my big creative year : overcoming obstacles

I’m great at getting in my own way, overthinking things, feeling overwhelmed and procrastinating. In the week since the first post in My Big Creative Year series I’ve heard from lots of people who struggle with the same things I do and have similar aspirations: to be more deeply creative and productive, to get ideas out of my head and into the world. Below I’ve shared where I frequently get stuck and tools and practices I’ve collected over the years that get me unstuck. They are not fancy or complicated and have saved me again and again. And I still need to be reminded of them – again and again.

What gets in my way :

1. I’m too busy

2. I don’t have an idea

3. I don’t know where to start 

4. I’m in love with my idea

What I can do about it :

1. I’m too busy

Reduce the scope. I can find 15 minutes. I can find 30 minutes. 15 – 30 minutes everyday is meaningful. The daily practice starts to build a habit and it gets me out of inertia and into momentum. Inertia is my dreaded life sucking nemesis.


2. I don’t have an idea

Or I have too many ideas – they are kind of the same. Pick something – the subject really doesn’t matter that much – I know that for sure.  What does matter is that it is achievable in current circumstances.  I love assignments and I started this blog with my 100 Cardboard Horses project. It was a very simple practice that led to all sorts of other ideas. It could have been anything – what mattered is it got me moving and thinking.

ann wood horseYou can also seek out assignments and challenges – an external prompt and sharing are good things.  Some of my most satisfying  work and ideas came out of being in a diorama club here in NYC for 10 years. We took turns picking the subject and then assembled to share what we made. This is one of my favorites:

gjoa haven diorama

 gjoa haven 2008

 And you can find creative challenges and assignments online – I recently discovered PBS’s  The Art Assignment.

Committing to a do-able assignment and applying  small consistent effort is as close to a magic formula as there is for growing creatively and getting unstuck.


3. I don’t know where to start

The box method has been an effective tool for me. Putting stuff in a box – pretty do-able. I’m a fan of Twyla Tharp’s book in general but this one practice has had a huge impact on me. From The Creative Habit:

“The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet. It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on a box means that I’ve started work”

sri collections

Also list making – beginning to get ideas out of my head. I make a huge list of possibilities – not editing myself at all – whatever comes to mind:  colors, sounds, smells, memories, textures – I make little drawings or get absurd or silly or morose – just a big free brain dump. Interesting and unexpected connections and intersections emerge from these big messy lists. Sometimes I use a notebook and sometimes I make them physically huge – the shift in scale can spark something for me.


4. I’m in love with my idea

That doesn’t sound like an obstacle does it? For me it’s one of the biggest. And it really has to do with fear. I fall in love with an idea, get precious about it,  and if I don’t have some external force, some credible threat or deadline to draw it out of myself it lingers there – in it’s perfect and untested form in the safety of my imagination, not subject to scrutiny or interpretation by others; it can live forever as a glorious possibility with no chance of my abilities to express it coming up short. This, more than anything causes me to not move forward with ideas that intrigue or delight me most. The only remedy is to start, suck it up, acknowledge what’s happening and start- make a list, put things in a box, commit some time, start. Once I get moving the failures don’t bother me – it’s the anxiety of starting and that anxiety can be huge.


And something else I need to remind myself of again and again:

I don’t have to want to

How inspired or motivated I’m feeling in a particular moment about starting seems to have no effect on my degree of satisfaction with what I make. In the various self imposed assignments I’ve committed to there were inevitably times I just didn’t feel like it – I mean REALLY didn’t feel like it – but because I had made it mandatory I showed up. Sometimes it was miserable from start to finish but I still felt good about following through and the habit was reinforced. More often than I would have guessed something else happened – I ended up deeply focused and engaged and created work that surprised me and I felt good about – something new happened that felt like it came from a deeper more elusive place in myself.

the swamp

  the swamp 2013 

Left to follow my inclinations or wait for inspiration this work would not have happened.  Showing up in that uncomfortable moment opened me to possibilities I could not have predicted.

Show up. Sometimes it’s all you can do and sometimes it’s all you need to do.

If you decide to try a new practice – recording ideas in the moment, making a big list, putting stuff in a box, committing 15 minutes a day to a project you’ve been sitting on – I’d love to see or hear about it. Please use #mybigcreativeyear on instagram and twitter or post your link or tell me about it in the comment section.  Yesteday I used the box method to get myself moving on a project I’ve been having trouble starting (too in love with the idea) – and it’s getting 30 minutes every day too.



  1. Hi Ann, I’ve been an admirer, follower for some time & just wanted to let you know I’ve been enjoying reading your recent writings about the creative process. Thanks for sharing, being inspiring, and making time to write these posts!

    • Thanks Beth I’m glad you’re enjoying – I feel like I’m at a point where it’s important for me to look at this stuff and try some new things – sharing it is a good motivator!

