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Detail therapy

What’s your therapy? What do you do to help you through life’s challenges? We all have our methods of coping – some healthier than others – and, given that we’re still here to write or read this blog, they must have worked, at least up to a point, one way or another. Today, I want to share a particular strategy I have found to be really helpful for me and I want to show how it has made a difference to my creative and personal wellbeing. Maybe it might strike a chord with you, too.

A massive issue for me in the past (and also in the present, from time to time) has been creative block. That terrifying feeling of nothingness when facing the blank page or screen; it gets me right in the guts, even thinking of it now. I am such a believer in the fun side of art; block is the polar opposite of fun. I had such a problem with it that I had to write myself a book about it, which I know is a bit of a contradiction but is, nevertheless, the truth.

The roots of artistic block are very often sunk deep down into the mire of low self-esteem, poor levels of confidence, extreme criticism and toxic comparison. For me, this terrible block – one that kept me from writing for about a year – came from a big old mix of all of these poisonous ingredients and one specific incident that pulled the rug right out from under the feet of my writerly confidence. A critique that cut deep left me silenced. Or, to phrase it in a more honest and ultimately much more helpful way, I chose to silence myself because I got hurt.

The block that came out of this situation was really an expression of my emotions. Silence can be very loud. Instead of looking at those feelings and engaging with them, I avoided them. Writer’s block is a great way to avoid things and also give yourself a nice bit of wallowing in self-pity too, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly had my share of that.

I needed a coping strategy to deal with the situation and it turns out that, on reflection, the block itself was actually the strategy. Don’t want to face rejection or humiliation? Simple – don’t put yourself or your work out there. Uncomfortable themes keep coming up in your writing? Easy solution: don’t write.

Happily, this sorry state of affairs did not last forever. And, in the beautiful way life can have of working out, I’m enormously grateful now to have gone through this grim block. Our new venture, the Creative Wings to Fly company has come out of it, and the book of creative exercises and encouragement I wrote for myself became the basis of the courses Cordy and I work with. (Lots more information on this here.) It took the rain to bring the rainbow. 😊

Of course, one rainbow doesn’t mean it’s never going to rain again. And, although my writer’s block has – pretty much – left the building, or at least I know what to do when it comes knocking, life still throws up its challenges. These pandemic days have been extraordinary and extraordinarily tough for so many of us. Anxiety and trauma settled in my life, triggered by a fire and multiplied by events. The strategies I had successfully used to work through creative block were not enough in of themselves to help work through all these other challenges.

[This, by the way, is where I am going to mention in passing the amazing power of therapy therapy – the kind where you speak to a professional person about whatever you need to. Writing, like all the arts, can certainly be therapeutic, but it wasn’t enough for me. Therapy is, undoubtedly, strong medicine and, if you find the right person for you, I simply cannot recommend it enough. But hey, that’s not really the topic for today’s blog…]

With additional (external) support, I managed to get myself into a much happier, healthier, more creatively free position. Hooray for that! When I was strong enough again to really move forward in new directions – personally, professionally and creatively – I started using some mindfulness techniques to keep me on track. And this leads me to the main point of today’s post, my friends. Hooray for that, too!

Now, I promised you a strategy I have used to help out through these testing times and here it is. I call this detail therapy. Do you see what I did there? 😊

Noticing is a big part of mindfulness. Counting through breaths, feeling the ground beneath your feet, collecting colours in what you see, hearing the essential qualities of sounds rather than listening in to what you think they might mean – all that good stuff can be a massive help in keeping calm and keeping on keeping on in general. Specifics are excellent, here. And…here we go…specifics are excellent for working through artistic blocks.

Take an object or a place (the smaller the easier for this) and write or draw exactly what you see. Notice it. Be extremely specific, immersing yourself in the details. This kind of mindful writing or drawing is not only grounding in the moment, it also breaks through blocks in a very effective way. You’re not writing for an audience, you’re not drawing for an exhibition – you’re simply recording your experience of an object, place or moment – you are writing or drawing, though, right? The act of writing or drawing cannot co-exist with block. Your creativity has got you through it.

Another little feature of this detail therapy is that, from these mindful sketches, other work may indeed follow. You can always look back at your notebook or sketchbook and pick through the details to find artistic gold. While it’s not the main aim of the task and you certainly don’t want to put any pressure on yourself when you’re in the moment, it really is amazing how often inspiration can come – usually later – from letting yourself be completely focused on what is in front of you.

Here are a few lines of a recent poem built from some of my own detail therapy writing, fit for the season.

The sky pushes clouds away and leaves

Us copper-coloured

Chilled, watching beakfuls of berries, the

Blackbird and the bullfinch

The curving branches at the old broken gate

Could not keep summer in and never

Really tried

So why should we?

That expression about the devil being in the details might be true, but there are plenty of angels in there too, if you look closely enough.

If this technique speaks to you, give it a go and let me know how you get on. Meanwhile, have a great week, friends. Till next time.