Permission to Create Freely

Seeing writer’s block from a different angle

Jan 10, 2024

Creative Process Creativity Artist Art Writing
gray concrete statue of woman

Photo by Marianna Smiley

The act of creating art involves the whole person. That is at once its great blessing and its curse…. The burden of imaginative writers is to be dependent much of the time on their level of self-awareness, for this state has an immediate effect on the ability to dream up something and put it down on paper.

~Victoria Nelson in her book, On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity

I have to say, I don’t always feel like being “self-aware” when I sit down to write. Sometimes I just want the ideas and words to flow without having to go to a deeper place within me. But Victoria argues that making art involves the whole person, all of me. No shortcuts, no sidestepping. This is indeed both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it will produce beautiful, moving works that are authentic, and it will serve to develop and mature the artist. The curse? It requires a lot of energy and focus to come into this internal space, and trying to get there often drives one mad.

We cannot command ourselves to write, Victoria argues. This leads to writer’s block, which she defines as the stubborn rebellion of our unconscious for various reasons. In other words, when we find ourselves blocked, it is not due to some external factor (like procrastination) but rather an internal one. Our job is to figure out what that is and why our unconscious is rejecting our pleas to create.

Victoria says we are to establish “a true relationship” with our unconscious instead of habitually attempting to dominate it. There has to be a level of trust and respect. Our resistance to creating art, she goes on to say, may be trying to communicate important messages to us. Writer’s block should not be ignored, or trivialized, and there is no forcing our way out of it. We have to listen to what it has to say.

I’ve been reflecting on all this ever since I finished the book a week ago. My immediate reaction was one of relief—no longer do I need to waste energy blaming myself for feeling stuck, for procrastinating, for not writing anything new or even opening my notebook. There is a gentleness that came over me, something I didn’t realize I needed in my creative life. It felt like someone gave me permission to create freely, instead of forcefully.

Do you need this permission? Are you tired of feeling guilty for not showing up for your art, as much as you desire to?

Then I invite you into this place of forgiveness. Surrender your rigidity and control and allow your unconscious to speak to you. Put your ear right up against its heartbeat and see what it wants you to know. You and I don’t have to fight white-knuckled with the blank page in order to create beautiful things. They will blossom of their own accord, so long as we draw them out tenderly.

Should we find ourselves still unable to create even when we’ve surrendered, Victoria shares that we must allow ourselves the freedom to take a break, maybe an extended one, or to temporarily move on to other projects—journaling, taking notes, reading works by authors we love, or trying our hand at a completely new medium. We do this until we feel called back to that blank page, invited almost, with ease instead of tension. Until the words begin to flow again naturally.

The unconscious despises inflexibility; therefore, we introduce its opposite: fluidity.

The process of creating art is enigmatic—a mystery that can’t be explained logically. So how can we expect to force it into a neat, enclosed container to suit our needs? How can we think we can tell it what we need it to do? It needs room to breathe, to morph into form. We are ultimately not producing anything; the piece of art that wants expression is being created through us. We are merely vessels, allowing it to come into being on this side from whatever ether it originates.

Thinking of art in this way leads to a newfound level of appreciation and regard for the process, at least for me. I am in awe of what all has to come together to even create anything to begin with. No wonder it requires “the whole person.” The birthing of ideas needs our complete participation. Otherwise, don’t bother. I hear it say. It’s not for you.

This is sacred work.

I do not want to take it lightly. I may never fully understand the intricacies of what happens when I show up to the blank page, but what I can do is pay attention—to my inner level of self-awareness, to what my unconscious is trying to communicate to me, and to the energy and mindset I’m bringing to the work. This is half the battle. The rest is dictation.