This past week I had major breakthrough on the Tarot deck I’m designing, Tall Grass.
Over coffee one morning, I got a little tap on the shoulder. Out of nowhere I started thinking about one card in particular. Every time it came up I would stop whatever I was doing to see the thought through. I listened and stayed curious. For a while there wasn’t much to grab onto, but eventually there was enough there to grab a pencil. Slowly, like a fog clearing, the meaning of the card began to solidify, and imagery started emerging.
Once I started to grasp onto actual elements, I pinned them down in thumbnails and sketches, until it was time for ink and paint, and suddenly there it was.
Designing this Tarot deck has felt like developing an entire language; a visual, symbolic language. Now that I have one card done I feel like I have the grammatical system to keep going.
This energy has been great, but this happened only after months of being creatively blocked. I have a feeling that’s not a foreign concept to anyone reading this blog.
By the winter of 2015, after several months of writing and study, I had managed to squeeze out 10 minor cards. By then I felt stuck and intimidated by the whole thing. I was even questioning the 10 I'd done. I couldn't bring myself to work on it, but felt the fire of competition and jealousy when I encountered a new deck in the works. The worst creative pain is seeing someone do what you're afraid to.
I tried some iterations of a few cards when I was feeling disheartened, and they were all immensely dissatisfying, if not catastrophically bad.
A little flutter of progress arose again in early spring, when in a wonderful moment I conceptualized my take on the 16 court cards. I was (and still am) actually really excited about the idea I had, but after dozens of thumbnails and sketches nothing solidified, so I lost traction yet again.
Then, life happened, like it does. I got caught up with client work and went on a big road trip. By the time I came back I felt so distant from the project and frightened of continuing to ‘fail’ that I started working on other things. Sometimes I’d still write or sketch, trying to spark some ideas, but this was mostly fruitless.
So what happened? Why do we get blocked?
In my own observation blocks most often stem from some form of perfectionism. Perfectionists believe that any mark is permanent, visible to the world, and all poor first attempts will be judged harshly. They, ok we, have the neurotic idea that whatever we put down on paper has to live up to what we see in our heads, and fear that it won’t.
This bubble burst for me a long time ago, when I realized there's no avoiding those fears coming true. The first tries just won't ever match the great idea. You just have to do a lot of something before you nail it.
Even knowing this down to the bone, I was discouraged by my awful first takes on cards, and wanted them to be great immediately.
But you can’t steer a parked car, as they say, so we have to sit down, start over, over and over again, and be uncomfortable. At least at first, we have the benefit of anonymity on our side, no one’s watching yet. We can experiment, fail, fall flat on our faces. We can change our minds.
Sometimes we worry less about living up to what’s in our head, and more to what’s in our Instagram feed. We look at tiny snippets of hundreds of people doing only what they do best, and we feel like failures in comparison before we even start, or maybe after our first try doesn’t knock it out of the park.
Comparison and perfectionism are like demented twins.
When we don’t like the outcome of our efforts and we’re comparing them to our role models, it creates the feeling that theres already enough of whatever we thought we wanted to put into the world, and that we couldn’t possibly do it better than those already doing it.
There’s a phenomenon when you start getting into a niche that makes you feel like it’s the focus of the whole world. For example, I happen to be someone who notices when someone else is making a tarot deck. It’s hard not to feel like everyone’s making a tarot deck, and there’s not going to be any room in the market for mine. And of course, everyone’s much further ahead, finished, or at least fully funded on Kickstarter. But the truth is of course that very, very few people are actually making tarot decks.
This is true even with something as broad as watercolor painting. There truly aren’t very many watercolor artists compared to people who would purchase art from them. There’s always room for our own take on something despite saturation. There is space for you.
Ignoring the Call
We are brilliant excuse makers, and can come up with a myriad of reasons not to do what's calling us, especially if it scares us, which it almost always does.
I myself lament my lack of time and money. But when it comes down to it I know there are things I can be doing to make more of those things for myself, and often those things aren't actually what's blocking me anyway.
Here's my advice to myself and to whom it may concern: if you're getting hit over the head with an idea, do whatever you can to clear enough space in your life to commit what you can to it. Post-pone that dinner date with a friend, refrain from going the extra mile at work that week, and forego some relaxation time. Springs of inspiration are finite and temporary so, get it while you can.
And finally: if you have zero time or resources in your life to let anything new in, it might be time to really feel the weight of that statement and assess what has to change.