BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JAN 12
Featured in
Issue 144

Artist's Block

What can artists learn from writers?

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 JAN 12

Ryan Gander Everything is learned, iii, 2010. Installation view 'I know about creatve block and I know not to call it by name' at Lisson Gallery, Milan, 2011 (photograph: Ken Adlard)

As a writer, I always feel sorry for artists at this time of year. After doing an annual review, writers and artists may end up making New Year’s resolutions to either get their work back on track or heading in a new direction. Yet we writers enjoy an advantage in tackling our ‘To Do’ lists because we can name our creative ill when we falter: writer’s block. If I break a resolution to finish a text, there’s not only a diagnosis but also countless cures.

When I’m melancholically stuck, I return to Marguerite Duras’s Écrire (Writing, 1993): ‘Write. I can’t. No one can. One must say it: I can’t. And one writes.’ When I need a swift kick, I pick up Stephen King’s On Writing (2000): ‘Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ I’ve also found time for prosaic advice: How to Write Like Chekhov (2002) or Writing for Pleasure and Profit (1986). Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992) is great for any blocked creative, but, ultimately, artists don’t have the same wealth of advice at their fingertips as writers do. I’ve never seen a book titled ‘Making Art for Pleasure and Profit’. Or, in the spirit of marathon novel writer Chris Baty, something like ‘No Painting? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Producing an Exhibition in 30 Days’.

Of course, artists do address their blocks. For Desperately Seeking Artwork (1997), Christian Jankowski consulted a psychotherapist to come up with an art work (the video of his sessions became the work). Annika Ström started a residency in her home which also became a work: Grant for frustrated, envious and/or uninspired artist (1996). At the new Lisson Gallery in Milan in September 2011, Ryan Gander curated the group show ‘I know about creative block and I know not to call it by name’. But, as the title suggests, artists don’t like to talk about their blocks unless they have been turned into art works about blocks; the diagnosis is confounded with a cure. By contrast, most writers don’t turn their blocks into novels about blocks; they tend to be silent, with some exceptions, like Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage (1997): his book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence.

It’s reckless, but I’m going to ‘translate’ for artists the best advice I’ve read on writer’s block. Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer (1934) begins with the psychoanalytic distinction between the unconscious and the conscious. She suggests making daily appointments – and respecting them to the minute – to allow the unconscious to produce ideas freely without being censored by the conscious ego. However resistant to training, the unconscious brings a wealth of ideas to such appointments with freedom – like a little kid runs wild in the playground at recess but gets bored in class. Brande is against stalling – staring at the paper, screen, canvas – and advises moving around until inspiration returns, or making the next appointment before leaving the work in a rut. When I’m stuck, I’ll do a dull task, like washing dishes; by the first pot, I’ve found my answer.

If you read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and replace her ‘writer’s’ view with the ‘artist’s’, you get the ugly truth: ‘[Artist’s] block is going to happen to you. You will [see] what little you’ve [produced] lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit […] Here’s the thing, though. I no longer think of it as a block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.’ Lamott recasts a block as an emptiness and advises accepting it before trying to fill it up again. In the meantime: 300 words a day (artists might try a daily sketch).

The cartoonist Lynda Barry, who turned her attention to creative writing, offers more artistically inclined advice in her illustrated guide What It Is (2008). Blocks come from two questions: ‘Is this good?’ and ‘Does this suck?’ She advises to keep the pen moving away from them – in words or drawings – while experiencing and exploring images that arise in the mind, like the flood of memory that comes from a song, smell or slant of light. ‘What is an image?’ she asks. ‘It’s the pull-toy that pulls you, takes you from one place to another. The capacity to roll […] the ability to stay in motion, to be pulled by something, to follow it and stay behind it.’ If you’re stuck, open the flood-gates and go with the flow.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.