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Creative block – 15 ways to beat it!

Feel Inspired - 15 Ways to Beat Creative Block, © Stephanie Boon,2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com


Feel Inspired - 15 Ways to Beat Creative Block, © Stephanie Boon,2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

If you’ve ever felt stumped by a creative block you’ll know how frustrating (and scary) it can be: it can rock your self confidence to the core. But over the years I’ve learnt a few strategies that take away the fear and keep me on track and I’m going to share some of them with you today so that you can add them to your armoury to use next time you’re feeling flummoxed or uninspired.

What is a creative block?

If you think of creativity as a ‘thing’, what comes to your mind? For me, the simplest analogy is a map.  It has lots of paths, some of them well trod and familiar, some faint and indistinct.  But the biggest area on the map is uncharted terrain: it’s exciting because you don’t know what you’ll discover, but it’s also scary. The unknown is always scary, because you don’t know how you’ll cope with it.  But if you put some of the strategies below into regular practice, you’ll come to trust that you’ll cope admirably!

A creative block is simply an obstacle in the way of you achieving your creative goal.

Creativity is never a single, linear path; your map will have side paths, and paths off paths, you can go round obstacles (the blocks) or over them.  You can retreat from them, learn some new navigation skills and come back to conquer them later. Best of all you’ll come back feeling stronger and on top of the world!

Here are some great ways to make friends with your creative map!

1. It is not a block, it is downtime!

What’s in a word?  Basically everything!  ‘Block’ sounds final.  An ending.  A termination. Do not go beyond this point.  But call it Creative Downtime instead and your whole attitude changes: it becomes temporary.  And what do we do in downtime? Take a rest, have fun, recharge our batteries. Sounds good doesn’t it!

2. Let it be

So, you’ve come to an obstacle, now what are you going to do?  First things first: don’t fight it!  It’s there and it’s not going anywhere just because you want it to. You’re going to have work it out. First off you need to acknowledge it and accept that you need to take some time to find the solution you need.  Sometimes finding the solution might only take an hour or two, sometimes it might take months.  It doesn’t matter, just let it be and try some of the following steps to help work it out:

3. Do the sidestep

Do something completely different, but related.  Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, so what do I mean?  You’re a quilter, which means you sew quilts.  Well, take a sidestep and sew something that isn’t a quilt. Ideas might include a bag or purse, home furnishings or new clothes (those quilting cottons in your stash – they’re dress weight, so you don’t need to buy more fabric!).

Home sewn white blouse with Peter Pan collar, © Stephanie Boon 2015 www.DawnChorusStudiio.com

Sidestepping: I designed and made this during downtime

During some recent creative downtime, I designed and made a couple of new blouses.  The benefits are that you’re honing your sewing skills without getting hung up on your obstacle.  Choose a small, fun project (or two!), you never know what solutions might pop into your head when you’re working on something new.

4. Try a new technique

Do you find that you tend to stick to what you know?  Creative downtime is the perfect time to try something new and may well lead you to a new perspective on your creative problem.  Here are just a couple of links to give you some ideas:

5. Cover up your design board

One of the simplest ways of overcoming a block on a particular project is to put it away and not look at it for a while.  So cover up your design board with an old sheet for a few days, or put your work in a drawer.  When you come back to it another time you’ll see it with fresh eyes: things that jar will stand out clearly and it’ll be much easier to work out how to solve the problem.  But if a solution hasn’t presented itself, just cover it up again and leave it a little longer. This is something I do a lot and find it really helps.

6. Get outside

In the short term getting outside for some exercise takes you away from your immediate concerns and allows you time to clear your head:

“…we think and learn better when we walk or do another form of exercise.”
Justin Rhodes.

Meadow near Truro , Cornwall, UK, © Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

Local place I love to walk to clear away the cobwebs

In the longer term regular exercise could help boost creativity according to this article in the Huffington Post, but we all know that regular exercise keeps our mind more alert and able to concentrate for longer periods, so what’s stopping you?!  I love running, but lately I keep getting achilles pain that hampers it severely, but I make up for it with lots of cycling and walking/hiking instead.  What do you like to do?

7. Ask for some constructive criticism

This can be difficult for a lot of people, but if you choose your critic wisely it should be a thought provoking experience and not one that makes you feel defensive.  Choose someone you respect and trust, someone that you can have a proper discussion with.  If you don’t know anyone personally there are lots of Facebook groups or forums where you can post a picture of your work and describe your issue for people to leave comments. Before you post something check out the kinds of comments people leave for others: are they constructive and helpful, or do you think they’re negative and undermining?  If you think the comments aren’t often helpful, don’t post there!  Two groups I love on Facebook are Celebrate Hand Quilting  (run by Caron Mosey) and Kaffe Fassett Collective (the place to share all your questions KF related!), and on Google+ the Quilting community is very friendly and supportive.

