9 Ways to Crush Creative Burnout – Skinny Artist

9 Ways to Crush Creative Burnout

Escaping your creative funk

What the funk?!

Sometimes we get tired of trying.

We get tired of constantly falling behind, knowing that we’ll never catch up.

We don’t know if we’re heading in the right direction, and we’re not even sure if we have the energy to get up and deal with any of it for one more day.

Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in a creative funk and no matter what we do, we just can’t escape that nagging feeling that no one out there is going to notice or care if we paint another picture, write another chapter in our endless novel, or publish yet another crappy blog post.

Chances are most of us have experienced this type of creative burnout somewhere along the way.

Let’s face it, this type of emotional despair is fairly common for us sensitive creative types. We all have those weeks days when, for whatever reason, we seem to lose interest in creating our art.

Falling into a creative funk is not the same thing as having writer’s block, which is when you may find yourself temporarily stuck.

Creative “burnout” is really more of an attitude thing. It’s part of the natural ebb and flow of the creative spirit (i.e. mood swings). It’s not so much “Can I do this?” as it is “What’s the point if I do this or not?” kind of thing.

So what do you do when you find yourself drowning in the quicksand of creative confusion and self-pity?

#1 Leave the room

Sometimes a change of scenery can help you escape a creative rut.

While it’s true that developing a consistent routine is important to being productive, sometimes you can get yourself into a rut by following the same routine day after day.

Many writers and artists have discovered that simply by changing things up a bit, they are able to refresh their creative imagination. The director Woody Allen has noticed this himself, and whenever he found himself stalling out creatively, he would find a way to immediately change his location.

I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy. So if I’m in this room and then I go into the other room, it helps me. If I go outside to the street, it’s a huge help… It breaks up everything and relaxes me.” ~Woody Allen

I’ve often done this myself.

Some days if the weather is decent, I’ll pack up my stuff and head to the local park with my laptop. And even though, it may not end up being my most productive writing session ever, simply having that change of scenery almost always brings me a new perspective or a renewed sense of energy for my project.

Find a way to physically change your location and see if it helps restore your creative energy.

#2 Relive your glory days

We all have those times when none of it seems very important and the thought of spending any more time creating something seems like a big waste of time. Chances are, however, there was probably also a time when things were going well and you felt differently.

When you’re neck deep in a creative funk, it’s probably a good opportunity to go back and reread all of those flattering emails you’ve received over the years from people who have enjoyed your work (you do save those, right?).

You might also want to go though and reread some of the positive comments people have left for you on your blog or website. Unless you’re a complete asshole to everyone you meet, chances are somebody, somewhere, has said something nice about you and your work in the past.

Some writers and artists I know have have even gone so far as to print out these emails and comments and put them into a folder or box with other memorabilia (gallery shows tickets, customer testimonials, photographs, encouraging letters from editors, etc..). Eventually they created a sort of an inspirational first-aid kit that they could sort through when they were feeling frustrated and burned out.

#3 Create some space for yourself

It’s easy to forget that trying to cram as much as we can into 24 hours is not the ultimate goal in life.

These days we have a never-ending supply of information, entertainment, and distraction at our fingertips. The problem is that our caveman brains simply can’t process this much non-stop information without occasionally becoming overwhelmed. This is why it’s important to detach ourselves from our computer, tablet, and smartphone for at least an hour or two each day.

Most people underestimate the importance of creating some downtime for themselves every day. This type of unstructured free time gives us the opportunity to take a deep breath, let our imagination wander, and explore the world around us.

You can use this as an opportunity to go outside and take the dog for a walk, go for a bike ride, or reconnect with a friend over coffee. Or maybe curl up with a good book in your favorite chair or find a park bench and watch everyone else scurry about their day.

Having this kind of unstructured time may seem to be a waste of your limited amount of free time, but it can also help keep you from becoming overwhelmed and burned out along the way.

#4 This too shall pass

Sometimes the best way to escape a creative funk is simply to not fight it.

