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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ellert

The Dreaded Block

When the email came inviting me to be the inaugural blogger for the new Gallery 12 blog posts, I had just begun my daily piano practice session. As I began to work through the solidification of some works to bring them to performance level, my mind and fingers were absolutely elsewhere and I was having a frustrating afternoon. Nothing would go right, pieces that I have played well in the past kept coming apart, fingers refusing to play the right notes at the right time. A classic case of a block.

A young John at the piano

Regardless of what art I’m practicing, whether it is music, or photography, or writing, blocks are a fact of life. They plague every creative endeavor. Blocks happen unexpectedly: the previous day’s practice session went splendidly, and I made much progress, but today my fingers seemed to belong to an alien being. Alternatively, yesterday’s work/play session with the camera in the garden yielded some really good images, but today I just can’t get inspired, and every image is destined for the bit bucket. I started this blog post yesterday and the initial ideas flowed freely, but today I can’t make sense of them and can’t remember some of the nuances I planned on introducing but can’t decipher from my initial scattershot of various ideas. The same holds true for me in a photo editing session using the vast variety of digital tools: sometimes I sit down and the ideas flow freely, cross-associating and pollinating each other while other times I sift endlessly though images and none of them look to be worth the space they occupy on my hard drive, let alone my attention in trying to get them to sing beautifully together.

I’m sure that just about everyone reading this has experienced a block at least once. Don’t beat yourself up over blocks; they are part of the creative process and the key is to embrace them, not for the block itself with all its frustrations, but for the journey they can set in motion. We’ll look at some of the ways this may play out.

We’ve all developed some ways of dealing with blocks, and not always with consistent success. For example, I know some who have absolutely set, inviolate times to work at their art, meaning that they mentally clear everything and go into their studio (or practice room) prepared to get to work. I try to do with my piano practice time, but as I found yesterday afternoon, the gremlins can still bite.

So how do we overcome these unwanted intrusions upon our creative process? How do we turn these intrusions into something positive? Here are some of the techniques that work for me.

Push through. Sometimes, mental discipline is enough to block the distractions. By totally immersing in the process, we can shove the block into obscurity and move on with our work.

Work around. Sometimes I can divert attention from the specific aspect that is blocking me by moving my attention to different facet of the work. If the view of a landscape in front of my camera is just not working, I move a few feet, change my point of view, get lower, get higher. A few days ago, I was having no end of difficulty in creating a layer mask in Photoshop that would accomplish my aim. As frustration intensified, I sat back and thought for a minute, and then tried masking on a different layer and the problem block instantly dissolved. Sometimes, if a Chopin Prelude is evading my fingers and I can feel the growing presence of a block, moving to a different work will get me out of the blocked state.

Distract. Go work on something else in a different creative realm. That was the case yesterday when I grew so frustrated with everything at the piano that I shut the lid and came down to my studio to work on this blog as the ideas for it were in crowding in on me at the piano and my mind refused to stay focused on Liszt and Chopin. Work in an unrelated creative endeavor can often be extremely productive of ideas, and with the mind cleared of the initial distraction, one can return to the original project ready to fully engage. Today, with this blog post having assumed most of its final shape in the morning, in the afternoon I could work at the piano completely focused on the music.

Relax. If nothing else is working, doing something mindless (for me crossword puzzles or yardwork) helps restore mental equilibrium. Sometimes one’s mind needs a complete break of conscious thought, but the subconscious will obediently continue to gnaw away at a problem while your conscious mind turns over words or pulls weeds. The next time you enter your workspace, whether it is your studio, practice room, or garden, the block has faded with the previous day’s sunset and your inner being has found the solution or cleared the cobwebs.

Sometimes it is a paralysis of ideas, too many things crowding in at once, too many competing choices, each begging to be heard or worked out. This can happen on a macro scale, affecting everything you are trying to do (or preventing anything useful from being done at all). In these cases, learning some new techniques (just for fun) can break one out of the doldrums. This can work when one is facing a major dry period, maybe after mounting a large exhibition and the inevitable question of where do I go next rears it grimy head. As the calendar rolled over to 2020, and faced with a looming exhibition in 2021, I was feeling adrift, not sure what direction, photographically, I wanted to take myself, what I wanted to say in a new group of images. My notebook was overflowing with ideas but trying to choose one had led to a certain paralysis. Another photographer I’d met at a professional conference in 2018 invited me to join her Facebook group on floral photography and that led to a series of online workshops with guest presenters from all over the world on various ways they work with floral subjects. Suddenly, doors and windows flew open with exciting new ideas and I saw the direction I wanted to go and could get right to work creating a whole new body of substantial work. The year of the pandemic proved a fantastic time to focus in on the world in my yard.

John, creating past the block

These are the major ways I deal with the creative blocks that lurk ready to sap the spirit of the moment. What solutions have you found? If you’d care to share with us, please use comments below.

-John Ellert, Gallery Member

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