Breaking Out of a Creative Rut

while it may be ferociously frustrating, a rut needn’t be interminable

Creative people love to create. We find joy in producing, in inventing, in devising and composing and imagining. We live for the feelings this creating gives us, and for the feelings engendered in ourselves and others as our creations reverberate off an audience. But what happens when a creative person finds themselves unable to create? Unfortunately, in this world, no person – no matter how talented, hard-working, or prolific- is immune to the grim possibility of that dead space known as a creative rut. The good news is that while it may be ferociously frustrating, a rut needn’t be interminable. The path is rarely straight or clear-cut, and it is certainly different for every person, but there are steps you can take to dig yourself out of the pain of a rut, and back into the joy of creativity where you belong.

1. Take a class

Sometimes, when you’re grasping around for ideas but find yourself continually coming up empty, it can help to put someone else “in charge”. In a classroom setting – be it acting, improv, singing, or dance – you will have a teacher leading you, guiding you… And if you’ve been stuck in a creative rut, this can feel like just what the doctor ordered. Freed from the need to come up with all the ideas yourself, or to personally light the spark that will power you through, you might find yourself suddenly better able to relax and let creativity flow. As a bonus, a class will (usually) thrust you into a group setting, and simply having other creatives around can be a surprisingly potent boon for your creative soul and mind. Being in the presence of other artists allows you the opportunity to observe them, draw energy from them, and bounce your own energy off of them as you collaborate. Don’t be surprised if what started off as an uneasy feeling of passively going through the motions, transforms into an active and empowered experience of creativity and productivity.

2. Watch others

If digging inward has failed to make any headway in breaking you out of a creative rut, try looking to others for inspiration. The world around you is positively teeming with incredible, amazing, and talented individuals, and sometimes it can help to stop watching yourself, and spend some time watching them instead. This doesn’t even mean that you need to push your subconscious to live vicariously through these others- to furrow your brow as you stare and tensely instruct your mind to “be like this, be like this, be like this…” Turn off the thinking part of your brain entirely. Then go to a play or a concert, sit back, and simply absorb. Allow yourself to take in and enjoy the performance as an ordinary, non-actor layperson; mute the part of your mind that might ordinarily leap to thoughts of technique or in-depth artistry, and allow yourself to be drawn into the story. The stirrings of raw emotion that you experience deep inside as a skilled actor brings a character to life…as a performance moves you, carries you, makes you think and feel and reflect…these are the feelings that just might also be what is needed to breathe new life into your creative soul, and push you back into some creating of your own.

3. Get out of town

Sometimes, if you’ve been struggling for a while against the familiar backdrop of your home, work, and extracurricular activities, it can be tremendously helpful to shake your creative mind awake by getting away from your routine. While a full fledged vacation may not be in the cards for every person at any given time (would that it were!), even a brief weekend away might be all that you need to hit the ground running upon your return. In a pinch- say, if you’ve found yourself for far too long staring blindly and fruitlessly at the computer screen, with a maddeningly blank space in your brain where you need words to be instead- you can even experience benefits from a quick, half-day road trip. Pick a nearby town where you’ve never before visited, jump in your car, and start driving. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, simply jump into your car, put your key in the ignition, and pick a direction. You don’t have to wind up somewhere awe-inspiring, exotic, or even particularly stimulating for it to be useful in breaking you out of your rut. Simply changing the scenery and routine to which you’ve become so accustomed- and which likely causes you to operate on autopilot during a good portion of your day to day life- can go a long way toward jump starting your brain and getting those creative juices flowing freely.

4. Relive past successes

Sometimes, part of being (and then staying!) in a creative rut is the little voice inside your head that begins to tell you you’ll never be creative again. You’ll never land another role… You’ll never create another character…You’ll never write another screenplay…And while this voice of negativity may seem foolish at first, a creative rut- especially a prolonged one- has the unpleasant ability of beginning to erode away at your self-confidence and morale until you may find yourself wondering if you really will ever again experience success. Perhaps you even begin to doubt whether you ever had any talent or abilities in the first place…If you find yourself creeping down this poisonous and disastrous path, it’s time to deliberately force yourself to STOP – and zap your brain with a healthy dose of reality. Can you remember the last performance or achievement of which you felt really proud? Great. Now go dig out the photo album, the program, the video, the poster you had signed by your fellow cast members on the night of the closing performance. Pore over the pictures and watch the tape. Reread your copy of the script and let the penciled-in notes take your memory back to the glorious hard work and camaraderie of those weeks in rehearsal. For goodness sake- if you must, call your mother and have her remind you how phenomenal you were in your role. Do whatever you have to do to firmly remind yourself of the great success you’ve had in your past. Close your eyes and relive those moments – really feel the pride and the fulfillment and the heady rush of exhilaration as you stood, clasping the warm hands of the cast members on either side of you, and took your bows amidst the thunderous roar of applause. Feel the joy radiate through your entire being.

