building blocks. more thoughts about creativity.

January 30, 2014 |  Category:   art + design life rambling


I’ve been having horrible insomnia lately. The kind where you toss and turn and keep looking at the clock because that window of time between sleep and the alarm gets increasingly short. I’m guessing because there’s a whole lot of stuff swirling around in my head. Some of it’s low-bubbling anxiety that I’m trying to prevent from surfacing, but most of it is actually good things, ideas that are in the very early stages of incubation, or in my case, trying to incubate.


Brenda, a very talented designer and long time blog reader, asked me to participate in her Get Fueled series where she asks creative people about their process. This essay was a bit of a challenge because I’m not exactly sure what my creative process is and quite frankly, I’m not even sure I properly answered Brenda’s question. So I rambled instead (very typical). I might very well have a process that I’m not consciously aware of, but it did make me realize that I do have a different process as a designer than I do when I’m creating work of my own. One of things that I was finally able to articulate for myself in answering this question is that for me, I see design and art as 2 very separate disciplines and they often can’t co-habitat successfully in the same creative space in my brain.
For obvious reasons of needing to make a living and supporting my family, I’ve been a designer for the majority of the second half of my life, whereas art and writing music was all I did for the first half. I really do admire people who can churn out a drawing or a piece of art every day, but I’m not that person. I think I really need to totally immerse myself in whatever I’m doing without any distractions and THIS is what I think my process is as an artist – to have the freedom and the time to just stare at a blank piece of paper for hours if I need to and then run with an idea all night. There’s something to be said about the luxury of time in that regard. I sometimes look back to when I was younger in school and wonder, was I more creative back then? Why can’t I be that prolific now? But then I realize it’s because of that luxury of time when I didn’t have to wake up to a job or a deadline or raising kids. I didn’t do anything else but create. I’m sure that my age has a lot to do with it, as well as the fact that my kids are growing into people right before my eyes, but I have college and retirement so much on the brain right now. You need money for both, and that’s where my focus has been lately.
But isn’t being a designer creative? Yes. But for myself, the answer is also no. I think I’ve always looked at being a designer as a job, separate from other creative processes. I never thought of myself as being particularly good at being creative on demand, so I think it’s a bit ironic that I ended up being a designer where work is always deadline based. But as I mention in that essay, I think those constrictions and parameters have been very good for me. And let me back up a bit when I wrote earlier that I admire those people who could churn out a drawing a day. The fact is, I am being creative everyday when I’m working. I’m not churning out drawings or paintings, but I am designing and when I’m done working for the day, the last thing I want to do is go draw. Photography, however, has been an enormous breakthrough in terms of trying to fit in personal creative work with freelance work. It’s a little less daunting than being faced with a blank canvas and that’s been really instrumental in getting back to being actively creative again. I think this is primarily why I’ve resisted trying to turn photography into anything other than a hobby.
But getting back to that insomnia. I think I’m having anxiety because I’m feeling so creatively empty these days. Work has been steady and great lately, but recent projects haven’t been creatively interesting. Ironically this might very well be the reason why I have the head space to think about personal projects right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about some work that I did in college, a series of mixed media photo collages – and later Photoshop collages when I was learning Photoshop in the mid 90s – incorporating old photos and new photos. The idea has piqued my interest again. The challenge, of course, is finding time (it’s ALWAYS about time, isn’t it? It’s the bane of my existence, really, being pulled in so many directions every day and never feeling like I’m caught up), but I’m determined this year to try and make it work and see where it leads. I am still very interested in collaborations with other people and I think this is ultimately where I’d find the energy of the creative process most invigorating since I work so much on my own a lot of the time, but life schedules have made this a challenge and in the end, a failure. So I’m finding that I need to turn inward. Whatever the means, it’s time to get creative again.
P.S. I think I might be the queen of rambling blog posts. Guess I didn’t get that memo that nobody has the attention span to read long blog posts anymore, sheesh.

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  • Yen January 30, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    It’s interesting to be nearing our 40s, with the children older now, and find that what we’re doing it creative but nothing approaching the sheer act of creation from our younger days. Michi and I started recently taking all the discarded art and drawings from our kids, the stuff not nice enough to do something with but also too nice to throw away, and cutting them up and making collages.
    Your mention of collages made me think about the why of what we are doing. I think mostly to have some small moments of just making something for fun from things that already exist. Maybe you should try! It’s hilariously relaxing:

    • Jenna January 30, 2014 at 3:05 pm

      I love this so much. What a great wonderful idea. Thank you.

  • Rachel January 30, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Yours is one of the few blogs whose words I actually enjoy reading from beginning to end, because instead of sounding like an essay, it sounds like a person talking, which I find to be MUCH more readable. It also makes no attempts at being peppy if that’s not how you’re feeling, which is also incredibly refreshing. This post also comes on a morning that has been completely consumed with these topics – creativity, process, life…very timely, and lots more stuff to think about. Me gusta.

    • Jenna January 30, 2014 at 7:04 pm

      Thank you Rachel

  • Erika Lee Sears January 30, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Creative Blocks are the worst but don’t worry it will soon pass. I am a painter and when I am really stuck I start painting still life from around the house. I have another friend who is a portrait painter and when she is stuck she paints pictures of bugs. 🙂

    • Jenna January 30, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      Oh, creative blocks aren’t my problem (this time around, at least). On the contrary, there are projects I can’t wait to work on. It’s just a matter of clearing off some time. I like the story about your friend painting bugs. I love drawing bugs! They can be very beautiful.

  • Pink Ronnie January 30, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    Do you know, this is exactly how I felt about being a graphic designer. I totally get where you are coming from. It was exciting at first, the buzz of being self-employed, but towards the end, it was no longer a creative outlet for me, and I actually started dreading receiving emails from clients….

