Getting over the slump in the middle of a project

Let’s talk about the creative process and how the slump in the middle make us wanna quit. Be your own best hype person to get through it.

Content Warning: this post on the Creative Process touches on some mental health issues. Take care of yourself and skip it if you need to.

I have this Creative Process quote right by me in my studio:

Digging around, as best as I can tell it’s a tweet from British stage director Marcus Romer from 2013:

This process list is a perfect setup for a question I got in my January survey: How do I get past the slump in the middle of a project? Because let’s be honest, stages 3 and 4 are FOR REAL. When my project gets to these painful stages, the urge to chunk everything into the sea is nearly irresistible.

Getting started

Stage 1, “This is awesome,” is the idea phase. You get a spark of invention and think, “dang, that’s a good idea.” We all have notebooks full of Stage 1 projects, along with every scrap of paper and bar napkin at the bottom of your bag. If you and I were in a room together right now, we could cough up 20 Stage 1 projects in under 10 minutes without even trying very hard. Ideas are free. And, while they’re swirling in the breezes of our imaginations, they’re perfect.

Stage 2 is where I start trying to figure out how to make that perfect idea real. This is, indeed, tricky. But there’s still some momentum from the exciting Stage 1 process to keep it moving. I might stay in the flow by gathering some supplies and trying out a few methodologies at this step. The work is interesting and, if I’m lucky, only moderately mentally taxing.

If you get stuck in these first two stages, I’m going to take a guess and say you would call yourself a perfectionist. Perfectionism is the enemy of most any practice. My solution is often to work fast and ignore my internal mental editor. Turning off my mental editor and sprinting is excellent practice for longer projects. For me, this truncated process usually requires art journaling. If you keep your hands moving and don’t listen to why it’s not working, sometimes you can get the work done before that stupid internal editor shows up and tells you all the ways you’re messing up. I remind myself here that done is ALWAYS better than perfect.

journal stack

Getting derailed

I can’t often outrun stages 3 and 4. The “this is shit” stage happens in the middle of my process. The messy middle is a real place and OMG I feel like it is my permanent address sometimes. When I was a less experienced creative person, I got derailed here A LOT. I think many of us do. No matter how enthusiastic I am when I start a project, at some point I lose the initial burst of enthusiasm. Maybe I’ve had two (or ten) setbacks and I’m not sure how to move forward. This road block inevitably causes me to stop working on my project. Once I stop, there’s a much larger chance I won’t finish.

Stopping work on a project to figure out next steps can be part of the process, though. When I’m struggling at the “this is shit” stage, I like to remind myself of past victories. Remember the time I resurrected a project from near disaster? Or when I took a breath (and maybe a month off), but when I came back to it, it only took me 30 minutes of work to get back on track? Or that time I thought, “If I cut this up I can use it this way instead of trying to force it into this”? Being your own hype person and recounting your past victories in these moments is KEY. Reminding yourself that you’ve solved a lot of different problems before this project helps you manage the feelings of failure for this project.

It also helps stave off step 4. Because remembering all of the times I failed at step 3 will typically lead me straight into step 4, the “I am shit” phase. And during the “I am shit” stage, the chances of finishing this project goes down again. The chances you’ll tell yourself that you’re bad at this work will go up. The more often you tell yourself you are a failure, the less likely you are to start work again on any project. It’s a terrible cycle. Figuring out how to coach yourself through it will be invaluable if you want to keep on keeping on.

I’m my own best hype person

As a Southerner and a woman, I’ve been socially conditioned to downplay what I can do and what I have done. I’ve learned to shed that skin for these moments. It’s taken a ton of practice, and I still get stuck in the quicksand occasionally. But here are a few things that work for me. Feel free to use and adapt these, if they’re helpful. Come up with your own, too! You know what works best to encourage yourself. Trust that.

You know I’m going to tell you to make a list, right? I’m always about a good list. But this list can look like a bunch of different things…

