On the Need For Space in the Creative Process

How I navigated a recent need for space in my creative process

Space in the form of expanses of water and/or sky can be like a breath of air into the creative process. Taking yourself somewhere that feels sacred to you can be very restorative – whether it’s an urban park, a particular building, or a landscape nearby. You don’t have to go far.

There is a time for taking action and creating work, and there is also a time for rest and seeking new ideas. It is so important that you learn to trust yourself to know which you need at any given time. Of course, you will make errors and choose the wrong one. That’s ok. What’s important is that you learn from the experience and adjust accordingly. Learning when you need space will help you to build a more sustainable creative practice. 

Recently, I have been making changes to realign my resources with my vision. This has required a lot of effort in the form of asking big questions, listening to the answers I was receiving, paying attention to how this felt, and facing the many fears that came up. As a result, I was feeling very low on energy and resources despite having taken time and space from work to address these questions.

Upon my return to studio and running Painted Stories, my instincts were telling me to ‘work hard’ and ‘be productive’ to ‘put butt in chair’ and show up, but my intuition was telling me that I was running low on ideas, had little to give, and needed still more space to make connections between creative ideas.

Paying Attention to Your Creative Needs

Over the years, I have learned to pay close attention to my creative process and flow. I pay close attention to the clarity of my mind and how and when my creativity is flowing. I have found that too much noise or ‘shoulds’ from external sources clutter up the flow. I have also found that working and producing too much without rest and time to restore my creative well leads to much longer periods of not-making because I’ve essentially run myself dry.

Rather than pushing through at full-speed, I have found that it’s much more effective to stay aware of the water levels in my creative well. I check in regularly and listen to the signals that I receive. Over time, I have learned to know when my creative well is running low on water or becoming cluttered. I have come to call the signal that I hear my ‘low reservoir alarm’. I was hearing it now and I knew that if I were to push through and go to the studio, I was at risk of burning out.

My instincts were telling me to ‘work hard’ … but my intuition was telling me that I was running low on ideas, had little to give, and needed still more space to make connections between creative ideas.

Textures, expanse, different colours, sights, sounds, and smells can be so refreshing. I live in a dense urban space so this quiet beach at dusk is the opposite of what I’m used to. If you live somewhere rural, going to the main strip of a nearby city or town and people watching can be an invigorating change of pace.

Telling the Difference Between Fear and a Genuine Need For Space 

Often, if you are not creating, it is because of fear. Sometimes, though, it is because you need space. You need to do something else, to have breathing room, restore your energies. This space is a necessary part of the creative process and needs to be listened to. Pushing through can work in small doses – for a particular deadline, perhaps – but it risks leading you to burnout or a creative block that will set you back much longer and bring doubts, fears, and sadness.

I have learned to tell the difference between not working because I am afraid, and not working because I need to not work, only through years of experience. I have learned by making a decision and acting, then learning from those actions, and adjusting my learnings for the next time.

This will be a personal navigation that only you can do. With patience, attention, and careful adjustments, you can learn to understand your creative needs accurately and quickly, setting you on a path to years of healthy creativity and making. Getting quiet and journaling, breathing deeply, or going for a walk can help you to discern which is which.

Being willing to change gears, can be far more effective than a hard push-through approach. It allows new ideas and solutions to come to you.

Keep Moving, But Slow Down Your Pace 

I knew that I had to allow myself patience and space, so I sought ways in which to continue taking actions and small steps toward my goals, but at a slower pace. I walked. I organized my studio space. I went to the library and came back with an armload of new and familiar voices that spoke to what I needed. I sat, reading deeply, seeking spiritual answers, looking for my new centre after these recent upheavals. I edged closer to it and found myself with a few new ideas and realizations about my studio work. This was a start.

In slowing down and tidying my studio space, I found this painting that I’d previously discarded as ‘not right’. Upon seeing it this time, I found it had an organic quality to it that was interesting. I could feel some new ideas beginning to kindle. A very good sign.

The next day, I continued my usual morning journaling routine. I had a quiet breakfast and found myself with ideas for my next monthly letter. I suddenly seemed to know just what I wanted to say. I jotted down those notes – an encouraging trickle of creative flow was beginning – and then proceeded with my planned “half-day” of carefully-selected action steps.

I made a few scary moves toward things that I needed: I gave notice on my studio space, including all the furniture in it, and tried photographing and scanning a new type of work. I then did some easier tasks and organized my computer and caught up on my bookkeeping and errands.

If You’re Getting Stuck In Your Head, Get Into Your Body 

I found myself struggling to focus on any deep reading, this time. I was being drawn into noisy distractions (like Instagram and the news). So, I went from head to body. I took myself on a long run in the park to try to clear my head and come back to the present moment.

Being willing to change gears, can be far more effective than a hard push-through approach. I returned from my run with several big new ideas. These ideas could not have come if I had tried to continue forcing myself to complete the previous task.

As you build a creative practice for yourself, you will learn so much about how you, in particular, create. This information is unique to you and can serve as an invaluable guide for you going forward.

Gentleness Produces the Best Results

It’s important to listen to what your intuition is telling you, without judging it. Your Inner Critics and the logic-side of your brain will begin to pipe up with all kinds of external judgements and expectations about it – you “shouldn’t” need less noise, you are “lazy” or “weak” to need more space.

A few textile and paper scraps gifted by friends. They are a somewhat random selection but I find something interesting is beginning to happen with the textures, colour palette, and transparency as they overlap. I don’t yet know what I will make of this, but I can feel my creative ideas beginning to flow again, so it’s time to get back to making.

You know what you need. Your body, your heart, your spirit, know what they need and they deserve to be listened to. Not listening is more likely to cause a worse problem in the long run – getting sick, burning out, feeling blocked, or out of alignment.

In my experience, listening, learning, adjusting, and going gently works far, far better than any more hard-line and pushy approach. As you build a creative practice for yourself, you will learn so much about how you, in particular, create. This information is unique to you and can serve as an invaluable guide for you going forward.

Getting Back to Work

It’s important to not take too much space. I can feel when I’ve had a rich creative experience, when creative ideas are beginning to flow again, and when I have a realization or a clarity around next steps. This, or very shortly after this, is when I should get moving again. You now have the energy. Use it!

Remaining too long in the slow meandering can lead to a reluctance to return to studio. It can lead to a dullness of mind, a fog, feelings of over-indulgence or avoidance… this is partly, I think, because it begins to allow the fears to creep back in. If you are experiencing this, try to get back making – any kind of thing – right away.

At the very least, keep moving and doing small things to better your life (clean, cook, exercise…). You want to avoid a mindless reading, scrolling, or absorbing of information that will clutter the creative well you just so carefully cleaned and stocked.

If you are feeling energized and ready to create, but are struggling to take action, I have a post all about showing up and doing the work

For more about setting a life vision, learn how to create a vision story and why it’s an invaluable tool.

If you are at a loss for ideas of how you might begin to refill your creative well, I share a list of free ways to feel inspired, and less-free (but still affordable) ways to fuel your creativity.

For regular reflections on the creative process, for encouragement, honesty, and support… sign up for my monthly letter at the bottom of this page or join me on Instagram.

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