Creative Incubation or Writer’s Block?



This isn’t a post with answers on how to dislodge what we’ve come to label as creative block, nor will it contain a numbered list of ideas to heighten creativity: take a hike, meditate, journal, post affirmations on your fridge. There are times when taking a hike or meditating might inspire, enliven or awaken the sluggish creative faculty. I’m talking about the other times. Those days, weeks or months when ennui, melancholy and a complete lack of enthusiasm come to stay and the more you try to coerce them to go home, the more they consider moving in with you for good. I don’t divide the world into creatives and all those other people, or artists and non-artists. I believe everyone thrives on the simple act of putting something into the world that formerly didn’t exist.  But people who feel most alive when creating on a regular basis, who make careers out of their creativity,  who stake their humanness on the creative act, people who have committed themselves to the creative life, will inevitably feel the absence of the creative spark the moment it departs. In short, those who feel most alive when creating will likely experience the opposite many times in their lives; the feeling of going through the motions, dullness, even spiritual death. The most apt analogy is that of the religious devout experiencing a dark night of the soul. Where once God was not only present but active in dialogue, the devout person finds herself speaking into a void, talking to herself alone. I have found myself in this situation too many times to count. The symptoms: a lack of curiosity and mental energy, a sense of emptiness, restlessness, dullness, inability to make meaning and, of course, struggle. I always seem to be taken by surprise by the withdrawal of the creative spark and set about trying to overcome it, writing when nothing is there. These periods, which can last a matter of weeks, sometimes a few months, usually arrive after I’ve finished a creative project, a feverish, creatively charged period. You would think I’d put two and two together, cut myself some slack, or at least feel comforted that there may be a reason for my dark night. I guess that’s why I’m writing this post. The truth is, I love being creative, only really feel alive when my conscious and unconscious are bouncing ideas back and forth, live for those moments when some questioning, seeking tendril of self finds life on the other side, when the creative act feels like prayer. If I knew the secret to living in this state I’d be tempted to exploit it for my own creative benefit, but I have a hunch that the secret is wound up with the mystery of it all and to unspool one would be to destroy the other.

I’ve watched many chicks hatch from eggs in my years of owning chickens. It’s a painfully slow process beginning with a little hole chipped in the shell by the chick’s egg tooth, a sharp, saw blade-like protuberance on the beak. A chick can take hours to emerge from the egg. It pecks at the shell, then rests, widens the hole, rests some more. It’s agonizing to watch. When the chick is almost fully emerged from the shell, it conks out again. In my life of hatching out eggs, I’ve assisted only two chicks in the birthing process: one lived, one died. The one that died would have died anyway, its mother impatiently shoved the half hatched egg aside once her other chicks were on the move. The partially hatched chick was cold, dusty and dried out, it didn’t live through the night. The chick that lived turned out to be a vibrant and mean rooster, but that’s another story. In poultry circles, it’s generally accepted that helping chicks hatch by chipping the egg away from them, is not good practice. The umbilicus, for instance, can tear and hemorrhage. And any woman who has gestated and given birth can tell you that the baby comes when it’s good and ready. The process of natural birth can be sped up, but the progress of baby down birth canal and into the world is one with its own time table. Not to mention the optimal nine months of slow coalescence which comes first.

I believe the term writer’s block was coined by a journalist or writer on deadline. Real world problems, I know. But it seems obvious to me that the creative journey is more like the gestation and birthing process than scheduling a lunch date. I know I said no lists, so here’s a non-list. I’ve discovered in my many, many months of carrying ideas to fruition, that there are activities that can lighten the heaviness of those days, weeks or months of waiting. I’m talking distraction. In the way an expectant mother must distract herself from nausea, heartburn, back pain and sleep deprivation (I know of what I speak) we creatives must allow ourselves the anodyne of distraction in our darkest, waiting hours. The last time I felt creatively desolate, the only thing that could properly distract me was reading: books, magazines, junk mail…. Reading and PhD level google searches on German Shepherd puppies. That one hit me out of the blue. I don’t even want a dog. In the past I’ve distracted myself reading horoscopes, buying dictionaries and of course daydreaming. I daydream really well; all of my elementary school report cards included, in the comments section, ‘Sarah daydreams too much’. But, in the same way our obsessions, our creative life and ultimately our creations are wholly unique to us, I believe our distractions must be too. You won’t be as happy following your distractions as you would be writing, painting, choreographing, etc. but you’ll be giving the mystery some space, breathing room and the encouragement to emerge in the fullness of time.





4 thoughts on “Creative Incubation or Writer’s Block?

  1. Love this Sarah. I always have a lull in the winter, I haven’t written anything for a few weeks.
    I too distract myself with other things, usually telling myself that I deserve a break from it all. It always scares me and I tend to think I’ve lost my creative juices, but they always come back when they’re good and ready, and usually stronger than ever.
    I always love to hear your perspective.

  2. Thanks Robin. I think the fear and subsequent struggle make down time way harder than it has to be. If we just focused on the joy we get out of other activities it’d be a lot less painful.

    • So true Sarah. As women, and especially as mothers, I think we’ve been conditioned to feel guilty when we focus on ourselves and our wants and needs. I somehow always feel the need to explain myself when I’m doing something just for myself, when really everyone deserves time to just do nothing. I’m a little older than you, it might be a generational thing 🙂

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