Illustrations by John P. Weiss
One of the downsides of being a creative person is that, periodically, your gas tank runs dry. You expect this to happen during times of high stress, like during a divorce or new job.
But it can also happen when everything seems to be going well. In some respects, this is the most frustrating.
So what are we to do when the creative muse goes on holiday, leaving us crying behind our easel, writing desk, musical instrument, etc?
For starters, don’t panic. You’re not alone. Creative people run out of gas all the time, but eventually fill up their tanks again. You can too.
9 tips to fill up your creative gas tank
What follows are some suggestions, tips and cartoons to help you through your creative dry spell. Hopefully, they’ll get you back on the road to artful bliss.
Rituals and habits
I get up early every day. Partly because, where I live, it gets hot in the summer. I have to walk the dogs before things heat up.
The other reason I get up early is because I love the quiet and solitude of mornings. I sip my coffee, sit in the backyard, read and write. Sometimes my wife joins me, but we don’t talk a lot. We enjoy the serenity.
My morning ritual sets the stage for my creativity. Fueled with coffee, reading ideas and my notes, I’m ready to dive into my work. Whether it’s painting, cartooning or writing, my morning ritual sets the right tone.
“The key to forming good habits is to make them part of your ‘rituals.’ I have a morning ritual, afternoon ritual, and Sunday ritual. It’s one way to bundle good habits into regular times that you set aside to prepare yourself for the life you want. Rituals help you form habits.” — Lewis Howes
If you’re like most creative people, then you know about internal resistance. It’s the negative pressure inside us to procrastinate and resist our creative compulsion.
There have been days I set aside to paint landscapes. Painting landscapes brings me a lot of pleasure and fulfillment. So, why do I fidget and distract myself instead of diving into my painting? It’s my creative resistance.
Best selling author Steven Pressfield has written and spoken about how to overcome your internal resistance. He says you need to think of the difference between professionals and amateurs.
Professionals show up, do the work, don’t complain, and get things done. Amateurs show up late, don’t do the work, whine about everything, and fail to produce much. As Pressfield notes, a pro like Kobe Bryant will play through pain, while an amateur will quit.
What we’re talking about here is mental toughness. Creative resistance feels a lot like pain, but you have to play through it. Even on days when I find a million excuses not to paint, I pick up my brushes anyway.
Sometimes the muse eludes me, but more often than not I end up crafting a decent picture. The lesson here is to play hurt. Be a professional.
Ask the kid
One of the wonderful things about childhood is our vibrant imaginations. Kids don’t get bogged down with details, they just dream big. Remember when you wanted to be an astronaut, movie star, superhero or famous artist? What happened with those dreams?
Sure, the dreams change with maturity and reality. But sometimes the dreams die, too. If you’re in a creative nose dive, try going back in time. Flip through those childhood photo albums and pictures. Look at your old drawings.
“Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.” ― Dr. Seuss
Try to recapture that feeling of endless possibility. Just because you’re an adult, doesn’t mean you have to stop dreaming big.
Nobody asks babies to go out and run a marathon. That’s just silly. So why do we bite off more than we can chew? Why do we weigh ourselves down with unrealistic expectations?
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and aiming high, but we all know that the devil is in the details. Before we ever run a marathon, we begin with baby steps. One shaky foot in front of another.
So it is with your creative despondency. When the artistic well runs dry, don’t expect to click your fingers and instantly resuscitate your creativity. Instead, focus on baby steps. Small actions.
Like picking up that paint brush and just mixing paint. Or maybe sitting down at the keyboard and playing some scales. Perhaps grabbing a pen and writing down whatever comes into your mind.
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Worry less about organized thoughts, structure and rhythm. Just take some baby steps, to get the creative juices going.
Set the conditions
One of my favorite bloggers for success tips on habits and routines is James Clear. He always shares well researched information to help you get more out of life.
For example, every time I used to get my teeth cleaned, the hygienist would lecture me about flossing. I hated to floss, and seldom did it.
