What To Do When You’re Overwhelmed and Can’t Create

dark side of the moon creative block card, front side

This past month I’ve been both overwhelmed AND leading a workshop about overcoming blocks.

In creating and teaching the class, in the midst of a really difficult time, (deaths and etc. written about previously), one thing is clearer now than ever: I no longer suffer from creative blocks in the usual sense. I can always write, paint, create, teach…design, whatever it is…I’ve learned how to create on demand.

So I wanted to share with you a few simple things I’ve done to help me do creative work no matter what.

What overwhelms me is ….everything else besides my creative work. Email is at the top of the list, along with business admin stuff, housekeeping, keeping fresh vegetables in the house — and using them before they expire. That sort of thing. The workshop has given me a lot of insight into this…but I’ll save that for another post.

You want to know what to do…

When you are unable to create

When you feel stuck, overwhelmed, or just downright depressed about getting to your creative work, the number one thing you need is a list.

It’s handy to have what I call a Dark Side of the Moon list – things you can do when you are overwhelmed and doubtful about your work.

Call it a Funk List (or other 4-letter word of choice) Stuck List, or Survival List…whatever works for you.

I learned how to make lists and refer to them in wilderness training school.

When you’re dehydrated or hypothermic, your brain can’t think, not even to access the obvious commands, like: drink water or die!

That’s where I got the idea to make lists for what do during creative overwhelm and despair.

When you’re in the midst of overwhelm, depression or despair, you can’t logically think yourself out. It’s even harder to take action.

If it were so simple, we wouldn’t get stuck in the first place.

That’s why it’s so helpful to have a list, even if the things on the list seem basic and obvious when you’re in your right mind.

Here’s a reminder card list I made…bank in 2002:

dark side of the moon creative block card, front side

Here’s the list typed up:

Transcribe a poem into your sketchbook that is meaningful to you right now. See what images, colors, feelings come with it. Add collage bits from magazines, junk mail.

Digital camera: Take a photo of yourself right in the middle of this mood. Print it out. Now, be with this tender soul. Meet yourself where you are. Let the photo speak. Write down what she says. Practice not rejecting yourself. Bad moods are allowed. So are tears. It is important to document these moments in your own way.

Library: Wander the stacks and see what grabs you. You are not searching for something to feel better, but you are making yourself available to be found. Libraries hold deep mysteries – and lots of magazines. Something awaits you there.

Fan mail: Write a letter to an artist/writer whose work you admire. Tell them what you like about their work and how it inspires you. Now send it off! This is an act of generosity that opens our hearts wide.

Fan mail, part 2: Now write a fan letter to yourself. Find something you like about your own work, or your good intentions and put it in writing. It’s OK if your kind words to yourself only fill up a postcard. That’s good enough. Send it off.

Read: Chapter 10 of Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Éstes, Ph.D., or your current favorite book. Make notes. Write a book report of the soul. Share this book with a friend. Howl.

Practice watching the moon. Where is she now in her cycle? Where are you in yours?

Mantra: Everything is cyclic. This too, shall pass. Aahhh!

Make your own Dark Side of the Moon list. Keep it handy. Use as needed.

A note about these cards:

Back in 2002, I was invited to contribute a piece to an artist’s block deck. A bunch of artists each created a card with their an unblocking tip, and then we swapped, so we each got a complete deck.

These are the cards I made, twelve years ago. I just came upon them while looking up something for my workshop.

Yup. That’s a naked self-portrait of me in the card. Hey, I was doing the Digital Camera prompt.

Oh…and I started blogging twelve years ago, too. I’ve gone in fits and starts, and had my blog under several other names before just using my own name – so I updated the card image so it had this current blog address on it.

It turns out that blogging itself has been on my overwhelm list…even though I love sharing stuff with y’all.

Not being overwhelmed by blogging is something I’m asking for a breakthrough on…

Your turn to share:

What would you put on your Dark Side of the Moon list?

What are easy things you can do for your creative life whether or not you’re feeling inspired?

14 Responses to What To Do When You’re Overwhelmed and Can’t Create

  1. Lisa Selow October 27, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    Just revisiting this post, due to revisiting the 30 day journal challenge. Oh my! I need a list like this! I used to have one. I adore this. Thank you!

