I’ve got nothing to say.

By Beatrix Butters S7ENA EEB3

I feel like I have nothing important to share with you. Whatever I write about, someone knows more about it than I do, someone would come up with a better analogy to explain it, and someone would write about it better than I ever could. So what is the point? An article takes a lot of time and effort, and if it is not even enlightening, then why bother? People can just read the Economist if they want the latest on the war between Hamas and Israel. They can whip out the New Scientist if they want to read about recent scientific developments. Who am I to think that my article will be original or interesting to anyone?

This mindset has led me into an unpleasant creative rut. The best way to describe it is as an extreme form of procrastination. I do not want to use my thoughts to create anything because I do not find my thoughts original or worthy of sharing. This creative rut may sound like low self-esteem or burnout, but regardless of the diagnosis, many of us have suffered similar thoughts. While writer’s block is a routine hurdle among artists[1], I sense that the experience of creative ruts among teenagers goes undiscussed. So, whilst I cannot guarantee that this article will interest anyone, I will share how I ended up here and what I am doing to be more inventive again.

The first reason I have been in a creative rut is what I call a ‘knowledge gap’. I experience this ‘knowledge gap’ when I do not feel entitled to write about a topic because I do not know enough about it. Another way a ‘knowledge gap’ could be experienced is if someone never paints sunflowers because they do not believe they are as good as Van Gogh. Here, the creator thinks there is a large ‘gap’ between their abilities and those of someone who could create what they would like to create. You might want to write an article about an impending recession in the EU, knowing nothing about economics. That seems like a daft idea. However, it could make for a great article. Because there was a ‘knowledge gap’ when you started writing your article, you taught yourself economics from scratch. This is no easy task, but once you have learnt more about it, you will probably be able to write an article accessible to people who do not have a background in economics. Moreover, in my experience, the ‘knowledge gap’ is often not as large as it seems, and overcoming it is extremely rewarding.

But what if you make a mistake in your article? This leads me to my second point, the expectation we have of ourselves and others to produce something perfect every time. This will apply to some people more than others, depending on their level of perfectionism. I imagine students have also carried perfectionistic tendencies into other creative endeavours, seeing as our school system rewards consistent perfection with excellent results. In my case, anyway, this is quite a prominent factor. Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be good to be ambitious and strive to do things to the best of your abilities. On the other hand, when starting with a creative project, perfectionism can set the bar too high. I notice this in myself: if I do not achieve my (often unrealistic) expectations, I am discouraged and stop trying. The problem is that I anticipate that whatever I create will not live up to my expectations, so I give up before I even start. And, after a while of not doing anything, you will not produce any creative ideas. Hence the creative rut. As Picasso once said: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’. What you create does not have to be perfect, but you should be ‘working’ on something to be inspired. Most of the time, our original ideas (assuming they exist) are a compilation of different ideas we have accumulated through ‘working’. The more you ‘work’, the more material you have to forge connections and the more opportunities you have to come up with original ideas. So, it is worth turning off that perfectionistic voice when you are creating things and just starting. Making a mistake in your article is not the end of the world. In fact, you likely learnt more from writing the article and making that mistake than you would have had you not written it at all. 

I am just as sick as you are about hearing what is wrong with social media, but I could not avoid mentioning it here. I sense that social media is a common thread throughout most teens’ – myself included – experience of creative ruts. Spending hours a day consuming other people’s thoughts leads you to subconsciously regurgitate them at the closest occasion. I recoil whenever I catch myself doing this. The disappointment I feel after I realise that a genius idea I had for a drawing was just something I had saved on Pinterest two weeks ago is unparalleled. And, of course, my drawing was not half as good as theirs. We now have access to a whole new world of inspiration. But that also opens up a whole new world to compare ourselves with. This feeds into the self-deprecating narrative that your ideas are either not original enough or your execution is inadequate. Social media can be great for creativity. If you follow people with similar interests who inspire you, it can be a great way to improve your craft. If I am honest with myself though, I know that social media has not been a creatively constructive way to spend my time. Along with the points I mentioned before, it has diminished my attention span, so that I cannot concentrate on creative projects for as long as I used to. It is also an escape from creativity. When I do not have anything to do or feel like doing anything, I can revert to it for a less arduous form of entertainment. The solution for most of us is obvious: spend less time on social media. Easier said than done, I confess, but I have a few tips I use myself. Avoid spending time on your phone before you sleep, set time limits and uninstall apps that harm your overall well-being. You probably are not missing out. 

Finally, the moment has come to mention artificial intelligence (AI). I realise I am covering lots of hot topics here. AI has and will continue to impact the way we do creative work. I am torn about the role AI will play in creative endeavours. From experimenting with it, I can tell that AI comes up with connections that humans might not think of. Even though we like to consider ourselves as people who ‘think outside of the box’, most of us have somehow been socialised to think in a certain way. AI is not socialised like us, making it a great tool to bounce off ideas. It can make us consider things we might not have thought of as humans. AI can also accelerate work in several areas (e.g. drug development[2]), liberating time for humans to spend creatively. However, AI has its limitations. Although they are not socialised as we are, AI chatbots like ChatGPT have limited datasets upon which they base their ideas. These can perpetuate conventional responses and stereotypes. Like social media, AI is sometimes an escape from creative work. If we use the ideas fed to us by AI chatbots like ChatGPT without questioning them, we lose an opportunity to be creative and make something ourselves. AI frees up time, but choosing how we spend that extra time is up to us. 

If there is something I have learnt from writing this article, it is that creative ruts are multifaceted. You could end up in one because of your environment, personality or mental health, but probably due to a combination of the three. I did not tackle the topic of burnout in this article, but that is another thing worth looking into if you think you are in a creative rut. Avoiding creative ruts is hard when you have so many tools at your disposal (social media, AI, etc.). Nonetheless, I think it is worth trying to maintain your creativity by, as Picasso suggested, ‘working’ at it as often as possible. Most of us would agree that creating something you are proud of is truly one of the most rewarding experiences. I hope that some of this resonated with you because I think that, for someone who has ‘nothing to say’, I have tortured you long enough.

[1] https://alyssaponticello.com/blog/the-great-creative-rut-of-winter-2021

[2] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2023/02/ai-can-catalyze-and-inhibit-your-creativity-here-is-how/