How to Get Unstuck during the Creative Process..

August 31, 2010 § 2 Comments

In this post I will outline how to get out of a sticky creative situation.  To bypass the story and skip straight to the model that details what to do, scroll down to the bold type at the bottom of the post.  The pictures that illustrate the exercise have words in Spanish, by reading the text their meaning will become clear..

The following model consists of 2 chunks each with three parts, followed by a pause, another chunk of three parts and later some revision.  I recommend closely following the structure of the model, not altering or leaving parts out as you may feel inclined to do.  The model may look rather simple once described in writing, but believe me, the feelings and motivation to act produced by following the steps are awesome.  I’d love to hear your feedback and experiences in the comments below.

How to Get Unstuck during the Creative Process..

(a.k.a. The Croquetas Exercise)

Croquetas, or crockets as I remember my mother referring to them when I was a kid, are some kind of delicious but not too nutritious conical-shaped food consisting of filling in the middle of a crispy battered coating. I always ate them with ketchup but in Spain that’s a crime. They eat them here with garlic mayonnaise.

But this is not a post for foodies, although I guess it could be if you’re a chef that’s stuck and looking for a resolution to a certain creative block. In this post I will outline how to get, and how I got – on my recent creativity and ceramics course – out of a sticky creative situation. The following is a model of three parts, with a bit of a follow-up. And each of the three parts, plus follow-up, are made up of three distinct stages. Allow me to set the scene, and please allow my story to act as a metaphor for your current creative situation:

We’re approaching the middle of the week of a seven day ceramics workshop. Some pieces so far seem successful, some have gone straight to the bin and a couple are loitering around, desiring to be finished but presenting difficulties. We’re told to choose one from this latter category.

I choose a boat that I’m working on. The boat is the product from an exercise focused on structure. I’ve obviously failed this exercise as the mast keeps falling down and it takes two people to move it from place to place on top of it’s construction board. I want to salvage the boat as there is something important to communicate in my making of the boat. But it is sick and needs treatment. We’re told to work in pairs.

1. Value what you have in hand.

We Start by looking at the value of the piece in hand that’s posing difficulties, from three different perspectives.

A. We Look at the piece Subjectively. I don’t like it because it’s spectacularly failed at the task in hand, the work on the structure on the boat is incredibly shoddy, born out of a desire to just play with the materials foregoing quality. After the initial rush of excitement to play with the clay, the paper and the bamboo has worn off, I notice just how clumsy my workmanship is in comparison to my daydream – the mental image of what I was going to create in this workshop. Apart from that, I do like some of the shapes I’ve used, and I’m very proud of the sail that I’ve started, which is neatly cut and features the flags of the countries and provinces from which the other coursemates are from. This is meant to be a piece that signifies unity for me, and unity for me and the group, as I had been rather quiet the previous day. But since the piece is, overall, rather shitty, I feel grumpy with it.

B. We Look at the piece Objectively. Without any projections of our feelings towards the boat, we look at it in light of what’s really going on. There is a part which is well constructed and has meaning. And there is a part that doesn’t fulfill its requirements, that is, it doesn’t work at all. So there is something both good and useful about this piece and there is something that can be thrown away. And already as soon as part 2 of the exercise a solution is emerging from this different perspective. If one part can be thrown away, “what else would have to happen to replace it/keep the project alive?” This is the question that meets my lips.

C. We Look at the piece Contextually now. Already I’m in a calmer state about the project as we value it in terms of what’s going on around us. We’re in a course, on day three, and it’s still one of the first times in which we touch clay, or any of the other materials mentioned. In real life, we don’t create stuff with our hands. It’s pardonable to be clumsy. We know that we’re given a variety of tests during the week to stretch us, our capabilities and our reactions. Let’s see what we can learn from this, I say to myself. We have a ceramics expert at hand, we also have some people around us that can possibly help. The other participants have produced some ghastly pieces, and that’s also okay, they’re also learning. We’re a little more than one hour into the task, we can refocus and really go in a different direction now, and in the grand scheme of things we haven’t lost too much time.

Having looked at the problem piece from three different perspectives, I start to feel different, more relaxed and more optimistic about the piece. From this, shall we say, more positive emotional basis, it’s going to be a lot easier to create and concentrate productively.


2. Now, taking this piece that you perceive as challenging you..

As we do from a more relaxed vantage point,

A. We Redefine the difficulty. So in this case, it’s not at all true that the boat is a piece of crap and would be best thrown away, it’s a case of me having dove in without considering the requirements of structure, but having fun and creating a basis and an embellishment that’s particularly likable. In that case it looks like a simple question of “how can we take what’s working, and improve what’s not working?” A “how can we keep the good part and improve the general structure with more care?”