8. Play

Play is an essential part of the creative process, whether you’re playing with colours, textures or design (or anything else!) and is a great way of breaking down a creative wall.  You can play with layout ideas for a current project by moving blocks around to find the best design (click on the image below to see how I played with layouts for these string blocks).  You can give yourself play parameters too: what can you come up with if you use only 3 colours; plan a design on graph paper using only triangles; play by testing your ideas on a couple of mini quilts before committing yourself to a full size quilt, etc.  Give yourself small challenges and make it fun!

Layout for a blue scrappy patchwork string quilt. © Stephanie Boon, 2014 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

Playing with a diamond and stripe layout

9. Read

You can read about your favourite designers or quilters (essential!), but don’t forget that inspiration comes from all corners (especially unexpected ones) and reading anything you’re interested in (novels, poetry, fine art, keeping fish (?!?!)) can feed back into your creativity and help you find solutions.

10. Keep a sketchbook and/or a notebook

If you have a pocket size book you can take it with you everywhere.  They’re ideal for jotting down ideas and notes or drawings, without a big plan in mind, and can be a great resource to look back over when you’re feeling stuck.

Notebooks and sketchbooks for inspiration, © Stephanie Boon, 2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.om

Carry a pocketbook everywhere!

As a way of forgetting about a current creative problem I especially like sketchbooks: drawing is a wonderful way of loosening up, becoming totally absorbed and lost in the moment.  And you don’t have to be able to ‘draw’: you can doodle, make Zentangles (instructions here) or even try automatic writing (not the spiritualist kind!), if you like to write.

11. Turn off the tv!

I love not having a tv.  It makes such a huge difference to my life not having my head filled with stuff I didn’t ask it to be filled with!  It’s the biggest ‘grey-matter-drain’ ever invented, but if you need a fix subscribe to something like Netflix and be much more selective. People worry about not having a tv, but when I got rid of mine 3 or 4 years ago it was incredibly freeing.  And if you like background noise there’s always the radio or music.  And if not, refer to number 9 above!

12. Check out how others solved similar problems

It can’t be stressed enough how helpful it is to ‘analyse’ how other people have worked through similar problems.  For this, of course, you’ll need lots of visual reference material: books by your favourite quilters or artists; Pinterest boards; magazines.  If you have the opportunity to visit exhibitions or quilt festivals, you might also find you have the opportunity to talk to other quilters about how they overcame any problems.  There are also lots of guilds (check out The Modern Quilt Guild too) and quilt groups where you can meet likeminded quilters and see their work.

13. Have more than one project on the go

As I mentioned in the introduction, creativity isn’t a linear path.  Having more than one project on the go isn’t some kind of failing, it’s absolutely necessary!  If you’re stuck at the design stage of one project you can put it away (see number 5) and pick up a more resolved project to work on for a while.  I find that always having a hand quilting project to work on means I can give my creative mind a rest and know that I’m still achieving something valuable.

14. Organise something

Clear your desk, your sewing cupboard or drawers, your stash – or your whole sewing space!  When my work area becomes majorly cluttered with stuff I’m not currently using it can be overwhelming.  The act of clearing away, sorting and organising is therapeutic, and with a more focussed space my mind seems to be freer to think more creatively. It doesn’t have to be perfectly clean and tidy,  just surround yourself by the stuff that’s actually relevant to what you’re working on at the time.

15.  Think about ‘flow’

And, finally and perhaps most importantly: Flow. Flow is that space when you’re so absorbed in something creative that you have no sense of time passing (hours feel like minutes) or extraneous things going on around you; some people call it ‘being in the zone’.

What were you doing when you last had that experience?  What was your environment like?  Was there music in the background, bright light or low light; were you sitting in a particular chair or standing in front of your design board; what was the ambient temperature like?  Ask yourself these sorts of questions and, if you can answer them, see what you can do to recreate them in your workspace. If the environmental conditions aren’t helpful it’s going to be a lot harder to be in ‘flow’.  For example, I know I work best in peace and quiet (no radio, no music, no traffic sounds) and I can’t work at all if I feel cold.  I like to have inspiring things around me (some people prefer empty spaces with no visual distraction) and I like to be able to lay my hands on materials quickly and easily: it kind of ruins the flow if I have to spend 15 minutes looking for a pencil sharpener!  Essentially you want to give yourself your optimum conditions for being creative: make life as easy for yourself as possible!