Part of the problem is that we’ve been led to believe that being in a creative rut is unacceptable.

We’ve been taught that successful people always think positive thoughts and if you don’t, you’re basically screwing up your life — but that’s ridiculous. No matter what you do and how often you tell yourself that you are only going to think happy thoughts, you’re still going to have good days and not-so good days.

That’s just the way life works. The trick is to understand this and not get caught up in all of the drama.

Keep in mind that I’m talking about letting your temporary creative lull run its course. Obviously if there are deeper physical or psychological issues at work here, you will need to consult the professional experts.

Having said that, the next time you feel yourself feeling burnout and unmotivated, you may want to take a step back and observe your emotions from an outsider’s perspective.

If you are feeling crappy and unproductive, look for the reason you might be feeling this way. Has something recently happened to you or changed in your life? Is something else stressing you out or could you getting physically sick?  I know that when I have the flu, everything seems pretty hopeless. I’m always amazed how quickly you can forget what “normal” feels like when you’re lying in bed with a fever.

If nothing else, you might want to consider the possibility that maybe you don’t really need to “snap out of it”. Instead, maybe you can find a way to simply accept it, be willing to ride it out, and have faith that eventually you’ll come out okay on the other side.

#5 You’re not alone

Sometimes it’s easy to feel like you’re on your own.

Even today in a world that is more socially connected than ever, we can feel isolated and alone especially when we are feeling creatively uninspired. If we’re not careful, we can become consumed with jealousy when it seems that everyone else online is having fun and we’re feeling useless and ordinary.

You have been there, I’ve been there, and I would have to think that pretty much every creative artist throughout history has gone through something similar at some point in their life. In fact, you can probably pick up any writer’s or artist’s biography and read about how they endured these periods of self-doubt throughout their career.

Many creative artists are surprised to learn that these feelings of inadequacy never really go away no matter how long we’ve been at it or how successful we may become.

#6 Change things up

We’ve already talked about how moving to a different location can change your perspective and inspire you, but there are also other things you can do to mix things up and jumpstart your creativity.

As creatures of habit, we often fall into the comfort of a familiar routine.

We tend to do the same things day after day when it comes to our creative process. We use the same tools, the same techniques, or follow the same format again, and again, and again. And although this type of routine may be good for our productivity, it can also cause us to lose our creative edge along the way.

In order to escape our creative doldrums, we may need to shock ourselves out of our routine a bit.

We can start by simply changing our creative process. Just by trying an unfamiliar tool or experimenting with a new technique — we can shake things up and begin to see things from a new perspective.

#7 Don’t become one-dimensional

We live in an age of specialization.

This is true of the business world, but it is becoming increasingly the case in the creative world as well.

If you are a painter, you are expected not to stray too far from on your established niche. If you are musician, any new music you create should sound a lot like what you’ve done before. If you are a writer, you are expected to stick to the formula your readers have come to expect.

It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that the greatest artists and writers were widely-read and trained in many different disciplines. In fact the definition of a “renaissance man” is someone who has many talents or areas of knowledge. Up until recently, this type of broad-based liberal arts education was the foundation of any respected creative artist.

The reason is that beneath its shiny veneer, creativity has always been about taking seemingly unrelated ideas, finding the hidden connection between them, and then creating something new with them. This type of cross-pollination of ideas can’t happen, however, if we refuse to venture too far from our established box of competence.

This is why we need to find a way to continually grow and expand our creative horizons.

Whether we do this by reading the works of others, attending performances, or connecting with other creative artists online — we need to find the time to escape our comfort zone and restock our creative well.

#8 Get physical

As creative artists we spend most of our time locked up inside our own head.

Even when we’re not working, we can get so wrapped up in our thoughts sometimes, that we forget how much our physical body can affect our creativity.

