Martin Groch
5 April 2016

Creative angst: a guide to getting over creative block, imposter syndrome and fear of the blank page


Martin Groch
5 April 2016


Creative angst, writer’s block, imposter syndrome: whatever you want to call it, the business of making original work can sometimes be a struggle. Whether it’s the intimidating glare of a blank page or a winning idea turned muddy, humps in the creative road can incite bouts of self-doubt if not handled correctly. No-one is immune from the artistic jitters, regardless of talent, status or the number of Yellow Pencils adorning their office shelves. So we decided to investigate how creative greats from theatre, film, music, advertising, editorial and design have learned to get out of being stuck.

Far from being a sign of inability, anxiety can be an inevitable element of creativity. “Angst is as big a part of the creative process to me as inspiration,” says theatre director Holly Race Roughan, who recently directed Cordelia Lynn’s Best Served Cold at the Vaults Festival, exploring non-consensual pornography as a form of terrorism. She claims to spend 70% of the time worrying that she is not good enough and 20% that her work isn’t. “The final 10% of the time I feel like I have caught fire and that directing theatre is the most electric job in the world.”

The old saying “you’re only as good as your last performance” suggests that regardless of success, your reputation will suffer if you don’t keep delivering the goods. And there will always be someone else with a portfolio brimming with new ideas eager to take your place. Rupert and Abi Meats, the husband and wife team behind the bold and joyful Rude Illustration collective, have worked with clients including Vogue, the Tate and Urban Outfitters. “However, we often initiate ideas and try to move styles on in order to show prospective clients something new, and this is where we struggle,” explains Abi.

“Over the years, I’ve learned to have faith that my brain will come up with a solution, if I just get out of its way”

Paul Brazier

Some of the anguish seems to come from the fact that ideas are deeply personal. Being an artist is so much about self-expression that it makes people more vulnerable than many other professions would. Film composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, who wrote the score for Wade Gasque’s award-winning Tiger Orange, explains that creating music is a huge part of her identity, rather than just a job. “I can easily take it too personally,” she says.

But banging your head against your desk isn’t going to get you anything but a set of questionable bruises. When asked how to get through these anxious moments, AMV BBDO chief creative officer and chairman Paul Brazier advises that the best use of desk-time is to make sure you understand the problem, rather than to try and come up with the answer. Under Paul’s tenure, AMV BBDO has created many celebrated ads, including the recent Mog’s Christmas Calamity for Sainsbury’s and a moving film for Guinness where rugby star Gareth Thomas talks about coming out.

Paul firmly believes that you will stand a better chance of getting a good idea when you are not trying. Scientific evidence backs this up. The area of the brain used for focused decision-making is actually inactive when we are being creative, according to a study by researchers Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu. “Over the years, I’ve learned to have faith that my brain will come up with a solution, if I just get out of its way,” says Paul.

The fact that eureka moments cannot be contrived makes things difficult when clients expect ideas on-demand. “Much has been written recently about workshops being a complete waste of time,” says Paul. The pressure to come up with something in a short space of time isn’t necessarily the most productive approach. Paul tries to build in “let’s sleep on it” time for his team, allowing for those relaxed moments when an idea might bubble up out of nowhere.

Filmmaker Nadia Marquard Otzen agrees that over-thinking can inhibit creativity. The Danish director has created music videos for artists including Rosie Lowe, Naughty Boy and her film for Years & Years’ number one hit King has recently been nominated for a Brit award. "The harder you have to work on an idea the less good it will be. Head takes over from gut and it can start to feel too over-thought, over-analysed,” she says. If a certain route is causing too much trouble, Nadia abandons it and tries something else. Killing off the ideas that are giving you a hard time might seem brutal, but it could save you time and a headache.

Revisiting work that inspires you is another way to start afresh. For Nadia, feeling inspired is the opposite of creative angst. “It’s a bit like being in love. Everything flows with ease and there’s a certain hyper-excitement.” At the start of a project, the director sifts through her library of images to help spark ideas. It’s a similar process to that of her art school days, where she would start every project leafing through books in the library.

In order to loosen up and let your gut instincts get a word in edgeways, many of the artists we spoke to recommend going for a walk. Charles Dickens famously used to walk for hours around London and return home with chunks of his novels mentally mapped out. This strategy makes sense when you look at our biology. Renowned neuroscientist Alice Flaherty discovered that the more dopamine that is released in the brain, the more creative we are. Exercise is one major way of increasing production of the hormone.

Dopamine can also be released by relaxing activities like taking a hot bath. In fact, Emilie believes a soak in the tub can be just the ticket. Although other activities, so long as they are relaxing, can work just as well. The key is to try and distract yourself so that your mind can wander off for a moment. “It’s not that inspiration will strike at the very instant I am able to relax, but by pulling out of this state of anxiety, my mind becomes a bit clearer and regains perspective.”

"You are offering your ego up for a battering, but in taking this risk, every so often you create something brilliant.”

Holly Race Roughan

Another water-baby, The West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin famously admitted to taking up to six showers a day to try and progress his thinking. “I’m not a germaphobe; it’s kind of a do-over,” he told The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 52-years-old at the time and with several award-winning TV shows already under his belt, the writer’s confession drives home the fact that angst isn’t caused by lack of talent or experience. “I’ve come to realise that it’s only being scared to death that gets it done,” he said.

But for some self-confidence is more motivating than fear. The Guardian music writer and author Dorian Lynskey recommends looking at past examples of your own work that you are proud of (his include a profile feature on Kendrick Lamar and an article detailing the story behind the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York). “It reminds me that it’s not that hard.” He also believes you don’t need to get it all right in one go, or even in coherent sentences at first. “The important thing is to get past the blank page as quickly as possible. As soon as I have some bits then I can get to work joining them up.”

And if there are no fragments to start with, another tactic is to try inverting the brief. Sometimes the best solution is the most unexpected, according to Paul. “I regularly do the dead opposite of what everyone asks me to do. If a client knew what they wanted, they wouldn’t need me.”

It seems the creative process is full of ups and downs. Holly says keeping a diary helps her stay sane by allowing her to spot the patterns in her mood. She’s discovered that for every production, she will experience confidence early on in rehearsals and increasing self-doubt towards opening night. Knowing that the tough moments are a normal part of the process makes her feel calmer. In fact, a study from the University of California San Francisco found that when people expressed their emotions, the part of the brain that controls creativity was active. So writing your feelings down might actually contribute towards a more productive mindset.

The key to surviving the slumps seems to be finding ways to relax and re-energise and not worrying about worrying, because it’s all part of the process. Making something new is always going to come with an element of risk and stress. “You are offering your ego up for a battering,” says Holly. “But in taking this risk, every so often you create something brilliant.” And for a payoff like that, any angst is worth it.

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