And know that you will have that again.

5. Do it badly

One of the things that can work insidiously to keep us in a rut is the fear- conscious or subconscious- of failure. Even worse, this can become increasingly pronounced the longer it takes to get out of your rut. So what is one of the best ways to blow straight through that fear and come out, laughing, on the other side? Do something badly! On purpose! It can be from the comfort and privacy of your own home, but may well pack more of a rut-busting punch if you commit and go for it all the way, right out there for the world to see. The reason this is so valuable is that it forces you to get out of your own mind, out of a headspace that has likely become stiff and inflexible. It also serves to eradicate the paralyzing fear of failure – maybe not entirely, but hopefully just enough to provide a healthy counterbalance to the damaging, negative voice in your head. So the next time it starts up with its tired old soliloquy about how your ideas aren’t good enough…no one will like it…no one will be impressed…you can interject with a sharp reminder about that time when you schlepped yourself and your couldn’t-carry-a-tune-in-a-bucket voice to a trendy karaoke bar, and regaled the packed crowd with a roaring rendition of “La donna è mobile” that, by comparison, would have made the earsplitting yowls of a catfight sound like the musical stylings of a celestial choir of angels. And did you die of shame? Did it ruin your life forever and ever? Take that, Voice of Negativity! Huzzah!

6. Come at it from a different angle

Sometimes, trying over and over to do the thing which you can not seem to do only serves to keep you firmly locked in one, immovable place…fixed in an unproductive groove where any and all effort seems to do nothing but cause you to be more steadfastly adhered to going nowhere-like a truck stuck deep in the mud and spinning its wheels in a futile attempt to free itself, but only ever sinking further. You may find that the answer, in this case, is to stop what you’ve been doing and try something entirely different. Stuck writing on a script you can’t seem to finish? Stick it in a desk drawer (alright, I know it’s the 21st century – close the file on your computer and hide it) and go get yourself cast in a play. Feeling discouraged that you can’t seem to reach the next level you’ve been working so hard for with your music? Enroll in a dance class and be forced to express yourself entirely through the movement of your body. At an impasse with the character you’ve been rehearsing for that upcoming Shakespearean tragedy? Dust off your stand up comedy routine and head to an open mic night. (This could also be a good opportunity for a one-two punch with the “do it badly” suggestion above!) Whatever you end up choosing, the deliberate act of closing the channel with which you’ve been struggling and opening an entirely different one can have a profound effect on your creativity. The simple act of getting your creative energy flowing – even if it’s in a different direction or from a different place than you’d ultimately prefer – can instigate a torrent that soon has the momentum to carry it to and through any aspect of your creative mind that you wish.

7. Do something entirely different

If all else fails, simply stop. Do nothing. Wash your hands of your stymied creative endeavor, and walk away. While this may seem like the very least logical thing to do- and may well engender sharp pangs of unease, worry, or regret- sometimes the only way to reach your objective is to stop trying to reach it at all. This is another case where everyone’s varying circumstances will necessarily mean varying degrees of being able to “stop”, but fortunately, it won’t require you selling your house and all belongings, moving to a remote village on the other side of the world, and climbing to the top of a mountain to sit in silence for 10 years to remove yourself from your current situation and do something “different”. You may only have the weekend, but if so – make the choice and force yourself to commit to it. Don’t keep the creative problem simmering on the back burner. Don’t decide to stop focusing on it fully, but then still check in on it from time to time to see if anything’s changed or happened. Remember that thing about watched pots and boiling? Right. If, at this point in your creative rut, you’ve come to the end of your rope and made the decision that you must walk away for a time, do it and mean it.

Remove all reminders. Fill your time with something else. It may turn out to be tougher than you’d think, especially if you’ve gotten yourself fully entrenched in the habit of hacking, hacking, hacking away at the immovable creative rut problem. But the more completely you can disengage, the better your chances of being able to come back to the problem fully charged and prepped to succeed.

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Elizabeth Elizabeth Sekora is an actress and classically trained soprano living in Los Angeles. She has 24 years of experience in theatre, film, opera, television, and voiceover work, and holds a Bachelor of Music degree from University of Nevada, Las Vegas.