How To Get Unstuck
That restlessness? Don’t ignore it. It’s trying to tell you something.
First, let’s agree on some things: Creative people feel restless when they aren’t creating. Also: There are always a lot of things eager to block your creativity (why do household tasks seem positively hungry to devour novel-revising time, for just one totally-not-from-real-life example?), and recent events have conspired to add even more creativity-blockers, and there will always be plenty of reasons not to write the thing, not to make the whatever-you-want-to-make. But you will feel existentially itchy until you do it anyway.
Before we go any further: Some of my Medium readers are here because I used to work at Medium, where I edited the publications Creators Hub and Human Parts, ran creator workshops and writing hours, and before that, worked for Forge (and wrote the Daily Tip newsletter). If this is you, hello! I miss you! I’d still like to share writing prompts and other ways to help you get unstuck, so keep in touch! (My Substack is free <insert angel emoji here>)
My various feeds, which know me to a creepy degree (hi you lil algorithm-spies, I DO like dresses with pockets, you’re right), have lately been showing me this story, a lot. It’s an advice column, and the headline of this installation is: “My Average Life Is Smothering Me.” A restless soul writes: “Every week I feel like I’m waiting for the weekend, and every weekend I’m anxious about the monotony of the upcoming week. It feels like an unbearably average life. I’m doing what I want to be doing, but everything is so leveled out that sometimes I want to scream. I crave stories and adventure.” Hoooo girl (I assume??), does this sound familiar.
The response, to me, is lackluster; the letter-writer is essentially told to appreciate what they have and maybe take a Tex-Mex cooking class.
I know this restlessness, and I know a cute little hobby won’t solve it. I’ve tried. I distinctly remember talking to an old friend a few years ago, laughing as I described how (pathetically, we agreed), I was trying to dose my spiraling with a lunchtime French class. The French class was fun, and I inched un peu closer to conjugating some irregular verbs, but I was still asking myself questions like “How miserable is too miserable to be? Isn’t a certain degree of misery just normal adult life?” I was stuck — stuck creatively, stuck personally — and like the letter-writer above, I wanted to scream. L’ennui!
I’ve had some iteration of this conversation many times over the past few years, often, but not always, with women. The main thrust of it is always a friend — a neighbor, as we head together to an exercise class; or a mom at my kids’ school, over post-PTA-meeting drinks; or a colleague, at a work meetup that veers to the personal — saying, almost as if she doesn’t mean to: “Is this really it?” or: “I just want a special life, is that so crazy to ask?” or: “This isn’t how I thought things would turn out, not at all.” It’s always offset with a guilty “Oh, I should just be grateful, I mean, things could be worse.”
Yes, sure, definitely, things could be worse. But what if they could also be better?
Some of it is adulthood, the classic mid-whatever whirl-around, the accounting of choices made and roads not taken. As Ada Calhoun wrote incisively some years ago in her essay “The New Midlife Crisis,” Gen X women seem to feel a particularly pungent tang of desperation. “An awful lot of middle-aged women are furious and overwhelmed,” Calhoun wrote — before the pandemic.
But what I actually want to write about here is the particular restlessness of the caged creative. As Vivian Gornick writes in her essay “Clover Adams,” “The unlived life is a little animal in a great rage, barely permitting of survival.” It’s a trope many writers have explored; Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette comes to mind, with its portrait of a creative woman who is not being creative, and essentially implodes.
If you are a creative person — and I believe most people are — and you’re not being creative, you’re not going to feel right.
Feelings are there to tell you something. Listen to them.
Okay, so this is where we start. First step: We’re listening to the feeling. We’re remembering that this is our one wild and Mary Oliver life! And let’s be clear that this doesn’t have to mean that this is the Year! You! Write! Your! Novel! (although it certainly can be). A big project can definitely add some shape and meaning to our ordinary days. But process is a big part of this, too. We feel less restless when we are living a more intentional life, and regular, process-based creative work (I’m usually thinking about writing, since I’m a writer, but it doesn’t have to be writing) can help us get closer to living intentionally. Creative work forces us to slow down, to notice, to process.
Next step? You could sign up for my free Substack. That’s where I’ll be sharing inspiration and ideas for getting — and staying — creatively unstuck. If you have a particular project you want support on, or a manuscript that needs an edit, or if you’re looking for a regular writing coach or accountability partner, you could head to my website and book some time to chat.
And if the restlessness is more urgent, here’s something to try right this very second: Gather the materials that help you to create. This might be a laptop, it might be a piece of looseleaf paper and pen, it might be a sketchbook and drawing pencils. Take a deep, centering breath. Ask yourself, How did I get here? Then, do some freewriting (or drawing!) for at least 15 minutes, answering this question, whatever that means to you: the bus you took to the cafe where you’re currently waiting for your turmeric latte, the out-of-the-blue job offer that landed you in your rented house in Cincinnati, the Bumble date that led to your marriage and subsequent move to Saskatchewan. Whatever. Don’t judge what words come out, or the story you tell. Just write. (If you write this on Medium, you can share a link to your post in the responses. I’d love to see them.)
There, see? You’re getting unstuck already.