One day, I read a James Clear post about creating super easy, small habits and building them into big habits. James used the example of flossing. Instead of flossing all your teeth, just start with a few in front. That’s it.
James used the same example for exercise. Don’t think about going for a long run. Just put on your running shoes and maybe step outside for a bit. These super small acts are easy wins. And the weird part is that they set the stage for bigger wins.
The other advice James shared had to do with environment and visibility. If you want to floss more, leave the floss next to your toothbrush. Where it’s clearly visible. Want to run more? Leave your running sneakers right by the front door.
Things that are out of sight become out of mind.
“Design your environment to make the reminders of your healthy habits more visible and the reminders of your unhealthy habits less visible. This simple strategy makes change easier and is a quick way to tailor your environment to support your goals.” — James Clear
For people in a creative funk, be sure to consider your environment and the visibility of your creative tools. Don’t squirrel away your sketch book in a bookcase. Have it readily available.
“Want to become more creative? Put your camera next to your car keys. Take a photo of something new each time you leave the house. It can be a photo of anything.” — James Clear
You get the idea. If you set the right conditions for creativity, it can go a long way in recharging your creative energy.
Visit a bookstore
This tip breaks my heart a little, because there are fewer and fewer bookstores out there. Today’s digital economy has upended many bricks and mortar businesses, including bookstores.
Never the less, if you can find a local bookstore or library, they’re wonderful places of discovery and inspiration. Strolling each aisle, you never know what you’ll find around the corner.
I love visiting bookstores and perusing art books, magazines and related interests of mine. Not to mention, your local art museum or gallery.
Seeking inspiration is a terrific way to lift those artistic doldrums and reinvigorate your creativity. Flipping through your art books and watching instructional videos and online tutorials can also spark some artistic energy.
Ah, childhood. Remember those carefree days when we could kill an entire afternoon exploring in the woods? Or riding our bikes all over the neighborhood.
One of the gifts of childhood is the lack of serious responsibility. We could “waste” time doing whatever we liked. Ironically, it wasn’t really wasted time.
Downtime allows us to relax and recharge. It’s why, in adulthood, we set aside time for vacations. To relax and recharge.
I have a hard time doing nothing. But whenever I get off the productivity hamster wheel, I feel like I’m catching my breath. Downtime to hang out in the garden with my wife, or take in a movie with my son, recharges me.
Sometimes, in order to do our best work, we need to get the heck away from work. At least for a little while. So, don’t be afraid to waste a little time here and there. It can actually be time well spent.
Do the opposite
If you do what you’ve always done, you’re likely to get what you’ve always got! Take a close look at what you’re doing creatively. The tools you use, influences you have. Then ask yourself, “What would happen if I did the opposite?”
Sometimes our creative despondency is due to a rut. Doing the same thing over and over. One way to break that rut is to do the opposite. For example, if you’ve always been an abstract painter, why not try a little realism. If the music you do is classical, why not experiment with rap?
Sometimes, doing the opposite seems crazy, but you just might discover something new, and break out of your creative rut!
Pick up where you are, not where you left off
Give yourself a break. Time passes, and skills atrophy. It’s easy to give up when we feel like our best days are behind us.
Not long ago, I moved from one California to Nevada. Then I helped move my 84 year old mother, too. I spent my entire life living in California, so needless to say, it was a big change.
The big move kept me away from my landscape painting for several months. When I finally pulled out my paint box and brushes, I found my painting skills had suffered. It was frustrating.
I wondered why I was unable to paint at the level I was painting back in California. But then I realized, my entire life had been upended. So I took a deep breath, and relaxed. After awhile, I loosened up and painted this little study from my imagination.
Your creativity never really abandons you. It just takes a vacation now and then. Yes, it’s frustrating and demoralizing, but it’s survivable.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” — Maya Angelou
The nine tips outlined above will help you get back on track. They’ll help you survive your creative despondency, so that you can get back to showing the world your amazing, artistic achievements!
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw old school, handcrafted cartoons and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest cartoons and blog posts.
This article first appeared on Medium.