On creative block, not being good enough, and not giving up.

‘I used to be a papercutting artist.’

‘I was a self-employed creative, but I’m taking a break while I decide on a new direction.’

‘I worked as an artist, but…’

No matter how I try and phrase it, it doesn’t sound right. What is all this ‘used to be’, this ‘was’?

What do I mean, I’m ‘taking a break’?

I’ve never taken a break. I don’t take breaks. My brain never stops. I have always been creative. It runs in my blood, from my grandparents to my beautiful daughter, there’s a creative root that’s grown and flourished and blossomed throughout my life – whether it’s painting from my imagination as a toddler, working as an arts co-ordinator to support young people with disabilities, writing articles for national magazines as a journalist, or creating bespoke keepsake papercuts for great clients.

I’ve never not created.

But suddenly that blossom has withered away. My petals have fallen.

Trying to get my head round the concept of taking a break from my creativity, or even – heaven forbid – actually stopping papercutting… Well, it’s difficult.

For a few weeks, I haven’t created much at all. It seems to have started a while back, perhaps triggered by some rather nasty personal insults which caused me to question myself a little too much (apparently, I’m “just a mum who cuts holes in paper in her daughter’s bedroom” – the things people say when they have a keyboard to hide behind). I’ve been going through the motions. I’ve posted out Etsy orders in between being mum and caring for my family during the Easter holidays. Commissions have taken a back seat while I wrestle with ‘just not feeling it’ – thank you to those understanding customers. I’ve spent time with family, time alone, time online trying to breathe new life into my creativity with the support of a network of amazing fellow business owners. I’ve spent time exercising, meditating, reading… But very little time at my cutting mat.

The feeling of not creating is a very strange one indeed. I’ve come to realise that the minutiae of running a creative business (and the vast amount of non-creative time that involves) has started to overcome me. Keeping up with the admin, marketing, accounts, social media, getting my product photography just so, setting out plans for the future… But wait a minute. When did I last sit with a pencil and just draw? When did I last go for a walk in nature and not check my iPhone for Etsy stats or Instagram likes? When did I last spend an evening with my family without responding to client enquiries or updating product listings in my online stores?

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It’s Spring – time to gather up my petals and start blooming again.

I’ve come to realise that what I’ve been experiencing isn’t creative block. It’s creative overload. Surrounded by highly talented peers who are consistently coming up with bestsellers and new concepts; constantly seeing apparently perfect, organised lives and brilliant businesses on social media… I won’t be the first creative person to tell you that my ideas don’t feel original, that I can’t come up with anything new, that people must be bored of what I do, that I feel like I’ve no sense of direction, that I’m just not good enough. But all of these thoughts have whirred around my head in recent months.

Ah, self doubt. How I loathe you.

I wish I knew how to quit you.

And it’s been so hard, so hard when everyone else seems to be doing great, and when working alone (when I usually really value my solitude) can make me feel like the loneliest person on the planet. Not physically alone, but also alone with those isolating, almost self-indulgent thoughts.

I’ve reached out. I’ve spoken to other creatives, to friends, to people who follow me on social media. I know I’m not alone – in every sense of the word.

From my best friend: “You’re such a talented person. Taking some you time is maybe what you need.”

From a brilliantly creative online friend: “You may find you don’t need a massive break,  just time to remember how to be you again. You are a papercut artist, that’s what you do.”

Who is this ‘you’ that they speak of? I’m not sure who she is… I am my business and my business is me, and if I never have another decent creative idea ever again OH MY GOSH THIS IS THE WORST FEELING EVER!

And yet another wonderful original creative talent: “You are more than capable. Please don’t think you’re on your own with this, you’re not, at all.”

Of course, when you’re in the mire of creative numbness, feeling like you’ll never have an original idea ever again (while simultaneously beating yourself up about having such narcissistic thoughts when there are so many more important things going on in the world), these loving, supportive words bounce off your psyche like raindrops on a leaf-laden forest floor. Just not in such a beautiful way.

Because, when you keep telling yourself the same thing over and over, sometimes you start to believe it. Even when, deep down, you know it’s not the truth.

When you’re used to always being creative, creative block is a very scary feeling. None of my ideas feel like mine, you tell yourself. I will never be able to create anything ever again – you’re convinced. What if I never have any more ideas ever again!? My brain is empty. Literally empty. And this sketch looks too much like this other artist’s work. And I can’t do this design because everyone is doing this style and I don’t want to look like I’m jumping on some sort of bandwagon. And I can’t even put my pencil to paper as I’ve talked myself out of having any sort of talent or four years’ worth of happy, satisfied customers. That never really happened, did it? Face it, you’re just not good enough.

And so it continues, round and round. The nasty cycle.

Weirdly, all I’ve wanted to do since this murky creative fog descended is to write. Which is what I used to do – and do well – before my daughter was born. In a cruel twist of post-baby nose-diving self-confidence, I gave that up (not good enough! Are you spotting a theme here?) to pursue papercutting, which I loved (love). So perhaps I do still have a little creative ember burning away inside of me. Maybe I just need to find that spark to light it up again.

At times like this, I seek advice everywhere. I want to know what my favourite thinkers and influencers think about creative block, about self care, about keeping going and trying new things. The brilliant Austin Kleon quips: “You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it” and (pertinently, for me) “You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.” Phew. Well that’s a relief.

Meanwhile, my beloved Elizabeth Gilbert tells me: “Done is better than good,” and “Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.”

Elizabeth? Is that you? Actually inside my mind??

I could read every opinion and every theory about the situation, continue my procrastination and prolong my fear of getting wrong the commissions that a few of my wonderful (and patient, and understanding) clients are waiting for. But I still wouldn’t find the answer. Why? Because only I have the answer. And I know, through all my denial, dilly-dallying, self doubt, lack of confidence, anxieties over my abilities, that the answer is very, very simple. Too simple.

Do the thing.

Draw the sketch. Create the piece. Cut the paper. DO THE THING.

Actually doing the work, getting my ideas down (preferably free of my own judgement and self-criticism) is the only way I can get past this block. To rediscover my love of the process, to reignite my passion for the craft. It is truly the only way.

So that is what I’m going to do.

One pencil line, one scalpel cut at a time.

I’ll see you on the other side. Who knows what may happen…?

Words and images © Melissa Holmes :: HolmesMadePapercuts