    So I hear you, I really do.

    Ronnie xo

    p.s. LOL, I totally didn’t get that memo.

    • Jenna January 31, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      I think maybe I’ve just been doing it so long, that I’m ready for a change? I think it’s quite natural to want a change after doing something for nearly 20 years!

  • MCC January 31, 2014 at 11:21 am

    “unused creativity is not benign” – Brene Brown. I’m take an ecourse this winter as an attempt to challenge myself and continue some personal growth. It has an art component which is very, very out of my comfort zone. As a classic overachiever in school, art was my achilles heel – I just don’t possess that raw gift. Yet, I’ve found myself enjoying the sketchpad assignments. I’m doing my best not to judge, compare, etc. Just enjoy the process. I do believe creativity/creating is a more important component in our quest for mental clarity and good health than many realize.

    • Jenna January 31, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      I love that you are taking a class and doing something out of your comfort zone. I’ve been dreaming about classes too and trying to see if I can fit it into my schedule. I think I can benefit from something like this. Thanks for that quote.

  • KE January 31, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    I had a dream the other night where I was being interviewed for a position by all my professors from my art college. I hadn’t prepared anything and decided to just wing it. In my dream I went over all the projects I’d been involved in during my design career since graduation. I even admitted that the work I’d been doing lately was incredibly creatively dull and I missed having my hands ‘in’ something. Really MAKING something that inspired my creativity. Most of my work recently has been creating websites that require little creativity and more coding which I really kind of abhor. I woke up from my dream wishing I could have that imaginary opportunity and realizing I kind of hate what I do right now. I’m pretty sure I need to make a change but ya, I’ve got a family and it pays the bills. Mostly. I did realize (in my dream and after I woke up) that I’ve done some pretty good stuff over the years. Sometimes we just need to step back and see the whole picture. We get so mired in the here and now. Total tunnel vision.

    • Jenna January 31, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      You’re right. Actually, while I was writing that little essay for Brenda, I did take a step back and look at the whole picture. I have accomplished a lot and have worked on some great projects in the process. I can so relate to what you are saying. On one hand I recognize that the work I’m doing now is fairly unchallenging but it is definitely paying the bills so there’s great satisfaction in that and I don’t want to take that for granted. But man, do I know what you mean when you say you miss making something – really MAKING something!

  • Carrie Snow February 1, 2014 at 12:16 am

    I agree that photography is a wonderful creativity quencher as a parent of two young kids. That and just getting on the floor with them to play! Thank you for this post…

  • Anna February 1, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I just wanted To tell you that I love your blog and your writer’s voice -so The longer your texts, The better! Thank you 🙂

  • Rami February 1, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    I love your rambly blog posts, don’t stop. I am so often struck by the simillarities we experience. I too feel a distinct difference between “art” and “design” although in some ways I want to bridge that gap more in both directions: bringing a little more design and intention into my art, and then thinking also about shifting toward designing things that I want to design, and finding a market for it, vs forever creating new work for every client. Product vs service I guess…I think my goal overall is to diversify so I am not stuck creating on demand for my whole career. I am also diversifying fairly radically by starting to teach yoga, which is helping with the design burnout and physical discomfort from desk work — but not helping me find more time for the artful creativity I want to nourish. Oh, to find the balance! Such a challenge.

  • Caroline February 2, 2014 at 1:07 am

    Jenna – I really hear you on this one. I started out at art school and threw myself into making art and working in arts orgs. Then I switched to graphic design for about 10 years.

    Two years ago I just got this overwhelming anxiety that I wasn’t doing anything meaningful. I was paying the bills well – and it got me far with a house and raising a family – but my soul was lost. I was pretty lost.

    Long story short, I ditched the design job, started making art again and now work in the arts again. The money’s crap. But I’ve learnt THE most important thing is to make art. It has changed my whole way of seeing…

    I wish you all the best in your own journey to find the right creative outlet. Its tough being a designer with an artist’s soul:)

  • Louise February 2, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    When the majority of blog posts I read are fairly short, it’s nice to read a long rambling one. Please keep them up ^^

  • ginny February 3, 2014 at 9:11 am

    That is a great photo. Do you sell any of your prints?

    • Jenna February 3, 2014 at 9:17 am

      I do! I have an etsy print shop which I put photos sometime, but I’m not very good at adding or keeping up with it, aside from the kitchen prints that are there. I have vowed to work on my photo print shop though this year as soon as my freelance schedule lets up. In the meantime, you can email me.

  • lulu February 3, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Please do not hesitate whenever you feel the need to ramble. I am not a fan at all of the current trend of mostly pictures blogs. I dont even enjoy instagram.

  • Melanie Biehle February 4, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    I love this post. It’s so funny how different people are. I look back on the time before I became a mom and a “hustling” (and sometimes terrified) freelancer and think, why didn’t I create anything back then? I used to spend afternoons LITERALLY watching repeats of Friends and Beverly Hills 90210 and eating chips and salsa in bed. But after I had N (and got through a terrible bout of postpartum depression), I felt more creative and I wanted to do more things. I’m glad, because one of the things I worried about before I became a mother was losing my own identity/creativity. Now I do more things in less time, but I do wish I hadn’t “wasted” so much time.

    P.S. You should sign up for one of our We Are The Contributors projects. 🙂

  • pamela raper stoddard February 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Yours is one of the only blogs that I read through each post carefully. I loved this post and can identify with it all too well. Time is fleeting, especially as we age. And somehow there are more things we want to cram in as we get older. It’s now that I feel so many years of my early life were wasted. Please keep sharing.