  2. Ooh, you hit many nails on the head for me. My biggest problem is I think of something but think I haven’t the skill to make it look exactly like what I want. It stops me from serious stuff. I’m trying to get around it by picking up something random in my chaos and making that the starting point of a project. So far I’ve done three and while it doesn’t get the big stuff in my head going – I think it encourages me by doing something and once the momentum is steady then onward to bigger tasks.

    I love reading your blog and have started working on textile projects that I’ve always wanted to do. Thank you for being a positive influence for me.

    • Thank you Nancy. I think you’re absolutely right – keep moving, keep making things and you’ll build more and more skill and creative muscle.

  3. the box thing seems perfectly doable — unless i get stuck with choosing a ‘perfect’ box… actually, my father just brought me a big, ugly, plastic under-the-bed storage box, which i should take as a clue now, i suppose, and start filling it up.

    it was in one of pj harvey’s album liner notes, that if you get stuck, get rid of what you love the most, which is true and genious, but soo hard to do sometimes. but it works.

  4. Thanks for sharing both what gets you stuck and what gets you unstuck – I love this list because it gives us both the problem and a possible solution.

    • Thank you – I have a lot of experience with getting stuck!

  5. I sighed with relief when I read your post-I had been thinking along the same lines about making time, boxing, ect. I think I was anxious if I organized and/or set a time that I would Feel ‘forced’ and not creative. This past year I managed to get past the “what-if-I-ruin-the-fabric” and just look at it, breathe in deeply and cut what I think I need….no bad ogre has looked over my shoulder and said I screwed up so far!!
    I’m sitting at a big box store waiting for my truck tire to get fixed….wasted time I thought at first…an hour and a half reading online inspiration has made the wait and the bill (ugh) tolerable!
    Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • I’m glad it helped Tina. And yes- the first cut is so hard sometimes……

  6. Great post! I just successfully used the box method to make pieces for a mixed media mural. Its totally out of my comfort zone and I felt like I was making bad art the whole time–but I had a deadline and I HAD to finish it. Sometimes a deadline is your best friend. 🙂

    • It really is – isn’t it amazing how fast you can go and how much gets done !

  7. Your big creative year is one of the only things I am excited about on the internet right now! 🙂 I love it and am looking forward to a peek inside your process and inside your head.

    I fall victim to #4, but usually at the very, very end of a project. My issue is definitely contained in this bit, “… it can live forever as a glorious possibility with no chance of my abilities to express it coming up short …” I have left projects undone for months with literally one piece of yarn hanging off of them waiting for a knot. Part of me loves making things so much that when I enjoy one project in particular, I don’t want to stop making it and, worse, maybe the next thing I make will suck so I don’t want to move on. Another part of me loves the possibilities in a project and doesn’t want to close them off; perhaps there is one last detail to attend to that I haven’t thought of yet. The funny part about that is that I have no qualms fixing issues or adding details once a project is “done” (lengthening a sweater’s sleeves, etc). Keep moving, Alice!

    I would also like to thank you for “you don’t have to want to.” It sounds counterintuitive; it’s my free time, I should do what I want to do in it. But, as you pointed out, sometimes you just don’t feel like it. Now that I think about it, it makes complete sense! I go to (my non-crafty) job when I don’t want to and I still do good work (and make money, which is the goal). I know in my heart and brain that I want to make things with my hands and imagination in my free time with the goal of adding things to the world that I or other people adore … and I can do that even when I don’t feel like it. It’s better than spending a night scrolling through the junk drawer that is the internet. 🙂

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful post and sharing it with us.

    • Dear Mrs. Futuregirl – always so happy to see your name. I’m so glad you like it and I am a lingerer too! I do love the process- the making of the thing – so much that I don’t want it to end. The finished things just aren’t mine in the same way that the getting there was.

  8. Your insights are profound and I think your ability to put these insights so easily into words is surely another of your great talents. I thank you for posting this.

  9. I can very much relate to #4 because it’s so unbelievably comfortable staying in my imagination with my idea, “perfect and untested” as you say. I think the box method could help me. Thank you for the post!

  10. OMG the “I’m in love with my idea” – so true! I have so many lovely ideas floating like a bubble above my head that fear keeps me from doing because in that bubble they are perfect and beautiful. I’m pulling stuff out and putting them into a box when I get home from my (hey it’s a paycheck) job tonight.

  11. A writer friend said to me, when I was stuck in love with my idea, “Do not be afraid that you will ruin your story by writing it.”

  12. Well, you hit the nails on the head, Ann. There we all are! Why do we do it to ourselves?

    There are 3 quotes that other creatives have shared with me regarding the creative process & they’ve stuck with me. Maybe others will l find them helpful:

    1. Don’t make it precious.
    2. Know when you’re done. (I was once called “a hopeless embellisher by an instructor”)
    3. You’re gonna spend that 15 min doing something anyway, so you might as well spend it on something you chose.

