The Opposite of Artist’s Block


Most creative people eventually hit that edge-of-the-horizon feeling that you’ve come to the crumbly brink of your creative world. The next idea doesn’t show up on time. Missed the train. The next train doesn’t show up at all. The track rolls itself up and over the edge of the horizon, leaving you standing alone, squinting as the hot sun burns out the edge of the sky and drops below your line of vision, sending your last hope of creativity into the twilight shadows. Night descends and leaves you standing without a shadow to rely on.

If you have never experienced this feeling, you probably aren’t trying hard enough to push your creativity. And before you crack your knuckles to leave me a blistering reply that you always have ideas, stop. This is about you. This post is about having too many ideas, too much of an idea, an idea that rolls in like a giant wave, flattening you against the floor of your studio, pressing you down until bubbles float from your nose and you can’t inhale. That kind of creative overflow.


It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, it is overwhelming. I’ve been creative long enough to know that when the dark side of the world appears, it signals the long roll into dawn. But crushed with too many ideas, I feel afraid–I’ll lose the most important one, I’ll develop the wrong one, I won’t be able to figure out the process of this brilliant idea over here. Now what?

The simplest idea I came up with is to save as many of those ideas as possible, get them into some form you can understand, and save them. You can figure out process later. You can figure out sequencing later. What you need to do now, before your short-term memory sneaks out the back door, is get some of the ideas caught.

My two favorite ideas for capturing represent the high tech and low tech spectrum. Index cards, my long-time companions and art supply, are the low tech side. I write down the bare bones idea. Just enough to balance the memory on the tee, so I can whack it across the sand trap and out of danger. No big discussion, no marketing, no audience. Just the rough idea is plenty. If you can’t reconstruct it later, it may not have been as wonderful as you first imagined.

The second idea is a voice-recording app on your smart phone. The one you want to install is the one you know how to work. My first one was incredibly easy to use, but I couldn’t figure out how to play it back. You can imagine how that little fault messed with my mind. Occasionally I still believe the best ideas of my life are wrapped around the gizzards of my iPhone. The new one works better. A twitching needle shows I’m recording, and it plays back exactly what I said. Simple.

If I wake up at night with an idea storm, I grab the phone and mutter into it. One time I pushed the wrong buttons and made my brilliant idea my voice mail message. Oh, well. I have also sent myself emails and used the sticky-note feature on my phone.

Don’t edit. Don’t worry. In fact, I generally don’t read or sort the ideas for several days after a brainstorm. I’m too critical. Or too immediate. I toss the index cards into a box and let them dry out. I’ll take a nice patinaed idea over a damp one, any day.

What’s your storage/retrieval system when your ideas back up and pour over you?

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people who are stuck and overwhelmed. She specializes in change and re-invention.


22 thoughts on “The Opposite of Artist’s Block

  1. You know me so well! When the ideas start overflowing, I write them on my phone. I have a neat little ap called notes (I think it comes pre-installed on the iphone) that looks just like a yellow legal pad. I write whatever comes to mind. It saves automatically and I have it set up to send me an email. I started keeping track of my commitments and lists there too. Now I want to post my lists because they are so funny. Another idea!

  2. I absolutley love the idea of you muttering into the phone in the middle of the night and changing your voicemail message! I got a giggle out of that. In pre-iphone days I used to record my dreams on a handheld recorder, and one morning I fell asleep while still recording and recorded about 10 minutes of my snoring!

  3. I am one of those artists that are constantly besieged by ideas, awesome projects, stupendous trips for exploring with an opportunity for deep work on my art, more ideas, more plans. I’m almost sure I had an attack of artist’s block, though I can’t recall. Of course, my problem is not having the idea, or even starting the idea – my problem is working with an idea to completion and holding that finished proj

  4. Pen and paper is still my “go to”, for storage/ retrieval of ideas; I have a dedicated notebook where I keep words, lines, titles that come to me for poems and haiku. I do collage, as well, so I have a large tin box where I keep things I cut out/find and want to use. If I have more than one type of item or I have a developing project, I use envelopes or give items their own box. I also use postage stamps for collage and mosaics, so they are stored in various little decorative tins. I like hands-on, visual means and do not use my computer for storage or composition.

  5. I cannot say that I have ever been burdened with a tsunami of creative energy-would love to see what that feels like. My issue seems to be a fear of getting started, a mindset that screams something akin to “what are you thinking?!”. Because I’ve never had an art class, announce to the world that I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, and have yet to scale that mountain of practice, practice, practice, I look at people like you with awe and wonder; but am ever so glad that you are in the world waving that banner of creativity for the rest of us! Many thanks!

    • Come laugh with me. I can’t draw a straight line, either–lucky for me and you that there aren’t any in nature! I also can’t cut straight, can’t sew, am not an illustrator, and come up with outlandish ideas. Practice is play for me, and when I get it right, accidentally, or through careful construction, I’m astonished!

  6. What a marvelous idea, Quinn. I purchase 3X5 cards by the scads because I use them by the droves. Yet, I’d never thought of this simple way to save my great and Not So Great ideas. The best part is this gives me a way to help determine the difference so I waste less time with the NSG ideas. 🙂
    Your word images are always delightful.

    • You nailed it–by keeping ALL the ideas, you can separate out the not so good ones, build them up, change them, use your imagination to create something better. That box of ideas is like a jungle gym of ideas!

  7. I sometimes feel an urge to “record an idea for later”. I’ve come to resist that urge because ideas are an infinite resource, but an undifferentiated one. One idea is not usually better or worse than any other. The two things I try to do:
    • trust my future self to be at least as good a portal for ideas
    • remember that it’s not as much about “the idea” as it is everything I do next that matters

    This probably wouldn’t work for everybody; I’m not an artist!

    • You are more of an artist than you care to admit–you are hugely creative. If I don’t capture the idea, I don’t have a next step. And a lot of time I pick an idea from the box and think, “No, No, that’s not as good at this. . .that I want to do now.” That’s how it works for me.

  8. Ideas come in many places so whether it is in a notebook or napkin I keep the ideas in a decorative box I call my treasure box. When I am in a slump I go to the treasure box. I also put drafts of drawings in there that I wasn’t ready to use.

  9. Amen!
    Brilliant fantastically written post summing up the mixed-up jumbled panicked mind that takes a seat in my head seasonally…
    Will be re-reading for sure. Thank you Quinn!

    • Thanks. It took a couple of starts to get it right, but hey, that’s practice! I’m glad you have a storage system. I hope you have a good storage retrieval system–it’s a weak spot of mine.

  10. Hello Quinn.
    Today is the day I follow through on one of those ideas. In January, I had an idea for an after school Creativity Club for children. This afternoon, the club holds its first workshop. There are only a small number booked, but I have a vision of what this can be and hope it will grow. (creativity is erradicated in Ireland at primary school by limited time and rules like “one piece of paper only so don’t make any mistakes” and ” you can use three colours” and “be neat”).
    So I’m a little nervous and a little excited.

    • I’m glad you are going ahead without a lot of people or knowing what will happen. Creativity is crushed in schools every day. I love you for taking on this challenge. It will grow as you go along–but you are allowing the growth.

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