    Free your mind and your ass will follow.
~George Clinton

Don’t worry, this isn’t another lecture about how we should be eating healthier and exercising more (although that’s not a bad idea). There is, however, a strong connection between physical activity and our ability to create. The mind is not as independent of the body as some of us would like to believe, and the condition of one can directly affect the other.

Now when I’m talking about physical activity here, we’re not really concerned with building our muscles or how we can burn the maximum number of calories possible. The goal here is to do something that moves the body and frees the mind at the same time — or as Mr. Funkadelic himself might say it, if we move our ass our mind will be freed.

This also means that we don’t want to do an activity that demands a great deal of mental involvement. Ideally what we want is an activity like walking, running, swimming, or bike riding that is physically demanding but still gives your mind the opportunity to wander, digest new ideas, and make connections.

#9 Track your progress  (you’ve come farther than you think)

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how much progress we’ve made since we began our creative journey.

Most people have heard the stories about how Ernest Hemingway loved to stay out late drinking with his friends. What most people don’t realize was that even when he went out, he was still at his writing desk every morning by 6:00. He also had the habit of closely tracking his daily word count on a chart after he finished his writing each day. Over the years he had learned the benefits of tracking his daily progress.

This is why I would encourage you to keep a journal, mark a calendar, or find some way to keep track of your creative progress — not so you can congratulate yourself or beat yourself up when you fall short, but simply so you can remind yourself of how far you’ve come.

It’s easy to get discouraged when we focus on where we’re currently at (versus where we think we should be) and how far we have left to go.

Simply by keeping some sort of written or visual record of your daily progress, will give you something that you can look over and realize how far you’ve come. Doing this can not only encourage you by showing you the progress you’ve already made, but it can also help motivate you to keep going.

What do you think?

  • What do you do when you find yourself stuck in a creative funk?
  • Do you usually try to fight it off or do you simply let it run its course?
  • What’s the best advice that you’ve received about how to avoid creative burnout?

Please take a minute to share your thoughts and stories with us in the comment section below :)

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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(25) comments

I declutter and clean up my studio (a room in our house, where I do my painting and drawing). Helps me get fresh ideas.

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    You’re not the only one. Unfortunately for me, I tend to use cleaning less as a source of inspiration and more as a method of procrastination. I’m not what anyone would call an uncluttered or even semi-organized type person, but the minute I try to sit down and write, the impulse to tidy up my workspace becomes top priority ;)

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JL

Go to the gym or garden, I try to find something that gives me something back. Its amazing the power of digging to relieve a stuck mood; chop wood, build a fence, repair something simple. Watch nature, seeds come up, shoots emerge, bulbs sprout in the cold, garlic planted in autumn was buried and coming through by Xmas; do something that works for you. Fuss a cat, walk a dog…catch the dog that runs away before its lost; wash up, vacuum, draw what’s in front of you 30 seconds only. See a show, exhibition or grand house, have lunch there. Cook or bake at home.

Study something ‘sensible’ (that should have your creative urges bursting to be heard) because you will get depressed by the conventions of cyclical bureaucratic order with zero sensibility and it will stifle creativity in the ashes of burnout like the soil after a bush fire will emerge desperate to incubate and live on…or maybe just rest. Switch the TV off and the computer. Free up one’s hard drive from information overload. Stay away from things which are upsetting. Put the rubbish out. Change the energy.

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    Great suggestions! I think you’re right that doing something like chopping wood or doing a quick repair that you’ve been avoiding, can immediately change your emotional state and make you feel like you are somehow moving forward and making progress.

    Personally I’ve found that most of my best better ideas have come while taking our dog for a walk. Something about the fresh air and the monotony of the familiar route seems to jar loose my creative ideas. The same thing goes for mowing the lawn in the Summertime. These type of familiar outdoor routines seem to work best for me. Simply changing locations (tip #1) is usually enough to get me to at least see things from a new perspective.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your ideas with us!