    Last, there was a poster at the gym I used to go to that always annoyed me in it’s competitive message, but it also turned out to be effective: “Every day you don’t work out, someone else does.” Oh my. Whatever works, as they say.

    Oh, & a book recommendation: “The War of Art,” by Steven Pressfield. It’s in paperback & also Kindle edition now. Carry on, creatives!!!

    • That’s all good stuff Suzanne – you hopeless embellisher you. War of Art is on my to do list and the 15 minute thing – oh boy – it is so easy to squander time.

  13. Hi Ann,
    My biggest obstacle is ME! If I don’t have a “good” lengthy block of time to work in, I think I can’t possibly accomplish anything worthwhile. It’s too much work or effort to start, only to clean up in an hour or less. This is hard for me because it’s a double whammy, it’s easier to procrastinate when I don’t really feel creative in that lost moment. Do you know what I mean? When I read your blog I felt like you do, and I’m not alone .Knowing that someone as successful and creative as you also has these struggles gives me hope and motivation! One of my favorite quotes is ” Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”-Pablo Picasso
    Thanks Ann,

    • That is one of my most favorite quotes Sallie – I repeat it to myself often.

  14. Oh my, I’m feeling just about all of those Ann! But as I read through the post I seemed to see a couple of them a little differently than you, and this may be my biggest hurdle with creating. #4 I can get in love with an idea and do start a project with that idea in mind and so badly want the project to look like the idea and I just can’t let go of it and struggle on with a piece that just isn’t working!! But I finally get to a point, after spending/wasting so much time on it, where I know I HAVE to stop, let go and start with another colour/element/shape etc. More often than not I’m really happy with the outcome! :p

    Love the idea of the box method. Have tried lists in the past but they always seem to get lost…….somehow.

    “I don’t want to” with me is more about what’s happening in my life at the mo. I could use all sorts of excuses like the heat we’re having at the moment, flushing(menopause/emotional) etc etc, but I know I’m the only one who can change “it all”. 🙂 I don’t want to do blog posts, create, facebook etc and it just seems toooooo hard so I don’t want to and don’t very much!! Haven’t come up with a solution for this one yet but have started on a road to better eating and have high hopes for that.

    Thanks for sharing your tools and much luck for your big creative year! and to all of us that give it a try. ♥

    • Yes- cheers to everyone who shows up and tries – it’s hard!

  15. Ruth Hoefert

    So many good ideas, thanks for sharing your struggle, will work on applying these ideas. Especially like “I don’t have to want to…” Love the 15 minutes too.

  16. I’ve just spent about half an hour with you. Saw the hundred horses in a “pin” and found them nearly overwhelming. I am a maker, too – but not an artist. I do have ideas from time to time, but I move so fast – like a metal ball in a pinball game – that many of them die before they get feathers to fly. The truth is that I spark off other ideas. I admit that, though, with a hanging head. Like hearing a song and then putting other words to it – and in the process the melody changes. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. I don’t sell things. But I have to make them. I don’t name them like you did the horses, but I might as well have, it’s so hard even to give them away. Your horses are not my horses. I actually have 4 horses – and I feel the shape a little differently. But I found myself thinking about making a cardboard horse – like I’m not already eyes deep in little non-utilitarian characters. Deer. Sheep. Whatever – at least they don’t have to have bags of feed hauled in for them like the breathing ones do. I find myself curious though, about your raw materials. I wonder if your manes – the ones not cut out of the base cardboard, slot into the space between outside and inside layers. Or if you use a cardboard that is so thin, it’s like thick paper. I look at the button joints and don’t think you can reposition the legs – but that would seem sad; the horses seem to want to react to the composition. I am convinced that one mane was made out of a See’s candy wrapper. Anyway – looking at them was tons of fun. I don’t think I could set myself that large a number, but making many of the same thing does push you to new ideas – media – and gives you a chance to juxtapose colors without feeling like you are taking a chance, ruining something that was almost there – till you killed it.

    Thanks for the interlude. Hope you are doing well. As far as people lifting material and claiming it as their own – I’m also a novelist – a sort of has-been success now – and it makes me wild when I find fan-fiction using my characters – and then imposing characteristics and behavior on them that are antithetical to the people I gave birth to myself. It’s surprising how hot that anger burns.

  17. I’ve enjoyed all of your posts. And have a little doll ready to sew. But I would like to share a quick story about a catholic nun that I took an art workshop from. She said that most of us feel like we don’t deserve to do the things we love so we put obstacles in our way. I’ll start painting when I finish cleaning this or that. I still struggle with that problem.

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