Advice on art paralysis — with guest columnist Beth Pickens
The author of Make Your Art No Matter What fields this month’s creative dilemma.
Welcome to the latest installment of my monthly advice column. As I was mulling over this month’s letter, I happened to read Beth Pickens’s new book, Make Your Art No Matter What—and I couldn’t imagine a better person to field the following question, from a theatre maker who finds himself “freezing up” at key moments in his career. I’m so grateful that Beth was up for the challenge, as I think her answer will be helpful for a lot of people (me included!).
Beth is a Los Angeles–based consultant for artists and arts organizations, with more than ten years’ experience talking to creative people about their real-life blocks and hang-ups. In Make Your Art No Matter What, she manages to address both the really practical stuff, like time management skills, and the really deep-seated stuff, like grief, fear, isolation, dysfunctional attitudes about money and success, and on and on. It’s a book that contains a lot of wisdom and plenty of actionable advice, and I think it should prove useful to any artists finding themselves held back by obscure forces—as in the below letter…
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I’ve noticed an unwanted pattern in myself and I’d love some advice on how to break it. I guess I’d call it art paralysis. At key moments, I freeze up, let months go by with no real action, and let momentum/opportunities fade away. (For context: I’m an original theatre maker and fight choreographer.)
So, I’m great at getting a wild idea, writing up a script, assembling a team, and putting up a show. Often they’re pretty well received, too. I might even do a couple more shows with the same team. Then it comes time to go bigger. There’s been a number of times when I’ve felt right on the cusp of really taking off with my art making—creating more regularly, developing a community of collaborators, and building an audience base. I’m currently at that cusp again. And I’m starting to feel the paralysis again.
I want to operate with the same wild abandon that I have with my one-off projects, but something is holding me back. Maybe it’s knowing that going bigger requires commitment? I also find myself playing the comparison game a lot at this stage (“Well, this theatre company does A, B, and C—you’re not even scratching at A yet”), and that makes me feel like my limbs are in molasses. It seems like the size of it all is making me freeze.
My logic-brain knows that I have talent, craft know-how, and something unique to offer. But there’s an emotional/psychological aspect that I need some help overcoming! I’d really like to stop holding myself back and step into that next phase, where I know I could have the flourishing, rich artistic life that I’ve always wanted. —José in Pittsburgh
Beth Pickens replies:
Thanks for asking about this freezing experience, which is something my clients experience throughout their careers. You’re not alone. The good news is that you’re aware of this pattern and you are willing to try something different. This is big because it can take us a long time to key into the patterns we’ve created and longer still to be willing to change or disrupt them. There is no bad news! There are pathways out of this situation.
When my clients bring versions of your story into our sessions, my first instinct is we need to encounter their fears related to success, scaling up, new and bigger opportunities, failing, leadership, money, and being seen. There are likely other fears in there that will emerge. It’s scary to let ourselves grow as big and as wonderful as we are meant to be! That risk and vulnerability sometimes shows up in other familiar ways: procrastination, overwhelm, dread, avoidance, flakiness, lateness, and self-sabotage. Fear is at the base of all those, too. Fear is not something we have to conquer or vanquish; it’s just a human experience and our fear need not condemn us to any inevitable outcome. When we lovingly, compassionately contend with our fear, we can navigate around it, discovering that we have choices.
Here’s your homework. Please do it all and in this order and tell me what happens:
First, I want you to pick one day every week that you will protect from any work related to earning money or your art practice. On this day, everything else is available: rest, caring for others, adventure, relationships, cooking, sex, sleep, reading, movies, walking, body care, exploration, cleaning, and so much more. I need to be sure that your artist self gets regular rest and recovery before we do anything about growing your projects and career. It’s ok if you don’t like it or it feels uncomfortable at first. Do this practice every single week and, whenever possible, expand it to two days.
Next, I want you to tell people who love you that you are creating some new patterns in order to fully expand and realize your creative work. Tell them you may need some support, whether emotional, logistical, or another form. Don’t do anything alone! Your community can help you transform any pattern that is holding you back.
I want you to create a fears inventory over the course of a couple weeks. Write down every fear you can conjure, especially those that creep up when you imagine taking your work to another level or saying yes to a big opportunity. Unearth everything from your depths to the best of your ability. Read this fears inventory to another artist, one who loves and supports you. I want you to smile—literally or figuratively—at each fear, seeing it for what it is, which is simply a thought. Not a truth, a condemnation, or any kind of evidence. Fears are thoughts. Your artist friend will likely admit they have most of these fears, too. Delight in this interpersonal connection!
Finally, I want you to gently enter into a series of tasks that will take your work in some big, challenging direction. I’m asking for manageable consistency rather than an all-or-nothing way of working. Each week, pick a short list of tasks that will send you down the path: asking for a meeting, sending an email, applying for funding, soliciting collaborators, requesting mentorship. Anytime you feel overwhelmed, avoidant, fearful, or procrastinate-y, tell an artist friend that you need a moment of emotional support to complete the task. Sometimes it helps to break a task into even small pieces. When sending an email feels overwhelming, just write a draft of it that you don’t have to send yet. Any task can be made smaller and more manageable.
Keep doing all of these things over and over and over.
José, I was raised just outside of Pittsburgh and that city is in my DNA in all the best and worst ways. Please get a Primanti Bros sandwich and take it up the Monongahela Incline to the top of Mt. Washington, look at the insane number of bridges over the snaking rivers, and write an epic gratitude list. Repeat.
Huge thanks to Beth for the guest advice! For more like this, don’t miss her new book, Make Your Art No Matter What—and you may also want to check out her Homework Club, a virtual workshop and support group for keeping your creative practice on track.
Have you own advice for José? By all means, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
To submit your own creative dilemma, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into writers’ and artists’ work habits.