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Siouxan

Acceptance has been key for me. If I don’t resist the fact that I’m in the doldrums and instead of beating myself up, gently do good things for me…as you write: I get MORE physical, walk a new path when I can, maybe swim vs. walk. And I dabble in new painting techniques. Crack open a book or scan Google images and think ‘try this’…and do so reigning in my expectations.

Being a perfectionist at heart, I often was too focused on the outcome. As I’ve recovered a sense of living my art, I focus less on that and more on the process…and that buoys me up when the outcome isn’t ‘perfect’, but dang, I CAN then see it’s good.

I also am a fan of “The Artists Way’ (Cameron) and go back to working it when I’m really too in a funk. Especially taking myself out on “Artist Date”.

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    Acceptance is hard, especially for a control-freak like me who always wants to try and “fix” the problem ASAP instead of simply letting it run its course. Lately instead of fighting or trying to fix the funk, I’ve been really trying to just observe it from a more detached perspective (far easier said than done). That’s why I have found it helpful to compare this creative funkiness with having the flu — you can treat the symptoms, but there really is not a lot you can do to “cure” it. You just have to ride it out and have faith that you’ll come out on the other side.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that I curl up in a ball and wait for it to pass. In fact, I usually do everything I can to try and shake myself out of it — but it doesn’t always work either, which is where acceptance comes in I suppose.

    As you may know, I am also a big fan of Cameron’s “Artist’s Way” book and I find myself turning to it often when I hit a creative lull. Speaking of the book, I’ve also found her idea of “morning pages” to be a great way to kind of dig into the subconscious mind and try to figure out what may be at the root of this burnout feeling. Simply free-writing for 10-15 minutes can often dislodge some creative blockage.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us :)

    Reply

Wow, thanks for the writing.

Sometimes I do feel that funk, what I did was actually divert myself from my focus and start to do something else. I rarely feel that way now because I have two jobs. I found that the two jobs help me to get rid of the burnout – I got one job to support the other, and I got somewhere to “run away” every time things on the other one does not work for me.

I do believe that people are multidimensional – and we can be a smart supermarket employee and also an excellent painter at the same time. It takes a lot of effort to juggle with two jobs but because of the juggling, I have no time to wallow in my burnout :D – the only side effect that I am dealing with is wanting to constantly escape to my art when my day job is boring, and got carried away doing my job until I forgot about my commissions ha ha. But life’s fun for me that way :) (I love the two jobs. I am a translator and also a pro jewelry maker).

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    I agree with you Maria that sometimes the best thing you can do is temporarily divert your attention to a different project and allow the other project to “simmer” a bit longer in your subconscious mind.

    I’ve talked with a lot of writers and artists who actually credit their not-so exciting day job for giving them the ability to create their art without the pressure of having to sell something immediately in order to pay the rent. It not only relieves some of the financial pressure, but I think it can also help relax your creative imagination as well because you don’t constantly have that I’ve-gotta-create-something-right-now-or-else feeling in the pit of your stomach.

    Sure the job takes up some of your time that you could (at least in theory) use for creating your art, but I think overall the tradeoff is a good one especially if you are just getting started in your creative career.

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Drew, thank you for reminding us artists of the many things we can do to get out of a temporary funk–even to turn it to an advantage. I went through a 2-year dry spell, during which I questioned whether I wanted to continue painting–didn’t really care if I continued. It is only in looking back that I realize that this was part of a 4-year major life transition, during which I lost my last parent, prepared to sell my home of 35 years (I had designed it), planned a move not only to another state (I had never lived more than 100 miles from where I was born), but into a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in which to live out the rest of my life. Once the dust settled, I did return to painting on a small scale–but thanks to wonderfully creative co-residents, I was introduced to quilting. I also chair the art committee, which includes designing the art activities for residents and general management of the community’s art studio. So in the end, I expanded my creative activities hugely and am happier for it.

All this is to say, there are different kinds of dry spells. When you find yourself in one that doesn’t respond to Drew’s recommendations, there may be something else going on in your life other than a mere funk. Be patient and keep making art, even if you heart is not completely in it.

