This is a piece I recently wrote for the Journal on my coaching website. As I’ve been struggling with some version of writer’s resistance recently, I wanted to share this post here as an offering of support for anyone else who struggles with resistance in their creative process.
Being in a creative flow is amazing. But what about when you just can’t seem to get over that hump? For me, this has happened a lot with writing. There are times when I just don’t feel like writing. Maybe I do feel like writing but I’m worried about what the finished product will look like, and that gets in the way of starting. Maybe I just don’t trust the process itself. This can go on for days, weeks, even months. It all feels like such a struggle, and I’ve learned to recognize it for what it is – resistance.
I’ve had a lot of inspiration over the years – ideas for performances, paintings and drawings, voice lessons, learning to play guitar, writing songs, books, essays, poems. Since I was a kid, starting creative projects wasn’t the thing I struggled with, it was usually finishing. I used to think this meant I was bored with what I started, that I’d lost interest and just didn’t want to continue. I’ve looked at this pattern a bit more closely and I have seen that not finishing things is usually about fear.
All of us who create have come up against our own resistance at times. Underneath, there is usually a fear about something – not being able to finish, failure, looking like a fool, making “bad” work that is boring and uninspired. It’s usually the feeling of fear itself that keeps us from engaging our creativity during times of drought.
I’ve gotten better at knowing when my resistance is rearing up. It comes in the forms of procrastination, not making creativity a priority, feeling “lazy” or convincing myself that I didn’t really want to do the thing in the first place. Sometimes it’s more subtle on the mental and emotional level, showing itself as a lingering anxiety about a project or feelings of doubt and uncertainty. In exploring this further, I’ve realized that there’s a huge fear of vulnerability and going deeper. Creating something and sharing it means exposing myself. It means revealing parts of myself through the work and putting that out for people to see. And even though I’ve been creating all of my life, this is still scary for me.
In 2003 I joined a writing group with some artists I’d been working with. We met weekly for several months at the homes of one of the members, where we would sit in her kitchen, eat snacks, and share and discuss our work. We each had to choose a project to work on during the course of the group, which we would then all present in a public reading. I chose to write ten poems which I would develop into a one-woman show.
It was an ambitious project for me. I’d been writing and performing since I was little – crafting short stories which were read aloud to the class, doing solos in dance recitals, singing by myself on stage. But this was different. I had never done a whole show entirely by myself, written in my own words. It felt bold and audacious, and exactly the kind of creative project I needed at that time in my life.
The process was super intense and, at times, excruciating. First there was the writing, which was challenging as I chose to write about love and the ending of my romantic relationship. There was the sharing of my work with the group and receiving critique. I worked with a friend who helped me shape the show and directed it. Then there was performing an excerpt at the group public reading and, finally, the full performance of the show at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Each step of the process was hard and scary, and I had so many fears. I questioned myself all the time, asking myself why I was doing it, why I was sharing something so personal, who the hell I thought I was doing a one-woman show. I was terrified of looking like a fool, of choking onstage, of falling apart. I had to go really deep and be incredibly vulnerable in every step of the process. It was emotional and incredibly challenging, but I got through it because I had a process in place. I had the support of my group members, of my friend who directed me, and of my artist community. I acknowledged my fears in order to move through my resistance to complete the project.
I think about this experience often when I’m coming up against resistance in my creative process and am having trouble moving forward. I think about how that experience taught me the importance of choosing the right structure to support my process and trusting that it would do what I needed it to. It also taught me to show up for myself as an artist, that I am the only one who can hold myself completely accountable. I remember how rewarding it was to accomplish each step, how it showed me what I am capable of, how it was a turning point in my life where I released all ambivalence about calling myself an artist because I had actually done the work.
There are times in our creative lives when we are resistant to moving forward, to going deeper, to finishing and sharing what we’ve made, even when that is what we desire most. We worry about whether our work will be enough. Or whether we are enough. This is when we need to have courage and trust ourselves.
Often what comes up as resistance is really about not trusting the process. We want to control what comes out and we don’t know where it will take us. Creativity opens us up. Sometimes that’s scary – we don’t know what will be there, under the surface, waiting for us. We are afraid to be vulnerable, to go deep, to lose control, to expose parts of ourselves that aren’t in line with who we think we are. We have to be willing to surrender to what our creativity wants to show us about ourselves.
When coming up against your own resistance in your creative process, ask yourself whether the fear is really about the quality of the work or whether it’s about what you will discover along the way. The process of creating reveals so much about who we are. Are you willing to be open to that experience?
Here are some ways to move through resistance in your creative process and show up for yourself and your work.
Get back into your practice
Your creativity isn’t separate from who you are. It’s a part of you. Get in touch with that by reconnecting with your creative practice and bringing it into your daily life. Start with where you are. What part of your creativity brings you joy? Make space for that. Maybe it means sitting and drawing with your coffee or tea in the morning, or playing some recordings from your voice lessons and dusting off those pipes. Start with one small action. Get into the feeling of expressing your creative energy.
Reflect on what’s beneath your resistance. What is it about your creative process that’s feeling difficult right now? What thoughts, feelings and emotions is that bringing up for you? How is that being expressed – avoidance, procrastination, having a disorganized workspace? Try to understand what’s going on and what it’s about. The more insight you have into the situation, the better you will be able to address it and move through it by knowing what you need and making some changes to your process.
Join a group, take a class, find a coach. Figure out what kind of help and support you need. Reach out to your community of artists and creatives (or start one!) and talk with them about how they manage resistance. If you think you need to learn more about your discipline, seek out a mentor for guidance. Connecting with others can motivate and inspire you to continue creating when it feels hard.
Sometimes it helps to set a creative goal that you want to achieve in order to give you a focus for your creative process. This can provide some structure and help you break down the goal into actionable steps that you schedule and work on every day. If you’ve been wanting to write a book but can’t seem to do the writing part, maybe try setting some small goals such as writing an outline this week and drafting a chapter next week. Having goals can give us direction and a map for getting to the other side.
You can read Part 1 of this series here.