  • Put copies of projects you feel were successful around your work space. If I can see the work I’ve made that I like, I’m encouraged to try again.
  • Hang up encouraging quotes. Have a bunch. Rotate through them. You aren’t the first person who’s felt this way. Having the greats out there reminding us they struggled too is a relief.
  • When Stickermule has a sale, make stickers of your favorite works. I have stickers on my water bottle. On my bullet journal. On my laptop. I give them away as perks to others. Having your work printed is an insane ego boost. Also, you can sell them!
  • Blog to record your successes. I revisit my own collections and blog posts and YouTube videos because I enjoy looking back at my own stuff.
  • Journal. I journal all the time. One of my weekly and monthly processes is to look over the past week/month and record my wins. Reminding myself that I’ve rocked it this week encourages me to rock it next week, too.
  • I think about comments people have left on this blog, on my Instagram posts, or Facebook posts. Things they love about my work or how my words have touched them. A friend sent me an email in May 2021 that I print out and tape into every new bullet journal because their words are the loveliest encouragement.
  • I think about the finished work that people have bought. How they spend a few moments each day looking at that work. I pray it brings them joy or comfort or peace today.
  • I look through old art journals and see how I solved my own problems in the past. Sometimes I’ m amazed that I did something, and try to remember how I did it.
  • I flip through my Saved tab in Instagram, where I save other’s work as inspiration. I use this one very judiciously. I have to make sure I’m looking for inspiration instead of to dog on myself because everyone else is producing amazing work while I’m over here sucking.
  • I phone or text an art friend. I tell them I’m in a slump and ask for advice/commiseration/for them to hype me up. I use this one judiciously as well. I need to be able to pick myself up and get back to work. Outsourcing my motivation is an easy slide to procrastination for me.

Practice looking for your successes. Practice keeping track of them. Maybe you won’t have many at the beginning. That’s okay. Count every single small thing. They’ll add up. Reminding myself of my past successes lets me feel confident in solving today’s project’s problems. After I’ve thrown myself a little “Go me!” party, I brainstorm next steps and I see if I can get back to work on the project.

Sometimes I still don’t get past the “This is shit” stage

Not every project will succeed. We all know this. It’s the nature of making things with our hands. Sometimes things just don’t work out.

This is the moment that I remind myself that this is a practice. None of us are born being able to do anything at the highest levels of achievement for any given field. It takes a tremendous amount of work to get good. I think many people can say easily that, of course, hard work will take you far in sports, sales, playing an instrument, or cooking. It amazes me that those same folks are much less willing to admit that being an artist takes a lot of hard work. Sometimes just showing up to the studio ready to work is a successful day. And sometimes showing up to the studio after a week of failures is the best I can hope for.

Being willing to show up again and again to put in the work is the real deal. What you’re making in any given moment is a passing thing. This is endurance training, friends. If my abandoned project doesn’t offer me any other lessons, then I mark it down as endurance training and move on to the next project.

The bottom of the pit

In writing this post, I shied away from talking about stage 4: I am shit. So I knew I needed to put on my big girl pants and just get to it. This is the moment in the work where I question everything. My judgment, my values, why I ate cold pizza for breakfast, why I think art is a good idea, who said I could even do this? All of it. And sometimes, in these very dark moments, I think: who cares about this? No one is looking and if I stop making art, it won’t really matter. Existential crisis, party of me.

I’ll be honest, I’ve been here a few times. It’s absolutely paralyzing. I can only think of two other life events that I’ve experienced that compares to this mental anguish. If you’re here and things are very dark, please get help. If you need a counselor or emergency treatment, seek it out immediately. Take care of yourself, please. I like you and want you here.

I’ve learned practicing never getting to this place is my best defense. I have to remind myself constantly that my self worth isn’t connected to what I do or what I make. Being an artist is both a gift to myself and an offering to the world. If I stop being an artist, I’m still a whole, worthy person. “I am shit” is terrible self talk. Don’t say those words to yourself because it’s bad for you mentally and your work will suffer. More importantly, you will suffer. And nothing, not even art, is worth that.

Home free

Imma be honest, if I can get past Stages 3 and 4, I can usually power through to the end of the project. If it’s a long project, sometimes I can run the loop (or parts of it) again, but once I hit stage 5, “This might be okay,” I can usually see the end. Stage 5 is exciting! It renews my sense of purpose, which is often enough juice to get me across the finish line.

For me, many projects are finished at the end of Stage 5. It is the rare, magical unicorn of a project that I feel earns a stage 6 label of “This is awesome.” These Stage 6 wonders are the pieces I look at and say, “Did I make that?!!?” and get excited for myself. It’s an out-of-body experience. Stage 6ers are defo pieces I want front and center when I hit Stage 3 on the next project. Keep a file of your Stage 6 projects because these are your hoarded gold, and probably your resume pieces.

I don’t yet know how to predict Stage 6 projects. I’m leaning a bit into the mystery here while still keeping my eyes open for the patterns in play. I have to remind myself that many, many people don’t have many (if any) Stage 5 projects, so Stage 6 wins are just pure gravy.

How’s it working for you? Where do you get stuck? You up for a sprint? Set a clock and go for 15 minutes on your project. Let me know how it goes. Drop a comment here, email me, or tag me on socials.

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