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    You’re absolutely right Yvonne, you never know when or where creative inspiration is going to find you again, which is why you just have to be willing to open yourself up to new (and possibly unexpected) opportunities.

    I also agree that there are no magic recipes here, and as you mention, there are many different kinds of dry spells that won’t necessarily respond to one of the strategies listed here. As you said, probably the most important thing is that you are patient with yourself and find a way to keep moving forward.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your thoughts with us :)

    Reply

Great site you have here! I found you with a search on ‘jealousy in the arts.’ You had an old article on it.
I was amazed at how jealous artists and especially other photogs are of others success. I wont go into detail but I experienced a lot of it first hand.

I don’t have to produce like a creative artist so much. I am a social documentary photographer. But I sometimes worry what am I going to shoot next or where will my next iconic shot come from. It would be a lot tougher on me if I had to do set up and staged photography that requires more creative effort.

I don’t have much to add to your list. You have some very good suggestions. Personally I try to expose myself to a wide variety of art of all sorts from theatre to movies to museums and books. There is no shortage of cleaning up old files either. I have 500 gig of photos from 2014 I have not even looked at yet.

For me it pretty much boils down to getting out there and trying to produce. As I try, things usually happen for me sooner or later.

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    Thanks Daniel for your kind words and for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I really appreciate it!

    I think unfortunately jealousy is a huge issue among creative artists of all types, and has only become worse with the rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Where we may have once only suspected that everyone else was doing better than us, now we have all of the pictures and posts to prove it.

    There’s a great quote about this that I’ve seen online that says that one of the reasons we struggle with insecurity is the fact that we compare our behind-the-scenes with everybody else’s highlight reel. In other words, we compare our daily creative struggles and doubts with the finished polished examples we see everyday online. Even though we never know how easy or difficult it was for that person to create, we assume that it came easily to them simply because they are more talented, organized, etc…. It is of course an unfair comparison, which is exactly why it’s so damaging to our fragile creative ego.

    Reply
Anita

In a total burnout at the moment. It is literally months since I picked up a brush and am now finding that just the thought fills me with a real stomach-churning fear – fear of failure. Cannot see my way through this at all. Would like to know if anyone else has this fear.

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    Not that it makes it any better, but I’ve certainly been there myself. I know all about that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach every time you walk by your studio/den where your dusty tools sit seemingly mocking you. You know that you should be doing something, but just the thought of it makes you feel sick to your stomach. Not only that but every day you ignore it, it gets worse. It’s like a big pile guilt, shame, and self-loathing that just keeps piling up day after day — until it becomes so completely overwhelming that you just want to curl up in a ball in the corner.

    For me the fear of failure is always there in the back of my mind, but it’s the fear of not having anything more to say that scares the hell out of me. Every time I hit one of these moods, I sit down and wonder if this is going to be the day that I lose it. The day that it all just goes away and I’ll have nothing more to write.

    Ironically, it’s also this fear that keeps my going because I know that if I stop writing, even temporarily, all of those fears and doubts are going to start piling up again. I have learned, however, that if I can find a way to just keep the words flowing (even if they add up to nothing worthwhile) I will have the chance to try it again tomorrow — but if stop, I know that I’m doomed because all of those doubts will start eating me up from the inside.

    So my only advice to you would be to find a way to just get started again. If you were working on a large project, just set it aside for the time being and try doing something simple and quick instead — something that you can complete within 15-30 minutes max. Make a sketch, paint a postcard, or go outside and take some photographs to get inspired. The goal here is not to create something as much as it is to simply do something and pull those creative muscles out of hibernation. Get those muscles stretched out and moving again and see where it takes you. I wish you all the best Anita and please let us know how things turn out

    Reply

I’m also big on a change of scenery.. cafes and even farmers markets. That’s actually a double-bonus for me. Besides picking up some good, healthy eats there’s something about exploring and taking everything in our different senses.. vibrant colors, smells & even tastes, of course.

