Feeling empty as an artist?
When people say that you need to fill up, they are tapping into a well-loved metaphor about the artist. The artist, we’re going to assume, has a lot to say. They have emotions and connections, stories and accounts, worldviews and interpretations, images and sentences. An artist pours out their art for the benefit of the hearer, the viewer, and the reader.
But in order for them to pour themselves out, they must have something in their heart, mind, and souls first. They need to be filled up before they can empty themselves out into their art.
Where do they get their inspiration?
Currently, I’m reading Swing Time by Zadie Smith. This is a complicated, multi-layered book. To say it’s about two black dancers in England in the ’80s is ridiculously simplifies it. Our main character is inspired by a childhood obsession with early dance by African Americans in film. She fills herself up with these images and the facts behind them so that later — much later — it turns out, she can pour them back out into other art. Her values, worldview, passions, emotions, and drive all come out in this artistic expression. The original influence was accidental, yet life-changing. And while this character is fictional, the process is the same for us.
We are filled with all kinds of things.
Our stories come, whether we want to admit it or not, from the things that we know. Our subconscious is at work with each word we put together, collecting the images and memories and values into our artwork. Sometimes when we’re in the zone we can see how beautifully all our inspiration works with us.
And when we’re not in the zone, then we may be facing writer’s block. We may be empty.
Empty? You could be.
Maybe you’re burned out or exhausted. Maybe you don’t have any good ideas. It could be that the idea of writing at all makes you nauseated.
What to do to fill up?
Practice good self-care.
I’ve noticed that if I’m especially cross or grumpy, I may just need a sandwich and a nap. But if the anger goes deeper than that, then I need to get to the bottom of it.
Fill up by reading; you should always be reading anyway.
I’d suggest that if you are empty that you read things you don’t usually read — try something new. I go to my local library’s digital catalog and download a bunch of books I’d never think of picking up and go through them on my phone. It’s hardly inconvenient and if I hate the book, it’s easy to replace it.
Expand into other art forms.
You can be creative in other ways besides putting stories together. Try a new recipe. Find a cool craft on Pinterest. Make something — anything. I believe that this will stimulate your creative process enough. It may even prime the pump. You never know. you may find something just as rewarding to do as writing.
Watch a live performance.
Go to your local theater, or check out what your local community college is presenting. Go without an agenda. Go just to listen to the dialogue and to enjoy the story. The interpretation of the play will seep into your subconscious and help inspire you later, perhaps in an unexpected way. If you can’t see a live performance, go to the PBS.org site and check out one of their performances. You’ll be glad you did.
Listen to live music.
Music feeds the soul. I believe that art is art. And that the creative expressions of one kind of artist will feed the creative needs of another.
if you stress out that you don’t have an idea, or that you’re just a hack or that you’re a has been, or the best days are behind you, then you’ll be so tied up in knots that you’ll never receive the good ideas that are out there.
Make an appointment with yourself to write a specific amount of time or words daily. And the muse will find you.
Look for positive things around you. It may be that you need to be more deliberate in your practices of mindfulness. Maybe you need to meditate or do a little yoga. Even 10 minutes a day could make a big difference.
Watch different genres of movies.
Streaming allows us to have access to varieties we may never have tried. The next time you’re Netflix-ing, try something new, even for a few minutes. Pay attention to the details of the storytelling. You may come away inspired. My new favorite is Broadchurch. It’s inspired me to write a mystery someday!
Without freaking out about this, think of poetry as the connection of words. You could look for inspiration from other poets, collect words you like or listen to poets read their work aloud. I find this very inspirational.
I never get enough time watching people. Today I saw a stocker in the grocery store who walked with a floppy gait as if he were wearing clown shoes. At Costco, I saw a man who looked just like Christopher Lee when he played Sauraman in The Two Towers. If I had my notebook with me, instead of my shopping list, I would have spent more time writing down everything I saw.
Mentor a younger or more inexperienced writer.
Even if neither of you has that much experience, you’d probably find the relationship rewarding. Sometimes just having someone to bounce ideas off of is extremely helpful. My teenagers are especially good at this.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ON THIS LIST! It could be that the reason you’ve stalled is because you don’t think you’re as good as your friend, or you are intimidated by another’s success. Nothing paralyzes a writer more than comparing himself to another writer — she will most often sell herself short. Instead, focus only on you; your strengths, your talents, and your abilities.
Become less dependent on your rituals.
Admittedly, my Tito Puente playlist tells my brain that it’s time to get busy. I’d also like to always have next to me an iced coffee, a savory snack, hand lotion and a gentle breeze from my open window. I could also have a nice sans serif font, at 18pt, in a fun color for my document. I could. While these “must-haves” are all lovely, I know that I can write just fine without them. If you tell yourself you can’t write unless your ritual is perfect, then you won’t be writing much. Instead, tell yourself that you can write anywhere and then do it for ten minutes. I think this will build your confidence and help you break out of that block.
Lower your expectations.
I’ve been calling myself the 10 Minute Writer or 10 Minute Novelist for over a decade and still, daily, I have to remind myself that my allotted writing time will not be perfect. Instead of expecting a nonstop hour of work, I should expect a few ten-minute increments and then be happy that I got something at all. This blog post was written in a ten-minute increment. When the timer dinged, I decided a nap was the best use of my time. But that ten minutes, no matter how small, still matters in my writing.
That ebb and flow of your writing? That is normal. Every writer oscillates from being inspired to being dry and back again. Instead of beating yourself up for feeling empty, think about ways you can fill up. And don’t expect one trip to a museum to do the trick. It may take weeks to rediscover your muse. In the meantime, filling up is fun, it’s good for our souls and often it’s not too expensive.
You do have a lot to say. You’ll say more when you fill up the empty spaces.
So go out into the world and discover its marvels and mysteries. Then come back and tell us all about it.
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.