Blocked artist seeks metaphorical plunger

by Helen Barker

As the washing machine whizzes round for the final cycle my head crashes against the door and my foot gets wedged in my mouth.

At least that’s how I feel right now, as January spits me into February and leaves me wrung out to dry. There’s a cool frost on the ground and the trees are empty and still, but nothing so desolate or peaceful exists inside my mind, which is a blur with deadlines, work commitments and the annual winter wonderland of flu, cold and “my head might explode” syndrome.

Of all the lessons I might have learned by now the one that stings the most is don’t bite off more than you can chew. One of the biggest difficulties in being, or trying to be, a freelance writer-cum-artist is that of knowing when to say no to work. Mostly we can’t afford to, and therein lies the problem. Like a starving polar bear in the arctic tundra we wander around scrapping on flakes of meat, suffering long pitiful bouts of hunger and isolation until one day, out of the blue, a giant beached whale lands dead at our feet and we attack with frenzy, dreading the moment the rotting cadaver will render itself inedible. Who knows when the next meal will come? We must stuff our mouths, pockets and socks with all we can – just in case.

All I can say is I am stuffed – and I haven’t even reached dessert, never mind the cheese board and wine. In a bid to “keep going” I foolishly took on an impossible amount of writing for a number of equally deserving editors. Each project is interesting in its own right, and at the time I was positively excited about them all. But now the cold, hard reality of the deadline sits heavy on my head, and I’m far from the finishing line.

To add to this melodrama, I’m also suffering from a seemingly incurable and long-lasting bout of creative block. I diagnosed myself with the disease sometime in 2008 and despite numerous attempts at self recovery, including a job in the states as an exhibition designer, a variety of collaborative projects and an MFA from a reputable University, my mind still shakes like a jelly in an earthquake whenever I try to ‘make’ something.

So, as they do in the AA (of both the breakdown recovery and anonymous addiction variety), I am stepping up to the mark and admitting that I have a problem. And it is one, I suspect, that is actually fairly common.

A recent edition of Frieze featured an article on ‘artists block’. I can’t remember the title or author – and quite frankly, the emotional energy I’m expending on writing this prevents me from going upstairs and finding the magazine – but it was a timely piece of reassurance in my mid-week blunder. Faced with creative dilemma, writers (the article argued) have a diagnosis; writer’s block; a well-known, widely accepted corruption of the mind and soul. But what about artists? What do they have? Possibly frostbite if the current surge in heating bills are anything to go by. But aside from that, us artists have a bit of a black hole. The author of “Artist’s Block”, Jennifer Allen (O.K. I went and got the article, as a fellow writer I was feeling far too guilty for not giving credit where credit’s due), suggests that artists attempt to use their art to explore the notion of being blocked. But ultimately she suggests we “go with the flow”, keep moving and don’t over-think it.

Interesting advice. More interesting advice comes from a video-essay I was sent by a member of my family last week. Speaking for TED in 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) approaches the notion of artistic genius by suggesting that rather than trying to “be” genius, we ought to accept that we sometimes “have” genius. Genius, Gilbert says, is a source from somewhere else that passes through us and allows us to create wonderful things. Funnily enough this ties in very smoothly with one of my commissioned articles (yes, one that I have not finished) on the subject of the muse. Gilbert uses the tradition of the muse to suggest a more contemporary force of creative blessing which bestows itself upon the recipient who is open to receiving it. In this way, making ‘good’ or ‘bad’ work is not solely the responsibility of the artist, but that of the inspirer too; if you turn up to do your job it’s not your fault if the muse forgets to set an alarm call and never shows up.

Extended from this are notions of Creative power as nature and/or God in the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A step-by-step guide to recovering your creative self and knocking down all those obstacles in your way, this book really gets to grip with the negative self-teaching we artists often pride ourselves in.  But I don’t want this to turn into a set of book reviews. I simply want to highlight that when it comes to creative block, I’ve been doing my research for a while. I’ve listened to the talk, and I’ve read the lingo.

But now it’s time to do something about it. In the words of Bridget Jones: I have made a major decision. I have to make sure that next year I don’t end up shit-faced and listening to sad FM, easy-listening for the over-thirties. I have decided to take control of my life…and start a diary…to tell the truth about Bridget Jones…the whole truth.

Ok so it won’t be a diary per-se. And it definitely won’t be about Bridget Jones; there’ll be no Mak Darcy in my book (what a wet lettuce). But I think it will be useful and insightful (if only for me – and let’s face it, who do we write blogs for anyway?) to document my road to recovery. As a completely blocked artist who has not made a single piece of work (other than the three paintings I forced out at gun point for my MFA) for nearly four years now, here are my ground rules:

1. I will not attempt to enter any competition/exhibition/group show/public platform/website showcase of my work for the whole of 2012. Thus taking all the pressure off the work I make. The only place I will share anything will be here. And that will be to document the journey of self-recovery. 2012 is a year for recovering, not showing.

2. I will not take on more than 2 commissioned articles per month. Thus allowing myself the freedom to write creatively, whilst maintaining a consistent output in the written world.

3. I will find a suitable structure for my time in which to use my studio, and I will stick to it. I will show up, even if my muse does not.

4. I will not think about/panic about/live in fear of my future, nor expect to be penniless, alone and missing several toes by the end of the year. I will instead live in the present, and swap worry for play.

5. Finally, I will write down my experiences of the creative week on this blog as often as possible. Even if its only a sentence, and that sentence is “aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhhmmmmmppphhhhllllffffwwww”.

Confession over. It’s out there. You now all know. I fear failure. But hopefully, by the end of this year, failure will fear me. Oh, and tips/advice always welcome….!