonderful. Sometimes it’s fraught with self-doubt and anxiety. I’ve been sitting here for hours staring at this blank page, why can’t I think of anything??

It always feels bad when you try to “force-create.” I’m sure you all know the feeling — staring at a blank page, willing the ideas and creativity to flow. Maybe there’s a birthday/anniversary/christening/special occasion coming up and you’ve promised to make something, but what? It has to be perfect, and no pressure, but you’ve only got a few days to make it so better get cracking. Gotta get those ideas flowing. Come on now, time’s running out.

I don’t think there’s any way to avoid force-creating — we’re all going to come across it at some point — but how I like to deal with it is to get up and walk away for a while. Give it some space, come at it from a different angle. Often my best ideas come to me while I’m doing something completely unrelated. 

My actual creative process is usually very subconscious. It always starts with an idea. It starts foggy at first, like the phenomena of seeing something from the corner of your eye, but when you turn to look it’s not there.

The idea creeps around the outside of my mind for a few days. I like to think of it as an incubation of sorts. I don’t interfere – I let it sit and incubate and grow and develop until it’s ready to reveal itself to me. Then comes that deep-in-your-stomach flutter of excitement as you think yes! Yes this is really great! Yes I can do something with this! Then it’s like a fever takes hold. A fever where eating seems irrelevant, where sleeping just slows you down, where your head is full of wonder and light and colours.

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Sometimes notes are made and sketches are drawn, sometimes I just roll up my sleeves and jump in. Often it’s messy. Often the casualties are grand. If you have ever seen someone trying to design a new plushie, you will know how big the pile of mutant discards can be. Club legs, misshapen heads, darts gone wrong.

But sometimes it’s not until you put it all together and you stuff it and you look at it for a while that you realise… something’s just not right. You might not even know what doesn’t suit to begin with, but if something’s off you’ll have a nagging feeling in the back of your mind. Often I have to talk myself into fixing things, instead of continuing to work on a piece that I’m just not happy with, or letting it languish because I’m not happy.

Admittedly, ashamedly, I do have a short attention span and a lot of my creative ideas fall prey to the thought that if I don’t do them now, they’ll slip back into the edges of my mind and get forgotten. But I do love the fever pitch of a new idea. It’s like the honeymoon phase of a relationship, all giddy and exciting.

Other days… it’s not so great. My creativity comes in spits and spurts. Usually I feel my most creative when I have a lot of things I need to do, and suddenly my productivity increases – of course, not toward anything that actually needs to be done! I don’t try to start anything when I’m in one of my down periods, as I hate to force create. But I have a few projects I can pick up when I’m in a creative lull – like a cross stitch or some embroidery — just something small to occupy my hands until my brain fills up with ideas again.

For me, creating is living. Creating is finding myself, validating myself, exploring myself, trying on different things for size. I am a plushie maker, I am a stamp carver, I am a quilter, I am an OCD sufferer with a penchant for organising my fabric in a rainbow fashion. I struggle with creativity, but I know, now, that I couldn’t live without it.

Through creating I’ve learnt that not all criticism is bad. I’ve learnt patience and persistence, and I’ve watched myself grow. I’ve learnt to go slow, but not too slow – you’ve gotta keep working at being creative. I’ve learnt new techniques, I’ve met new friends, and I’ve learnt to respect myself again. I’ve learnt that not everything works out the way you want and you know what? Maybe that’s okay.

Holly McGuire is a mild-mannered bus driver by day, bringing her love of craft to the people on the streets, one bus stop at a time. By night, however, she is a rogue crafter and lover of all things handmade. Too excitable to be tied down by one craft she dabbles in many – plushies, stamps, quilting, bag-making. You can follow her creative adventures (and mishaps) over on her blog, Two Cheese Please.

Guest Post: Healing Space

Mal | Guest Posts,Resources | Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

This is the second in a series of guest posts written by creative types about their creative process, their experience with art and healing, and their emotional connection to artwork. If you’re interested in contributing, please contact me!

When Julie explained her reasons for not wanting to capitalize words and sentences in her guest entry, I agreed wholeheartedly and left Julie’s original grammar choices intact.

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at the end of 2007, i left my job. it was a hectic, fast-paced, cut-throat, high-powered, career-track kind of job that i had, for a long time, really loved.
 
in a way, leaving a job like that is like a divorce. you loved it once, deeply and completely, and were blind to its faults. but slowly, over time, without really noticing, you fell out of love with it. although you may be happy that you’ve gone — especially if it was your decision — that doesn’t really make it any easier.
 
i worked at the headquarters of a multinational firm that was the largest in its field and by far the most significant company in my country of residence. it was a very traditional company in a very traditional, conservative, very masculine kind of business, so i had to be extra tough to get along there as a woman. and while i loved that in many ways, i found that i couldn’t shed the constraints it had given me overnight.

