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What if failure was an essential part of the creative process?

How do you respond to failure? Are you one of those lucky people who believe the mantra “there’s no failure, only feedback“, or does the fear of failure stop you from doing things?

What if failure was an important part of being creative? What if it was actually a signal we were on the right track?

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve recently discovered that I can actually draw and paint after many years of believing I was terrible. But in picking up my paintbrush and giving it a go, I’ve not only learnt about painting, but it’s also taught me a huge amount about the creative process.

Over the last 6 months, I’ve painted a picture of each of the places we visited on our travels – and loved it! I’ve loved getting lost in creating something and seeing what emerges. However when I say I loved it – I didn’t love every minute of it. I’ve noticed that in the process of creation there always seems to be a turning point. A point where I want to give up. A point where I want to rip up the painting and start again. A point where it just doesn’t look as good as I thought it was going to look… it doesn’t fit the image in my head!

Then, maybe after a few days away, sometimes after a couple of months, I’ve picked up my brushes again and kept on going, seeing if I can do something with it. Tweaking to start with, eventually getting lost again in the creative project. I’ve also found that after the turning point, what comes out is actually much better and more connected to me than I’d imagined in the first place. 

It took me a few paintings to realise this. In fact, I think my picture of the California coastline where the insight hit me. The painting just wasn’t coming together. It’s ok, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I’d left white in the wrong place (important in watercolour as the only white you have is the paper you’re working with). The colours didn’t feel like they were working with one another. The cliffs weren’t coming off the page enough… You get the idea – it just wasn’t working! 

A part-painted picture of the california coastline.
This is where I nearly gave up – it just didn’t seem to be coming together!

I was saying all sorts of things to myself in my head. “This scene was too difficult for me at such an early stage in painting.” “It would be better to quite than to invest any more time in it.” “It isn’t going to work anyway.” At one point I felt like tearing it out of the book and throwing it away, but fortunately, I connected back in with what these paintings were for – they were for me to learn and grow, to develop my skills and to capture an imperfect record of our trip. So I put it to one side and left it.

In that rest period, my thoughts came back to it and I realised that this had happened before at some stage in every one of my paintings. There had been a point where I’d got so caught up in wanting it to looking amazing and looking like the perfect image (the photograph, or the image in my head), that I’d stopped being open to the creativity coming through me. In some sense, the two were fighting each other. The creative version, coming through me versus the perfect picture that inspired me to start with. 

As I reflected further, I realised that this feeling of stuckness, the idea that everything is going wrong and I might as well give up, I felt that elsewhere too. When I’m writing it creeps up on me. The words on the page just don’t quite capture what I thought I was going to write about. The blog posts I publish may or may not have the same message I thought they were going to have when I started. 

So that got me thinking – maybe this is something which is part of the creative process. Maybe in everything we do, in order to achieve something amazing, we have to face this feeling of failure and stuckness. That feeling encourages us to question what its all about, whats our message, what are we trying to achieve…and by connecting with that motivation at a deeper level, what comes through us is more creative, more authentic and more a part of us. We’re not just copying a photograph, or coming out with some words that we think will sound nice. We’re putting a bit of ourselves into the thing that we’re creating – and that makes it more interesting, more engaging and more connecting.  

If this is the creative process though, that means it is everywhere and in everything we do. We are always creating, whether we believe we are creative or not.  We create our experience of life, and define the world we live in. So, what if that feeling of failure and being stuck is just a signal that we’ve got too caught up in trying to achieve our idea of perfection, and that its time to put things aside for a while, connect with ourselves, with who we are, and when we come back to it our ideas will have shifted, allowing our creativity to flow more smoothly? 

I did get back into the California painting a couple of weeks later, and it evolved. The outcome is actually one of my favourite paintings so far. It somehow captures the energy of the sea on the rocks, the brightness of the sunny day – and the experience of being down there watching the waves beating against the cliffs.

Painting of the California Coastline
California Coastline near Santa Cruz

Seeing failure in this way has really helped me in my approach to everything. When I’m painting I know at some stage I’ll get frustrated or stuck or want to give up – but that’s just a signal that its time to stop for a while. When I’m writing, if it’s not flowing, I reflect and try to connect with what I want to say, or I park it for another day. In projects I’m doing, when they aren’t looking like I thought they would initially, I’m learning to let go and go with it – this is the creative process at play. In my business, if things start to feel like they’re going wrong or aren’t coming together, I give myself permission to step back and connect with what the business is all about, making sure that what I’m trying to do is still authentic and there is a real contribution from me.

I’m even wondering if it might be possible for me to start to welcome that feeling of failure, knowing that its presence means I create something more meaningful and more connected? I’m not quite there yet though!

What do you think? Have you experienced failure and stuckness as part of the creative process? How might these ideas help you experience failure in the future? Please share your thoughts below.

And if you’re really stuck and want some help working through something, feel free to get in touch here and book a coaching session with me!