Opinions & Lessons

Overcoming Writers’ Block & Facing The Blank Canvas: 8 Tips & Experiences From Artists

“Saying to myself “let’s create a start” was liberating because I remembered that it’s not about the outcome of the painting but rather about trusting myself, allowing my gesture and energy to express itself and realizing that it’s fundamentally about creating from an attitude of experimentation…not knowing ahead of time what’s going to happen.”
– Nancy Hillis

There are days when your mind just seeps out work, creative juice, and energetic overflow. And there are days (sometimes these days stretch) that seem like someone turned off the tap and all you are left with is an empty bucket waiting to fill – standing under the shower pump waiting for the water to gush out and wash over you. Days like that just seem like undue stress.
Asides from the difficulty of getting your creative juice to flow, the problem with days like this, is that they tend to invite the Imposter Syndrome winged-demon, who chills out on your shoulder and refuses to move. I recently experienced this syndrome, getting out of bed was a drag, I didn’t feel like working or writing, and then I started to question if I was even good enough. So, I talked to a loved one and then I remembered that there is a thing called Writer’s block or something Painters called facing a blank canvas (which I was supposed to write about two weeks ago) and I started reading up on how Artists have dealt with this over time.
This post is a sum of my research, I hope you learn from these writers/artists and bring yourself out of a rabbit hole anytime you feel stifled about starting a new piece.

On her website, Painter & Artist, Nancy Hillis discussed how she faced a big challenge of painting something new on a large canvas whose size she had never used before. She stared at the canvas for days and days(2 weeks!), not knowing how to approach this new mass of work and then one day she had an epiphany, realizing that what she needed to do was imagine the feeling of activating the canvas by creating many painting ‘starts’ where it doesn’t matter what marks or moves she makes, instead of over focusing on the big picture & getting overwhelmed by it. This was how she faced her ‘Blank Canvas’ with bits and spurts of starts, creating until she started to see a big picture emerge and then iterate.
See the video of her working on that particular canvas here.

In a short interview with Page Cloud, Collin Chan, an artist and visual storyteller based in Toronto, approaches a blank canvas by acknowledging failure and accepting mistakes as part of the uniqueness that sets individual tone & launches a unique story/voice.
“I approach the blank canvas in an unconscious free flowing way and have nothing specific pre-planned. I just flow with whatever medium I decided to place on the canvas. In the end, the audience is in charge of interpreting what they see or feel towards the art.”

In 2014, Art News did a round up of how Artists deal with blank canvases, and I found these two responses particularly fascinating:
Nene Humphrey, an artist in residence at the Joseph LeDoux Center at the time for Neural Science at New York University; follows the same ritual of thoroughly scouring her work space, a process that can take as long as a month. “I start at the back of my studio. I get a big pail of hot water, some Mr. Clean, and a bunch of rags.” By the time she is done, it feels like she can rummage through things stuck at the back of her mind and make something new.

Kathy Butterly’s bedtime reading perks up her spirit and inner vision. “Even reading just one or two pages,” she says, “it’s like looking at a great painting. That’s all I need at the moment—just to feel that passion in word choices.”

Writers block

A couple of writers have also shared their regimen for dealing with Writers’ block over time, and their writing medication is always timely and visionary.
In her memoir The Writing Life, Anne Dillard shared this:
“When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle — or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse, and you do not know about it yet, quite … What do you do? Acknowledge, first, that you can do nothing. Lay out the structure you already have, x-ray it for a hairline fracture, find it, and think about it for a week or a year; solve the insoluble problem. Or subject the next part, the part at which the worker balks, to harsh tests. It harbors an unexamined and wrong premise. Something completely necessary is false or fatal. Once you find it, and if you can accept the finding, of course, it will mean starting again. This is why many experienced writers urge young men and women to learn a useful trade.”

Maya Angelou just kept writing, even if she was just penning gibberish until the fountain opened up.
“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'”

Octavia Butler, in a 2004 interview with In Motion Magazine demystified Writers’ block in itself.
“To me, writer’s block doesn’t mean that I can’t write — it just means that what I’m writing is not worth anything and that writing it is difficult and unpleasant.”

Anne Lamott encourages people to write why they hate writing.
“I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day. Then, on bad days and weeks, let things go at that… Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck. You’ll sit there going, ‘Are you done in there yet, are you done in there yet?’ But it is trying to tell you nicely, ‘Shut up and go away.’”

Featured Images by Doug Robichaud on Unsplash
And "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

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