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New Project Paralysis

New Project Paralysis

I’m feeling a bit stuck lately.  This is a familiar feeling and I’ve been thinking about why the transition to a new piece or series often brings such angst.
I’m just starting the design work for a series on Special Olympics athletes and I’m finding it difficult to begin.  Some of it is the challenge of a new design; the problem of a blank sketch pad.  But I think there’s something deeper.
We were listening to a podcast of NPR’s TED Radio Hour on the way to my nephew’s birthday party on Sunday and Barry Schwartz was talking about happiness. One of the things he spoke about was the fact that the more freedom we’re given, the less happy we are.  Too many choices lead to paralysis and second guessing ourselves because once we make a choice, we question whether or not it was the right one.
I started wondering if this was related to the paralysis involved in a new project.  At the beginning, there are simply too many choices.  With each decision, I’m leaving behind too many options.  Once I choose a size, it restricts the design.  If I choose black and white for the color palate, I’m leaving behind all the other colors.  If I decide to paint my fabric, I’m missing out on all the commercial prints.  If I use machine applique, what about piecing the background?
But there’s another closely related factor also causing the procrastination: fear of failure.  As I design and create, making decisions about the direction of the piece, I have to believe that the direction I take will result in the strongest piece – one that will do justice to the topic and speak to the viewer. But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes – maybe even often – my work doesn’t live up to the vision in my head.  If I never start, I can’t fail.
How much easier is it to simply sit back and not make any moves – to let all the possibilities live in the universe?  Unfortunately, this means never creating a new piece … which, as an artist, I know is completely impossible.  And so I force myself to face that blank sketch pad and start the next piece, hoping that I’m making the right decisions.
I’m curious: do other people feel the same paralysis when facing a new project?  And what tools have you used to break through it?

This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. Why are you making all these ‘rules’ before you get started? Simply Get Started! Pick up a piece of paper and draw your Olympic heroes, one at a time. Take the first one and lay it on the floor and start throwing fabric at it. Pick up the stuff that doesn’t ‘go’, add more that might make it. You do NOT have to use it all, but throw down lots of possibilities. One of these pieces will scream out to be ‘background’, so go with it. In short, do the preliminary work (drawing), and the rest will simply fall into place. Don’t worry about SIZE until you get the drawing done, and even then it won’t be a given. The idea is to get busy so you head goes into that state of creativity that takes away these decision because they are made for you by that reptilian brain that works for food! In short, you are paralyzed by being way too serious, and instead you CAN just get at it.

    Also, remember that whatever you do isn’t written in stone- this should be FUN! That’s what we do what we do. Good luck.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Sandy. What you describe is the way creativity should flow … or rather one model of creating. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. I often have a clear picture of what I want to make before any fabrics come out. As for size, since I’m starting a series, I want all the pieces in the series to be the same size … so that decision affects more than this one piece.

      Hopefully, I’ll soon surrender to the piece and let the creative juices flow. Letting go and allowing the piece to take shape is difficult for a perfectionist!

  2. I am glad you posted this – the responses have been phenomenal. I think we’ve all been there, sometimes we just muddle through it. I’ve heard the same on freedom and choices – there’s research that shows that 3-5 choices are the right amount to make someone happy. Maybe you have too many choices, and it’s overwhelming?

    I couldn’t tell by reading this if your project is a commission. Personally, I find commissions a bit more daunting because there is less freedom. I approach them near deadline, unlike the projects I create for myself.

    I look forward to following all the thoughts from around the world on this topic!

    1. Thank you for your comment. You’re right – there are definitely too many choices, which makes it overwhelming! This piece isn’t a commission, but yes, those often add more stress because you have to take into account the client’s desires and opinions.

  3. I think you’ve expressed the trepidations that we all face with any life challenge worth facing. The truth is that your talent has always reaped wonderful results. Your work is always unique and true to your heart and vision. What you don’t catch in 1 work will be expressed in some future work. Also, maybe you don’t need to set these spatial restrictions since it’s not commissioned. Each athlete is unique in who they are appearance-wise and also who they are as people; maybe your art representations can be too.

  4. How timely!

    I’ve just finished a run of challenges and a couple of exhibition pieces so the next quilts I make are of my own choosing – no theme, no size, no nothing it’s so easy for paralysis to set in. SO I’ve decided to set myself some parameters, I’ve been looking at the quilts I like and trying to focus in on a theme or style and guess what – still too many choices!

    I’ve given myself a stiff talking to and narrowed things down to three very different broad ideas. Like you I often have a fully formed picture of what I intend to make but this time I’m going to, try to, let the process rule. it’s the part that most interests me anyway.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

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