  2. Elsie Hickey-Wilson January 30, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

    In reading this blog post and also, Day 28 of Fire, I was reminded of my experience many years ago when I found myself faced with a self-contained class of seventh graders ( meaning I was their only teacher, all day long in a small mountain school). It was my task to get them “ready for high school ” the next year…there was no middle schools for them! Reading, writing, or spelling they were way behind where high schoolers needed to be. So I decided to just focus on writing and work in the reading and spelling there. We started on very simple writing prompts centered on their own lives right where they were. But despite all my “helping”, there were several who just kept saying “I don’t know what to write!” In desperation one day I asked if they knew any nursery rhymes. We rehearsed several they knew. Then I told them that just to get something on paper, their job was to write a rhyme over and over until a thought popped up in their mind and to right then on the paper stop the rhyme and start writing “for real”. Amazingly it helped like a miracle! Writing something, anything, took their mind off the “I can’t” , relaxed them and before long their were writing aways freely! It became the class “go to” and also, the class joke! They loved it. So my point there is that choosing to write something night just unlock the door….we could use an inspirational quote, poem, mantra…..I have been loving the Fire Journal prompts! I purchased the printed version and also, Root and Flow, both of which I will start now! Thank you!

  3. Sheila Kalkbrenenr November 30, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    I received your post right when I was developing ways to cope with my own mind Blizzards. So, I combined your ideas with mine and created this post for Arachnoiditis Survivors.
    Your ROOT:30 Day Journal project last winter was so helpful in my own recovery and coping and planning and living…thanks so much for sharing your ideas and experiences! Deep sympathies for your recent losses. I am glad that you find comfort in the connectivity that you find here.

  4. Mary Ann November 27, 2014 at 7:06 am #

    HI Lisa, I’ve really missed your blog posts. I took your ‘Dreaming on Paper” workshop last year (I’m the stay at home mom searching for more of my professional life back )and in that class you helped me get past my overwhelm by giving me a few tips on blogging. I now post weekly and sometimes twice a week. I have an editorial calendar, which helps keep me on task. But I also love drawing inspiration moment to moment. I can’t tell you know much writing and sharing ideas has helped me. It has opened up a whole new world for me. I miss your writing, your work. Please consider this my Fan mail to you. xoxox Mary Ann

    • Lisa Sonora November 27, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

      Thank you, Mary Ann – for sharing your experience with Dreaming on Paper and for the fan mail. It really means a lot to hear
      As far as the editorial calendar – I’m aware of this, but haven’t yet made it part of my practice. Something I am pondering!

      It’s good to know my posts are missed…a lot of times writing and publishing feels a lot like shouting out into a big void.

      Thanks for echoing back!

  5. Amy Maricle November 21, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    HI Lisa:

    This is a great post. I too love having the list too. When you get into that space, you can just feel so STUCK. I am working on a post about a very related theme myself.

    When I am stuck and paralyzed by the fact that the free time I have so wanted is finally here, I find if I turn on some fast music, it helps me to get moving, get ready, and do whatever I have chosen from my list. Otherwise, I get stuck in puttering the day away and wasting my precious free time.

    Thanks for your lovely ideas.

  6. Collette November 20, 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    grab a journal and write down 10 things you are grateful for. . .read something inspiring for 30 minutes, take a deep breath and trust that your mind and heart will open up. I have found that I must schedule my artmakingtime and announce the fact the day before . then Do NOT open your email that day before you go to your sanctuary.

    • Lisa Sonora November 20, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

      Thanks, Collette – this is all so good!

    • jenn October 5, 2016 at 7:40 am #

      not opening email is key! oops here I am on the computer reading my email and links

  7. Debbie November 20, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Hi Lisa, like you if I have paper and paint in front of me I can usually come up with something. My main enemy is time – not enough hours in the day to have the creative play time I need to really get going and get meaningful. I always seem to be grabbing 30 minutes at the end of a busy day and I just feel cheated! And my overwhelm list is almost identical to yours – email, paperwork, housekeeping, cooking…I really need that post on how to deal with this so I hope you do it soon

  8. Debbie November 20, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Hi Lisa, like you if I have paper and paint in front of me I can usually come up with something. My main enemy is time – not enough hours in the day to have the creative play time I need to really get going and get meaningful. I always seem to be grabbing 30 minutes at the end of a busy day and I just feel cheated! And my overwhelm list is almost identical to yours – email, paperwork, housekeeping, cooking…I really need that post on how to deal with this so I hope you do it soon

  9. Yamile Yemoonyah November 20, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

    When I’m stuck I like to write 1000 words in 35 minutes. I have the time limit so I don’t stop to think but keep writing whatever comes up. I usually smile when Im done 🙂 Also, walks in nature, meditating (without judging myself for not being able to keep my focus), drawing mandalas and yoga of course!

    • Lisa Sonora November 20, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

      Yamile – love the idea of adding the time limit to the word count!

      • jenn October 5, 2016 at 7:40 am #

        free writing with a timer is a great exercise to get the juices flowing even when you don’t feel like it.
        thanks for this post.

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