B. We List the possibilities that there are with the piece. The possibilities appear to be: to completely remake the bottom part of the boat so that it’s stronger, and keep the sail. And in fact, this resolution comes so quickly and strongly that we don’t bother to then list more possibilities that are there for the piece.  We later find that it would be wise to spend a little longer than planned in this stage and look for a couple of other possibilities, even if you do end up going with the first one.

C. We are then posed the question, What have you learnt? And the truth is much. Not only do we feel much better about the task in hand but we have a solution and some motivation to bring it about. Up until now we’ve learned that perspective is important throughout the creative act, and we’ve got an obvious possibility for the project’s development.

3. Now here comes the important part of the exercise: Let it Simmer.

And this is the reason for the reference to the croquetas. When cooking crockets (from scratch), we need to let the pastry simmer for a good amount of time because, if we cook things too quickly, the pastry will get burnt but the filling will remain cold. Conversely, if we cook things too slowly, well, nothing really happens. Nothing edible gets produced. Food is important to the Spanish, and food metaphors come up in daily conversation like sport analogies to a proactive male businessman. In real terms, this means that the exercise up until now has had the purpose of examining the difficulty, procuring a possible structure for its’ solution, and then resting or attending to something else entirely different.  This is to let the difficulty settle, to rest our attention and to allow room for insight, inspiration and emergence to take place.

We go back to the classroom to share what we’ve learned and share we do with gusto. I for one am pretty chuffed with myself because not only have I done the exercise as it was set out; I’ve managed to get to a conclusion and have formed a clear and actionable plan about what to do. Upon sharing this the trainer tells me that I’ve completely and utterly failed the exercise. This response, naturally, gets my attention and she proposes the explanation that:

The human mind is a resolutional organ, always trying to fill in the gaps in our daily and life experiences and trying to find explanations and solutions for problems.

I was then invited to, as I invite you to now, retain the solution to your creative problem out of interest, and out of curiosity.

Because, as I was about to learn, by charging forward and finding quick solutions, you truncate the possibility of other things, even better solutions emerging. And not only that, as a human being with a resolutive tendency, by not stopping your intent to solve one particular problem, you end up disconnecting from other areas in your life – such as health, relationships, money – all in order to solve the problem at hand. Something happens at work and you stay an extra two, three, four hours to extinguish the fire, often with alarming regularity.  Now being creative and talented you’ll end up solving the problem, but meanwhile you lose yourself in the vortex that is the mess of cleaning it up, foregoing a good balance between your creative work and other areas necessary to human wellbeing.

…And it dawned on me why those romantic relationships full of mystery and shallow on concrete statements of how you feel about the other are those that most suck you in (and damage you).

…And then in the very next moment I realized that that was again me, as a business, as a coach, as an entrepreneur, that I had completely lost my last two years here in Spain because of trying to solve the very tricky subjects of money and career progression. The whole problem of marketing, defining what I’m doing and my own search for experience and training had completely absorbed me and my mental energies to the extent that it was rendering me unable to participate in building relationships, parties or fun times in general, as a twenty-something should be doing. And this made me sit up and look and think, not from a theoretical basis but rather from real life experience – and from my own realizing, not from a comment from another – that I have a dangerously strong tendency to hyper-invest my mental energies in problems.

Now this is a great skill that one can have in certain contexts, but all things in balance, eh, because this very tendency has been driving me to really destroy my hopes of quality of life. Something so ironic it’s almost hilarious: as someone who studies coaching, pretends to be a coach, a resource of well-being, in a Mediterranean country, where one supposedly moves to “chill out” and avoid the rat race. Now Spain is not what it may have been 15-20 years ago in terms of tranquility, but that’s another story altogether. I’ve learned through experience, not through vicariously experiencing it by reading others’ blog posts, about the need to put limits on your workaholism/problem-solvaholism…

So..

3. Wait 48 Hours. Relax. Turn your attention and energies to something else.

This might be very difficult for some ;-)

In the meantime we all continue with the clay, creating different pieces with different reasons and purposes in mind.

It’s interesting to note that during this time I discarded my previous solution and a couple of days later came up with a fresh one, bearing in mind what had emerged on day 4 of the course. It was to be my most motivating and inspirational piece of the week, something that the whole group seemed to enjoy watching emerge.

4. To create, it’s important to have motivation.

So from another creative place entirely, we’re brought back to the situation with the difficult piece, the broken boat, and the croquetas, which are just about cooked and ready to eat. In order to get this project back off the ground and ready to start to complete, we are asked to:

A. Discuss the Reasons and Purpose of doing the task

Having half-forgotten the piece, at least consciously, it takes a moment for us to refresh what was happening before. And in fact, a lot had happened during those 48 hours and a new solution had emerged. The reasons were clear: that apart from being an exercise in a course that we had to do, it was an exercise in overcoming ourselves, overcoming old problems and producing something better than was ever before possible. For me, it was also about producing something that everyone on the course could enjoy seeing, a boat, representing our journey, and representing everyone here. That was the purpose: connection, and also surprise, as most of the others hadn’t previously seen the mast.

