Blocked as a Writer or Artist? 5 Keys to Moving Forward

Strategies for fledgling writers or artists who feel tempted to give up.

Posted Dec 18, 2016

Upsplash 9175/Pixabay
Source: Upsplash 9175/Pixabay

Today I had a session with a coaching client who I’ve worked with for almost three years.  She started out in my year-long Live a Life You Club program in 2014, during which she made major changes to her life.  She took early retirement from her extremely stressful job, moved away from the small town she’d been living in, and took steps to heal the chronic pain that had slowed her down for years. Before taking that stressful job she’d worked at decades, she had trained and worked as a journalist and had also been a professional artist.

The difficult recent decades had plummeted her confidence, and it took a while for her to even acknowledge that she’d like to try her hand again at writing and art.  This new season of life gave her a second chance to engage with this work she loved. The hard part proved to be this: she thought the trajectory would be steady and straightforward. Instead, she regularly feels alarmed (and discouraged by) a feeling of floundering. She frequently feels frustrated and riddled with doubts.    

Today we had a good long talk about this, in the context of what a creative career path more often looks like.

I know because I, too, had dreams about earning income from writing and dancing when I left my ER residency. I experienced the twists and turns, the highs and lows, that inevitably come when pursuing such dreams. 

A creative person’s vocational journey can’t be compared to a more traditional career track. It’s not usually as simple as studying or training and then getting a job doing what you love. Depending on what you are pursuing the path may be very unclear, and you may often feel confused or discouraged. 

Slow progress, disappointments and doubts about your abilities are common themes, not necessarily signs you should give up.

Here are some points that I discussed with her, that may also be helpful to you:

1) Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

When my client started feeling down about her prospects in writing and art, she’d think of and/or talk about a friend of hers who she felt was light years ahead of her as a professional artist. She’d frequently use this example to berate herself for how long she was taking to get this part of her life going again. 

I’d have to remind her repeatedly that there was no comparison.  This individual had been focused on a specific niche for years, and had not had to deal with any major life changes during that time (unlike my client she hadn’t moved multiple times, hadn’t switched jobs or left her previous career, hadn’t had to recover from a major chronic illness etc.).  To compare herself to this person was irrational and totally unfair to herself.  That said, the other artist could be viewed as a positive inspiration for what might be possible as a result of a lengthy season of focus and persistent efforts.

2) Allow yourself to explore various options

Unless you’ve been obsessed with or are skilled at a very specific creative niche, don’t try to force yourself into one until it’s clear that it’s the right choice. Allow yourself to change your mind with experience.

I first thought I’d write fiction. It seemed so glamorous and fun, until I discovered I didn’t actually like doing it and wasn’t very good at it. With more time I did discover, though, that I loved writing creative non-fiction, was pretty good at it, and that magazines seemed to be willing to pay me for it. I switched my focus accordingly, and I've happily worked as a freelance non-fiction writer for fifteen years now.

Give yourself time to see whether you actually like something that you’re dreaming of doing. Give yourself room to evaluate whether you are any good at it. If you’re thinking of earning income from your work, allow yourself time to determine whether this is realistic, and whether there is a market for the kind of work that you do.

I find it amusing that I used to think that I could support myself full time from my writing. This may be true for some, but it’s quite rare and requires more effort than I would be interested in putting in. Not only that, I discovered that I like more variety in my life. I like having various streams of income and would get bored if all I did was sit at my computer all day. Only time and experience could have taught me that; allow time and experience to clarify your path for you, too.

3) Don’t let the critics get you down

It’s human nature to give more weight to criticism than to positive comments. I know my client is good at what she does (she's a trained professional, to start with), and she got excellent, very encouraging feedback during a recent writing course that she took. Unfortunately, she also recently encountered a very unkind, shaming writing mentor, who really discouraged her.

It’s important to be open to feedback, and realistic about your skills and potential.

Still, don’t let nasty miserable people get you down.

I remember an individual in my life, long ago, who not only criticized my dancing ability but openly mocked it.  Later, when I was pursuing dancing education and opportunities more formally, I had a teacher who was very critical and unkind.  Under his scathing supervision I wilted progressively, to the point where I went from being a quick study to struggling to learn the most basic steps.

I look back at those negative, hurtful individuals and am so grateful that I somehow got away from them and managed to keep going with my dancing, instead of believing them and giving up.

If several people in your life have told you that you have talent (especially if they’re not family members or friends and have no other agenda), listen to them.  Believe the people who believe in you.

4) Get started again and again

If you’re like most creatives, you’ll have stretches of time in your life where you’re productive, and stretches where you fail to do anything despite your best intentions. Maybe you had a big opportunity come along and blew it because of procrastination (been there, done that).

Don’t give up on yourself based on past performance. Stop calling yourself names.

Just get started and do something, write something, create something.  All you have is now, and the time is now, so quite being so hard on yourself and just do something.

5) Aim for small wins to build confidence

If you want to get your work published or displayed, find initial humble opportunities to do so. One of my first published articles was in the travel section of my local newspaper.  I didn’t have the courage to send in a feature as a “writer”, so I responded to their weekly request for reader stories. They liked my little story so much that they featured it on the front page of the travel section, in color. All I got for it was a souvenir sweatshirt, but seeing my work in print was incredibly encouraging.

Aim low initially and be sure to celebrate those small wins, they will sustain you when the going gets tougher or you experience a dry spell.

Moving forward in your creative aspirations is very much a head game. Learn how to mentally coax yourself past the inevitable obstacles. It's not about deluding yourself with respect to your skills or potential, but my experience is that most writers and creatives are much harder on themselves than anyone else ever could be. Be aware of that, and find ways to just keep going.

For more information on the Live a Life You Love Club, and to apply for the 2017 program, visit http://susanbiali.com/live-life-love-club/

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, and flamenco dancer. She has been featured as an expert on the Today Show as well as other major media outlets, and is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching.

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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali 2016