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when i look back, i realize that it took nearly a year to be free of them. i spent the best part of 2008 getting back in touch with a creative side that had become subsumed under the crushing wheels of the career and the company. such a conservative, traditional business demands certain frames and constraints on the kind of creative thinking i had been accustomed to. it’s not that there was no creative thinking, it just wasn’t the kind that allows a person to stand before a canvas and freely paint.

i tried to rush my recovery. i immediately signed up for a painting class which ended up a source of frustration to me because i was completely blocked by nearly four years on the fast track. i had been so (re)defined by the expectations of that conservative man’s world that as i stood before the canvas with paint and brush in hand, i felt cramped and unable to break free. i found it difficult to even know where to begin.

one of the reasons i had felt out of touch with my creativity in my job was that i was simply too busy. when i finally got home at the end of a day at the office (or after my nearly 200 days of travel a year), i was too exhausted to sew or draw or paint or do anything creative. throughout college, i had always had all kinds of projects going on — sewing, painting, decorating, cooking — but i didn’t have time for any of that while at my job. the entire notion of dragging everything out, doing the project and then putting it all away again before i had to go back to work on monday morning was simply overwhelming and it shut down any impulse i might have had to do it.

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what i came to realize as i struggled to reawaken my dormant creativity (because i never believed it was gone, just that it was in hiding), was that what i craved was a space in which to be creative — somewhere to leave works in progress without them being in anyone’s way (in other words, not our dining room table). somewhere i could retreat and think. somewhere with an atmosphere conducive to creativity. where my muses would be comfortable and happy and venture forth once again. somewhere i could be alone or create together with my daughter.
 
so i put a lot of thought into what that space would be like. it would be separate from the house, it would have plenty of light and be very open to take advantage of any summer there might be (it can be quite rainy in denmark in the summer), but very cozy when the rainy grey days inevitably would come. it would be inviting yet private. there would be room to have several projects of different kinds going at once.

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all of my supplies/stash would be at hand on shelves and in drawers. it would be ok if paint got on the floor. it would have wi-fi and a stereo. there would be room for books and items of inspiration. there would be plenty of space for kids to work alongside adults. it would be ok to make a big mess.
 
there would be a wood-burning stove for heat and coziness. it would be a space where everyone wanted to hang out and make something and there would be plenty of inspiring supplies at hand when inspiration struck.
 
even before i left the hectic job, we were already discussing my dreams for the space with our architect. and thankfully, over last summer, the space unfolded before me. it has four sets of double doors that open wide for those summery days. it has a cozy wood-burning stove for those days when it rains and is so grey and chilly you think the sun will never shine again. the supplies are there. the books are there. the walls are a rich turquoise and the ceiling is a darker, deeper teal. it is both cave-like and light, warm and cool. it is all of the dichotomies rolled together into one fantastic vortex of creativity.

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there are snips of fabric and bits of paper on the floor. the sewing machine stands out at the ready at all times. there are projects in various stages of completion on the coffee table and the sideboard. the drawers are filled to bursting with pretty paper and fabrics. music spills forth from the ipod. there are inspiration books on the shelf, beckoning to be taken down when one feels like drawing or quilting or making clay figures. paints and pencils and canvases beckon. embroidery threads, rolls of felt and rubber stamps whisper ideas.
 
it is a good, healing space where my muses have been set free. they are still walking on tippy toes, but they get stronger all the time. perhaps virginia woolf was right; one does need a room of one’s own.

julochka is an american living in denmark after following a lovely danish boy home from the balkans more than a decade ago. she works as a journalist in the shipping industry. additionally, she is a blogger and photographer and learning to call herself an artist. her blog is moments of perfect clarity and you can see her photos at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/julochka/

Guest Post: Creativity and Repair

Mal | Guest Posts,Universal | Thursday, March 19th, 2009

This is the first in a series of guest posts written by fellow bloggers. I’m so pleased to introduce this series by featuring Emma, whose blog furrybees includes thoughtful, well-written posts about her experiments with embroidery, crochet, clay, poetry, and other creative media. If you’d like to write a guest entry about your creative process, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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Thanks to Mal* for giving me this opportunity to reflect on meaning and creativity.  Her blog is a welcome dose of thoughtful reflection on the creative process.

I credit creativity with great powers of restoration.  (I also sometimes credit it with great powers of anxiety-making, but that’s another story.)  This story is about the intimate connection between identity and creativity and how one lost, academically-minded woman found her way slowly back to herself, or one part of her self, through crochet, embroidery and the vagaries of an old Rolls sewing machine she inherited from her grandmother.  As with most stories, there are many ways of telling it and many ways of making sense of it.  Here is one.