B. Identify the Resources and Difficulties, both Internal and External, that you currently have and predict encountering during the completion of the project.

This was a pretty simple task, although once we realized that it wasn’t worth skipping over lightly, new things did come into our awareness. The resources were a new boat that I had created into which to plant the mast, a new ability in precision and craft that I’d refined over the last couple of days, plus a strong vision and desire to complete something of quality. The difficulties would mainly be internal: to do with my patience around completing the boat should it turn out to be difficult. The mast was also much bigger than the new boat so sizes had to be compared. Basically I had to be flexible in order to complete the project – to not get too obsessed with my current image of what was to be. But I realized I had friends and support, plus a good day and a half of access to the ceramics workshop.

C. And of course, ask yourself, What have you learnt?

Now at this point both my partner and I experienced a surge in motivation. Everything was so clear and we both leapt to the task in hand. I had given myself a deadline of the following midnight by which to have finished my catamaran, but given the breakthrough afforded by the exercise I had done the bulk of the work in an hour and a half. I then added an extra element of design and beautification that I hadn’t originally planned, and barring researching a couple more Spanish regional flags from my coursemates to draw onto the sail the following day, I had finished the task inside of three hours. Never mind midnight, I was having my gin and tonic by half-past eight!

5. What are you learning?

Now there was another step, about an hour into this last segment of ceramics workshop where we were asked to identify what we were learning, what we were learning about our way of learning, and if there was anything else about that. My colleague and I had a conversation that got rather Eastern, rather Tao and just a little bit Wu Wey

Other questions posed during the length of the course about anything and everything – and therefore perhaps being of use to you throughout your creative process – were:

  • What have you learnt about yourself and/or about your way of learning through doing this?
  • How and where can you apply this?
  • What new possibilities do you now have?
  • What other question would seem useful right now?

In Conclusion

This exercise not only proved incredibly potent for this particular creative exercise, but I learnt something huge about myself and about how my brain, if left unattended, works. Now I can’t continue my life trying to solve problem after problem, allowing myself to get burnt on the outside before being ready on the inside. I have to learn to relax sometimes, and trust to a large extent that I will arrive at suitable and workable solutions for the challenges that I face. On the other end of the scale, I certainly cannot just chill out and let everything happen for me, because then I’m just not in control of my life. The croquetas will not cook at all.

48 hours was the suggested amount of time.

***


The Model, In Brief:

1. Value what you have in hand.

  • Look at the piece Subjectively. Do you like it?  Why?  Why not?
  • Look at the piece Objectively. What are it’s strengths and weaknesses, seen from an outsider’s perspective?
  • Look at the piece Contextually. What are the challenges and difficulties implicit in this creative work, as determined by external factors?  How do you relate to your work now?

2. Now, taking this piece that you perceive as challenging you..

  • Redefine the difficulty. What is the real issue here?  Whereabouts are the important details to attend to?
  • List the possibilities that you have with that piece.
  • Ask yourself, What have you learnt?

3. Let it Simmer.

  • Wait 48 Hours
  • Relax
  • Turn your attention and energies to something else
  • Retain the solution to your creative problem out of interest.
  • Don’t get stuck thinking about it.  Carry on with the other areas of your personal and professional life.
  • Have fun and enjoy yourself.

4. Create, and get Motivated..

  • Identify the Reasons and Purpose of doing the task
  • Identify the Resources and Difficulties involved, both Internal and External. Think about how you can best make use of them, or to best fill the gaps.
  • Ask yourself, What have you learnt?

5. What are you learning?

  • What have you learnt about yourself and/or about your way of learning through doing this?
  • How and where can you apply this?
  • What new possibilities do you now have?
  • What other question would seem useful right now?

***

To resume, the model consists of 2 chunks each with three parts, followed by a pause, another chunk of three parts and later some revision.  I recommend closely following the structure of the model, not altering or leaving parts out as you may feel inclined to do.  The model may look rather simple once described in writing, but believe me, the feelings and motivation to act produced by following the steps are awesome.  I’d love to hear your feedback and experiences in the comments below..

Procrastinating?  Pick up your Free Workbook and overcome that habit, today.

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§ 2 Responses to How to Get Unstuck during the Creative Process..

  • Project Norma Jean says:

    Great website! Concise and entertaining.One tiny issue from a sometimes detailphobe(my word)..is learnt(your word?).Anyway,realy appreciate your perspective-very helpful. thx

    • Jordan Luke says:

      Hi! Thanks for leaving your comment, it’s much appreciated :)
      With the tiny issue do you refer to ‘learnt’ being erroneous? I mean, as in the past simple/past participle of to learn??
      I always get that one muddled up..

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