But, most of all, when you hit that wall remember:

Creativity is a process and creative downtime is part of that process: it’s there to help you move forward with renewed vigour!

5 More Resources from around the web

Feel Inspired - 15 Ways to Beat Creative Block, © Stephanie Boon,2015 www.DawnChorusStudio.com

Don’t Forget to Pin me!

I hope you find this list useful and inspiring (and not too wordy!!!) and would really love to hear what gets you going again when you’re in downtime: share your experiences in the comments below!

Linking up with Alyce for Sew Cute Tuesdays at Blossom Heart Quilts and Lorna for Let’s Bee Social over at Sew Fresh Quilts.

Happy stitching (or walking, or embroidering or dyeing!), until next time,

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18 replies
  1. Ann
    Ann says:

    These are helpful ideas, Stephie. I do get caught up in: 1) thinking I need to finish everything and 2) thinking they all need to be bed size quilts. I especially love your notebook; it would help me remember previous ideas.

    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      It’s funny how we get these fixed ideas isn’t it Ann! I believe things will always get finished, but making a quilt takes a long time and I need to satisfy my creative urges mean time. Sometimes I do that by not making a quilt and doing something like quilting pillows instead. Notebooks are great for ideas, I love looking back through 🙂 Have a lovely day Ann!

  2. Bossymamma
    Bossymamma says:

    Thank you for this, Stephie. I struggle with making things just to make them (without knowing what will happen to them when they are complete) and that really blocks my creativity.

    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Thanks Dina. Why not try keeping a box or basket for things you’ve made that one day you’ll give to people as gifts, that way you know they won’t be ‘for nothing’, it’s just that at that time of making them you don’t know exactly who they’ll be for. I have a basket just like this – it’s a wonderful treasure trove for when someone’s birthday creeps up on me unexpectedly! (I’m saying nothing about my organisational skills!!!) x

    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Thanks Gina! Shutting the door is a great way of giving yourself some space from your work/block. I work in a shared space (kitchen/diner)…and there’s no door!!!

  3. yarraboy
    yarraboy says:

    Excellent down-to-earth advice that applies to all creative endeavours, not only quilting. And No.11 is the best point of all (and turn off the mobile and Facebook)

    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Thanks Deb! It’s a bit muddy there at the moment as it seems to have been raining for days on end – but I love it whatever the weather 🙂

  4. Rebecca Grace
    Rebecca Grace says:

    What a great post, Stephanie! I LOVE your summer blouse, by the way. I’ve bought fabric and patterns for several blouses but I’m nervous about fitting them properly AND about getting tricky construction steps to look nice like the collars and cuffs… So I’m starting with a skirt instead. I am so much more comfortable with quilting that I’m dragging out the skirt project so I can reward myself with quilting between steps. Like, make test muslin that doesn’t fit, set aside, and cut out a new quilt. Make another muslin waistband in a different size that STILL doesn’t fit, then prewash fabrics for ANOTHER new quilt. At this rate my stash will disappear before I even get my skirt cut out of the “good fabric!”

    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Ahaha! One step at a time Rebecca and you’ll always get there 😀 Isn’t it frustrating when you’re learning something and in your head you want to create something that Alexander McQueen might’ve made and then reality hits – and you realise you can’t even sew a button on!!!! I think you’ve found a great way to deal with the demands of something new though, interspersing it with something familiar and comforting is a brilliant idea.

    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Thank you so much LeeAnna! I really look forward to reading your posts 🙂 Sorry for not being around regularly over the last few months due to my son’s illness. He’s so much better now though, so I hope to be reconnecting with everyone over the next few weeks 🙂 x

    • Stephie
      Stephie says:

      Haha, MaryAnn, that’s brilliant – really made me chuckle! If the weather brightens up here and I can actually get a decent photo I’ve got something ‘new’ (more finished, rather than new I think) to share this week – not blocks as such, but at least it’s patchwork!!!

  5. Kaja
    Kaja says:

    Great post with lots of good ideas in it Stephie. I already do some of these (I have an notebook for example) but there are one or two I will try. Sometimes I swim when I’m stuck, sometimes try to meditate more – there’s a cumulative benefit – and failing all else sometimes I just bang my head against the wall!


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