I began a PhD in feminist theory and applied ethics in February of 2001.  “What’s that!?”, I hear you ask.  Well, I thought it would be a good idea to try and write a long treatise on the different ways women can feel both powerful and powerless (for don’t we, at some point, feel both as we go about our days?) and how that affects the way we see others, how we treat them, and, more importantly, how we should respond to them. 

I felt a tentative enthusiasm for my new life at first, and had a thinly sketched idea of what kind of a person I thought I should be as an academic.  I would be brilliant (making immediate and spontaneously fabulous connections between ideas), a quick reader of complex academic writing, and an inspired and prolific writer.  I imagined that I would find joy in books and ideas, relish in the mystery and detective work of research, and flourish in the quiet solitude of the contemplative academic life.  And, in many ways, I did.  Or, I tried hard to, at least.  However, just as virtues can swing to vices, my vision of who, and how, I was supposed to be began to distort. 

Over time, I wondered if I would drown in the books and ideas, if the mystery of my research would ever resolve itself, and if the isolation I felt – alone in my cubicle and alone in my academic field – would ever abate into a quiet, enjoyable solitude.  Needless to say, I felt adrift in this new life and my sense of self — my sense of knowing with any certainty who I was and what I was capable of — began to erode.

However, sometimes the universe intervenes and saves you from yourself. 

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Two things happened almost simultaneously.  Firstly, after one of our many chats full of existential angst, a good friend and I decided we needed to pursue activities that would keep us “in the moment” and give our minds a break from the constant self-analysis that could leave us tied in complex knots.  So, she began to knit and I, spontaneously, bought and began a small cross-stitch bookmark that came in kit form from the local supermarket (of all places) — something I’d never previously contemplated and probably associated it unfairly, and in a dreadfully ageist way, with “granny” and her projects for idle entertainment.  I finished it quickly and was surprised by the strange, glowing satisfaction that followed.

Shortly thereafter, another close friend announced she was pregnant (the first to start the inexorable tide of pregnant friends that were to gradually follow).  In imagining which gift would be appropriate for her and her new one, I remembered how she’d laboured over a crocheted baby’s blanket for another friend’s first baby.  I had watched as, with each stitch, she hoped her friend would cherish this blanket and see it as the lovingly created heirloom that it was intended to be.  I knew I wanted to give the same to her. 

Except for one small matter – I didn’t know how to crochet.

Enter Google and exit, at least for a small part of every day, my PhD project.  Before long, my isolated cubicle was filled with the vibrant energy of a new research project that tugged at my attention and constantly tempted me away from more scholarly pursuits.  Within a short time I had taught myself to crochet and after much thought given to style (interesting but not too “interesting”), colours (no pastels!) and textures (definitely soft and snugly) I made a small white woollen baby’s blanket, in a repeated shell pattern, with a navy blue shell border.

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Those humble beginnings created a kind of urgency in me to keep making things, as well as an insatiable desire to find out about different textile-related arts and crafts.  I quickly picked up embroidery and then sewing things of my own design on an ancient, one-stitch sewing machine gifted to me by my mother’s mother before she died.  With each new skill revealed, with each thrifted piece of fabric transformed, and with each project worked I felt excitement, satisfaction, and accomplishment.  And I felt a kind of existential relief.

It’s only recently, with time and distance (figurative and literal – I moved from Australia to Canada in 2007) that I have been able to reflect on these happenings and how they served to create the woman I am today.  My academic life, then, was a world where I felt lost – adrift in a sea of ideas and competing claims to the “truth” – and where I felt powerless, alone and strangely unskilled at being able to find The Answer to my research questions.  To make matters worse, the academic identity I had tried to fashion to help me with this task was uncomfortable, difficult and ill-fitted to me.  In hindsight, it is no surprise that the methodical learning, grasping and practising of different creative techniques would help to mend the frayed edges of self left by the uncertainties and difficulties of my scholarly life. 

Seeking solace in creativity taught me new lessons about my self.  The gentle, achievable goal of taking stitches, one at a time, of learning new skills, one step at a time, and the act of holding and working with the tactile pleasures of fabric, thread, buttons and beads enabled me to witness a different Emma emerge – someone who was competent, creative, inspired and capable of beginning and finishing projects both big and small.  It is no wonder that I often struggled at that time to choose between the mesmerising meditation of crochet and the tumult of working with complex feminist ethical theory. 

So, I credit my creative life with both restoring a sense of my self to me and with providing the space to begin to imagine a new sense of who I am and who I might become.  Some days as I dream up new ideas in my workspace, or sew up a new creation for another new being fresh to our world, I am aware that there is a dual process of creation going on: one with thread and needle, fabric and hoop; and one with me and my ever evolving sense of my self.

Emma Woodley aspires to be a creator of beautiful, meaningful, useful things.  She is currently trying on the identity of “textile artist” for size. You can follow her adventures in being Creative and Courageous (New Year’s resolutions that delight her on some days and haunt her on others) on her blog furrybees.

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