Looks like many of us are fans of Julia Cameron. I was lucky enough to meet her at a Learning Annex class years ago. It was inspiring, and I had no idea the impact that her ideas would have on me or the work that I feel so drawn to do these days – working with creative entrepreneurs.

Good connecting with your, Drew – I look forward to more inspiring moments for all of us!

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    Thanks so much John for your kind words and you’re right that a change of scenery can really change your perspective. I haven’t tried the farmer’s market yet, but I have tried some of the local food courts in the local shopping centers. Sometimes just the energy and movement of a certain place is enough to provide a creative spark. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Cameron but I often feel as if we are old friends just from having revisited so many of her books over the years. Thanks again John for taking the time to stop by and share your thoughts with us. I hope to hear from you again soon!

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I’m living through this right now. I don’t want to even think about painting. I walk past my studio and don’t even case a side-long eye when I used to jump at any opportunity to paint. I have finally decided to let my blog and YouTube channel have a break. It’s done wonders for me. It is nice allowing myself to not create. It feels like it’s slowly coming back and I am going to do some of the other things in this post. Great article!

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    Thanks Aaron and I think you’re right that sometimes you just need to take a step back and allow yourself to recharge. Then again, sometimes you need to suck it up, put your head down and just push through the creative funk. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to know when you should step back and when you should push through…. which is exactly why this whole creative burnout thing is so damn frustrating. There are no easy answers, and what worked for you last time, may not necessarily work for you this time. Creativity, and the motivation to create, is a fickle beast and one that will never be permanently conquered.

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epigeios

Here’s how I get over a creative funk: I develop my skills in a non-creative way.
I view creativity as simply a response to the world by using my skills. If I lack creativity, that means I am lacking in either skill or world interaction. I assume I lack both, since I can always improve upon both.

Although writer’s block or related is different. That’s my intuition’s way to telling me “Hey! What you’re trying to do here is going to suck, and by extension will make everything extremely difficult for you. Scrap that idea and do something else. I’m serious.”

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Crystal

If you take out the word “creative”, and replace it with “emotion”, your article becomes a fantastic treatise on how to deal with any situation that put yous in a “funk”. Depression, anxiety, stress, existentialism….
Which I guess makes sense, since art is the media of emotion, then dealing with broken creativity is a lot like dealing with any broken emotion.
This has been truly helpful on multiple levels.

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KarmalApples

I’ll have to keep these in mind. I’ve been trying to stave off a creative rut lately (damn, it’s gone on for a long time) and I’ve already accepted it… but for whatever reason it never really goes away, even if I think it’s run its course. I need to try some of these other methods.

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Interesting as i have found myself doing all these things naturally, it’s given a boost knowing that I’m on track and a healthy normal creative person I can be proud of. Thank you

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    Thanks Dawn for your kind words and also for taking the time to share them :) I think sometimes just knowing that we’re not the only one out there going through these kind of things can help give us a boost, restore our confidence, and keep us moving forward.

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Things happen in a strange way sometimes. I had been in this creative funk since a few weeks now feeling worthless and guilty of not being productive , to an extent that i didn’t even check my emails since last week. today i finally check my email to see your newsletter, which says that i had not seen your previous email. opening up your newsletter landed me on this article and now I know that I am not alone and this shall too pass.
Thank you so much Drew.

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    Well, I’m glad to hear my nagging emails have had some effect :) I think you’re right that sometimes it’s strange how things work out. More than once I’ve run across an email or an article online that seems to catch me at just the right time and tell me something that I needed to hear at that particular moment. In fact, a lot of the articles I write here on this site are born from something that I needed to tell myself at that point. Just the process of writing the article often helps me to organize and focus my thoughts on the issue that I happen to be dealing with at that time. As you said, sometimes it just nice to hear that we’re not the only ones feeling this way. Thanks again, please stay in touch and I wish you all the best on your creative journey.

    Reply
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