I have a question for you. What is the biggest obstacle you have to overcome when you are faced with the task of having to create something new? In my case this might be a new piece of music, for you perhaps it is a short story, a novel, a painting or a company report. What is the biggest obstacle you have to overcome when you are faced with the task of having to create something new? For me, the biggest obstacle is often as simple as a blank page. A blank page tells us nothing, the possibilities are endless how can anyone overcome the severity of a blank page. Some people refer to this phenomenon as “writers block”: the fear we face when we have to create something new and we don’t have a clue what we want to do or what direction we want to take.
So how DO we overcome this obstacle?
I want to share with you a few pages of a wonderful children’s book called "The Dot" by Peter H. Reynolds that I think illustrates perfectly a very important step towards overcoming this problem.
“The art class was over, but Vashti sat glued to her chair. Her paper was empty.
Vashti’s teacher leaned over the blank paper. “Ah! A Polar bear in a snow storm” she said. “Very funny!” said Vashti. “I just CAN’T draw!”
Her teacher smiled. “Just make a mark and see where it takes you.”
Vashti grabbed a felt-tipped pen and gave the paper a good, strong jab. “There!”
Her teacher picked up the paper and studied it carefully “Hmmmm.”
She pushed the paper towards Vashti and quietly said, “Now sign it.”
Vashti thought for a moment. “Well, maybe I can’t draw, but I CAN sign my name.”
The next week, when Vashti walked into her art class, she was surprised to see what was hanging above her teacher’s desk. It was the little dot she had drawn – HER DOT! All framed in swirly gold!
“Hmmph! I can make a better dot than THAT!”
She opened her never-before-used set of watercolours and set to work.”
“Just make a mark and see where it takes you.” What is so beautiful about this book is that the message so closely resembles what an artists’ process is really like, but I have also found from years of experience that this idea of just making a mark to see where it takes you, is fundamentally important when it comes to attempting to overcome writers block.
So this is my first piece of advice: Make a mark
My second piece of advice: commit to that mark and expand on that mark.
When I say commit to that mark this is also an important step to remember because our struggles with writers block aren’t just about the fear of not knowing what we are doing. “Kevin Surace: Inc. magazine’s 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year says that the most significant barrier to creativity and innovation is the fear of introducing an idea and being ridiculed, laughed at, and belittled. If you’re willing to subject yourself to that experience, and if you survive it, then it becomes the fear of failure and the fear of being wrong.” (quote taken from Brené Brown "Daring Greatly" 2012, London: Penguin Books, p.185-186) This is why commiting to your idea or mark is such an important step as it is all too easy to let fear start seeping in and interfering with your ability to create. An example of this would be if I were to write 2 notes of music and then cross them out thinking to myself, NO They’re not good enough. How could I possibly know if 2 notes aren’t good enough? It’s not what you start with that matters it’s what you do with what you start with. So make your mark, commit to your mark or ideas and see where they take you. There is always room for change later on, but first you need something to work with.
Another thing I have found to be fundamentally important when attempting to make more room to create is to set limitations. It sounds counter intuitive but let me demonstrate what I mean.
When I first began studying composition at university, we were assigned different tasks with very specific limitations. I remember vividly our fist assignment was to write a two-minute piece for two percussionists using only cymbals and tam tam (like a big gong). At the time I was astonished to be so greatly restricted for a first task and I do not remember approaching this assignment with particular fondness. How do I write a piece of music by just using cymbals? Cymbals don’t have any pitches, I can’t write a tune with no pitches. At the time I felt this task was really limiting my possibilities for creation. After I gained more experience composing however I came to appreciate how much these limitations actually gave me more room to create, not less. In this instance I was forced to narrow my focus. I was given cymbals and tam tam as instruments to use. I could only use two percussionists. I had to think small and “be creative” about how to write a piece of music that would be interesting. This task forced me to really think hard about these instruments and to think of them in different ways. I was able to explore the instruments to discover their own differing sounds and dynamics and by limiting myself to focusing on less I never thought about writing music in the same way again. Writing music was never again just about writing pretty tunes but it was about sound and rhythm and how they related to each other, I became more open to really thinking about the capabilities of each individual instrument and their differing sounds. The limitations put in place forced me to be more creative because I had to think in ways that were unfamiliar. I often wonder how I would have managed if for my first assigned composition I’d been given free reign to write whatever I wanted, but you can be pretty sure it wouldn’t have been as creative if for no other reason than I would have had the huge task of overcoming the fear of the blank page I’ve been talking about. So setting limitations are equally as important as making a mark.
Finally, it’s important to remember that in the creative world: perfection is unattainable and goes against the very nature of creativity. Creativity is about discovery, growth and evolution. If you want to find the freedom to be creative and innovative in your work: limit yourself, make a mark and see where it takes you, remember no mark is too small. Commit to your mark and expand on that mark. Do not aim for perfection. Aim for inspiration and to be the best you can be.
Just make a mark and see where it takes you....