Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people. This guest post comes from Barbara Diane Barry, an author, educator, and artist. The views expressed herein are hers. To learn more about Barbara, visit artforselfdiscovery.com.
So there I was, writing a book about the subject of getting stuck creatively, when I hit a wall. I had already written a ton of material, accumulated related scientific research and worked out many of the painting exercises I would include in the book. My biggest block seemed to be about the mental effort required to sort through too many thoughts, ideas, and articles. The task felt enormous. So close and I was dropping the ball. What was stopping me from finishing? For my future readers and myself, I needed to find out why, and fast.
Since childhood, art has given me a place to play and find expression when words were not enough. Over time I came to discover a painting process that helped me navigate obstacles that stood in the way to my personal fulfillment. The journey of self-discovery that followed shaped a personal philosophy that drives my teaching; the art process offers a skill set as rich and essential to everyday living as reading and speaking. Today my work is devoted to helping others access untapped creative resources and to know their own resilience.
Opening Up: An Artist’s Path to Self-Understanding
My journey to self-actualization really began in my forties after a traumatic divorce. As a young mother in my twenties and thirties, I hadn’t had the time, energy, or money to focus inward. Out on my own for the first time since college, I started to look at where I’d been and how I wanted to go forward. Throughout my life I’d struggled with anxiety, which sometimes manifested in an inability to initiate even the smallest of tasks, like stopping for gas, taking clothes to the dry cleaners, or making phone calls. As an artist, my work became seriously compromised as I struggled to bring each painting to completion.
This introspection eventually lead me to reflect on my childhood and contracting the poliovirus at age five. I was left with paralysis in my left hand, and while I regained partial use of the hand through physical therapy and subsequent piano lessons, the lasting physical and psychological effects went undiagnosed for years. As I read through my old medical charts, I began to understand for the first time the enormity of my child-self trying to open that frozen hand. A realization hit me like a thunderbolt: Perhaps the paralysis I’d experienced in my left hand was a paradigm for the paralysis I’d felt thereafter whenever I had trouble taking care of those small jobs.
This was the lasting impact of my bout with the poliovirus — the dynamic of being still. My mind had a tendency to freeze up just as my hand had long ago. Once I became aware of the relationship between my body and mind, I began to use my art to deepen that understanding, to make it concrete. To try to get past this inertia, I started creating small paintings, in the form of a deck of cards, illustrating everyday behaviors that were keeping me frozen.
Here I am with an “out of gas sign” next to my disabled car.
This is my coat - buttons popping off, still waiting to be sewn back on.
Letting Go: The Effort to Leave Old Patterns Behind
With each new painting, I found myself laughing instead of feeling hopeless and stuck. Now that I could visually “see” the dynamic in front of me, I was able to consciously change each small habit of procrastination. But although small changes were easier, I found myself still challenged by big efforts like starting a new project or finishing a painting. I wondered if it was possible to get myself moving, physically and mentally, every morning or whenever I hit the wall by simply moving a brush on paper. The illustrations on the cards had been carefully drawn with pencil before being painted. I envisioned this new approach as less careful and precise, more about taking risks. While I still felt a form of paralysis was at the bottom of initiating bigger ventures, there was also an element of fear involved, fear of making mistakes. Making things up on paper rather than studiously planning would let me exercise and stretch my creative and forward moving “muscles” in a safe way.
That’s when I began painting in a journal instead of at the easel. After a number of difficult starts in which I found myself still critical of my work and still trying to create art with a capital “A,” I began to work each page as a form of improvisation, that is, making things up as I went along. I paid attention to my inner critical voices and stopped taking them at face value. Actually, what I did was to give each critic a face on the page – some were monstrous and some were downright funny. Taking risks step by step on paper translated into my everyday life, giving me the energy and resilience to leave a bad job, move to a new city, and eventually make a new life.
At 56, after a second divorce, I took a big leap and moved from the burbs to Manhattan, a place I’d always wanted to explore more fully. City living turned out to be more challenging than I expected, whether establishing a routine, looking for a job, or getting used to crowds. After a while just getting out of bed every day began to be a problem. That’s when I starting painting in my journal every day. These pages became containers for the myriad frustrations, fears, and grief I felt as I struggled to find my voice in a much bigger world. The surprise was the insight, joy, and humor I found there too. I’d been filling numerous pages with the tears I was shedding for real. Some tears filled blue, blue oceans while others ran like hot lava. One such page had a tear-filled lake with a boat and two people. By the end of the painting I’d given them both umbrellas and at once heard my mind cry out, “No more tears. You’re drowning us!” In that moment I felt enormous relief accompanied by a good laugh at myself.
No more tears!
Moving On: Sharing My Process With a Wider Audience
While I know my childhood illness is not everyone’s experience, we all suffer loss and feel the need to move on at some point, whether from a job, a relationship, or a habit. Getting stuck depletes needed energy for everyday activities and lowers self-esteem, as in, “why can’t I toughen up and just get over this?” This is the time to set conventional wisdom aside; trying harder doesn’t always work. When logical thinking lets you down, it’s time to try something else. In this case, I’m advocating a switch from using our brain’s intellect to activating our brain’s creative circuitry. Unlike the typical linear path, working from point A to point B, creative improvisation emphasizes the process and works like meditation, essentially taking a wandering path to stumble on breakthroughs and new ideas White Matter Integrity, Creativity, and Psychopathology: Disentangling Constructs with Diffusion Tensor Imaging. Jung, R.E., Grazioplene, R., Caprihan, A., et al. Mind Research Network, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. PLoS One 2010;5(3):e9818..
Painting as process enabled me to step into bigger shoes and move my inner junk. Today I work as an art teacher in New York City and give tours in its museums. The book I began at this time was to be a culmination of the self-discovery I’d made through painting and teaching over the last 25 years. I wanted to share what I’d learned about unlocking the creative energies necessary to live in an ever-changing and fast-paced world.
Like a muscle, creativity is a “use it or lose it” capability
As I pondered over the overwhelming task of finishing my book, I came to see how I had gotten myself off course. While I had been painting in my journal on a regular basis, my creative juices were now pouring into the book. I was writing every day, often all day, but not painting. Perhaps I thought writing would take the place of the improvisational journal, but now, as I sat frozen at the job before me, I realized what really lay at the root of the block. Although writing may be purely creative, I was focused on a particular outcome, a completed book. Without keeping to the discipline of improvisational painting, without keeping my pump well primed, I was back at the mercy of old patterns, that polio dynamic, the anticipation of a very large and seemingly impossible task. Like a muscle, creativity is a “use it or lose it” capability. I needed a place where mistakes were considered whimsy and not to be edited out, to pick up my brush and get back to playing and taking risks with paint — I needed to return to painting in my journal again.
With each new page I felt the return of missing physical and mental stamina. I could better weather periods of ambiguity when answers didn’t come right away. I had an “aha” moment in the middle of one journal painting that told me maybe I needed some guidance with my manuscript, and so I signed up for a non-fiction writing course. I had a sudden flash of an old math professor’s wise advice — break the problem down into smaller tasks. Move the brush, move the mind. I was, at last, back on track.