Unsticking Stuck Creative Projects

Reflections in the water of tree branches

I’m so excited to be teaching The KNITSONIK System (formerly Quotidian Colourwork) in a new way – to be offering the class online, in a context wherein participants have loads of time to swatch, process ideas, ask questions and develop a rich creative project. I am also really excited about the Agony Aunt Uploads – a new feature for the self-paced edition of the course that allows me to continually shape, update and enrich the content that is there. With this feature, folks who are enrolled can email me questions that arise through their process of translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork; I then consider their questions and produce content that directly addresses them.

Structuring feedback like this has several benefits.

Firstly, it takes time and effort to think through problems and I wanted a way for all course participants to benefit from the work I put into supporting individual creative processes. It makes no sense to duplicate content. If one person has a question, maybe someone else has it too; creating a supportive resource that everyone can use makes the best use of my time and labour.

Secondly, the metaphor of the Agony Aunt places a caring framework around asking for, and giving, help with solving creative problems. It also acknowledges the emotional component of trying to learn something new and finding that things don’t always go right first time.

A sideboard with a kettle, pot of tea (with cosy) and mug on it; in the background are comforting heart-shaped post-it notes bearing comforting messages, clockwise from top centre: "YOU'RE WINNING X, YOU'RE DOING GREAT X, MESS IS PART OF MAKING, GOOD IS BETTER THAN PERFECT, I BELIEVE IN YOU, WE GROW IN UNCERTAINTY AND KEEP GOING!"

In years of teaching the creative process of translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork, I’ve received lots of questions that are a version of HOW CAN I DO IT PERFECTLY FIRST TIME or IS THERE A RULE ABOUT COLOURS I CAN LEARN THAT WILL MEAN I GET RESULTS I LIKE IMMEDIATELY?! Along with this immobilising perfectionism, I’ve encountered much anxiety amongst my students and concerns about getting it wrong, wasting time, wasting yarn etc. I know from personal experience how unhelpful and unhappy these critical feelings can be. The context of knitting is full of concepts of RIGHT and WRONG which are very helpful for some things (you want your sweater to fit!) but less helpful to more open-ended creative processes involving ambiguity, discovery, and trial and error. The Agony Aunt persona is a way for me to offer encouragement, warmth and reassurance to students while also placing boundaries around my own limited resources so that I am not in the unsustainable position of trying to supply a 24/7 colourwork design support desk.

Finally, the process involved in producing the Agony Aunt Uploads puts valuable time and space around problems as it’s not instant. It takes time for course participants to write an email formulating their problem(s) and for me to then read that email; schedule time to record and edit a response; and then carefully craft helpful video advice. That time and space is a good thing as more often than not, when things are feeling frustrating in the creative process, it can help to step away for a bit.

The motto for the Agony Aunt Uploads is that “there is no problem in stranded colourwork design that can’t be fixed with kindness, time and tea” as this is what I’ve found in my own creative practice and in all my collaborations, too.

Anyway, these were my main reasons for setting up the Agony Aunt Uploads. Last week I filmed and edited the first two sets of video content. I thought a little of what I unpacked in the video content in The KNITSONIK System might be helpful in blog post format, and so today I want to talk about my methods for getting UNSTUCK in a creative project when I’m feeling STUCK.

I don’t know if you’ve been there but sometimes when you’re trying to work on a KNITSONIK swatch – just like with any creative project, really – there are moments when you don’t know what to do next; are unhappy with what you’ve made so far; are looking for ideas and can only find blank space. It’s very normal and happens all the time but can still be a source of shame and very disconcerting if you’re not used to it. Like anything new and uncertain, practice makes instances of STUCKNESS easier to manage but without ideas of what to do next, it can be easy to think “this is too difficult; I can’t be arsed”.

So, what to do when you’re stuck? I can only say what works for me, but I thought it’d be worth sharing here in case it’s helpful.

1. Get a change of scene or a change of perspective

Staring at a problem never helps. Going for a walk or a drive pushes a problem to the periphery, rather than having it front and centre. I find that the distraction of new vistas – a sunset in our local park or the world seen through the cinematic prism of my windscreen – can radically shift my perspective on other things. Something about the rhythm of moving and seeing new things can yield unexpected solutions.

me driving on the A4074; you can see the road ahead, my dashboard, and my face reflected in the rear-view mirror

I always think of the time I was panicking, working on the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook and had gotten STUCK about the best way to represent my favourite road in stranded colourwork design. I had hundreds of photos from which to choose (the road is 24 miles long) and was totally overwhelmed. I needed to go back and find a new way to look at this extremely familiar scene, and so vowed to simply go to the road and look at it as though I’d never seen it before – to bring the eyes of a tourist to the familiar scene – and to try and forget everything I thought I already knew about it.

Once I got to the road and parked up on one of its verges, I started taking photos of the actual road itself, at which point I noticed how many different colours were involved in its tarmac surface.

an example of the many colours of tarmac - pinks, blus, greys and a variety of whites are involved in its colour palette

This simple action (take photos of the road) and simple revelation (wow, there are loads of colours in the road-surface itself!) gave me a framework for approaching my swatch: I’d focus on the road-markings to describe its winding twists and bends, and on the colours of the road surface as the basis for my colourway.

The A4074 swatch beside its inspiration source, the road itself

Without that drive with my camera and the willingness to try looking again, I never would have finished the A4074 swatch in the Sourcebook that led to #TarmacTuesdays and then to #TarmacTuesdays bunting (in the Playbook).

A change of scene is one of the most appealing aspects of going away for a bit. For many of us, going on holidays means time to relax, permission to play; with this mood in place, we take millions of photos of everything we notice. I love this about holidays.

A window onto the beach in Hastings, offering a totally new and refreshing seaside view

However, if you think about it, this offers a blueprint of all we need in order to appreciate looking at the world around us… permission to play; curiosity; a state of relaxedness; a willingness to explore.

my hands holding my digital SLR; in the background are the patterns of Reading's brickwork - one of my favourite things to notice on everyday walks in Reading

You don’t have to go on holiday to look at things with the same curiosity as a tourist – you just need to remind yourself to see things as though you’ve never seen them before.

I recommend finding new ways to reappraise familiar journeys (what happens if we take this other road / this secret pathway between the houses / another route? what happens if we look up at the buildings and try to notice what is above the street level?) as an everyday way of changing the view; these are the strategies I employed for developing my swatch based on the brickwork of Reading (the Sourcebook) and then the Bricken cowl (the Playbook). Never underestimate the creative energy of exploring a new way to navigate a familiar route – some of my favourite local spots were found by taking random detours down unexplored passageways, pathways, or roads.

the brickwork of Reading in the background, with a swatch featuring many designs based on that brickwork to the fore

my cowl inspired by Reading's brickwork, photographed with me leaning up against a brickwork wall in Reading

I also love the lifeat.io website for days when I want a change of scene but have no energy to leave the house: https://lifeat.io/

2. Do something you enjoy – that’s relaxing, physical, and has rhythm.

One of my favourite places to think is at those rare times when I’m swimming in the pool near here at 7.00 in the morning. Something about the rhythm of my strokes and kicks in the water and my breathing plus the sensuous ripple of light and blues and tiles in my view sets my mind up in an ideal way. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve written, knitting ideas I’ve come up with, or daily plans I’ve laid in the process of swimming lengths.

Going swimming takes a lot of resources; I don’t always have the capacity to get up early enough to get to the pool when it’s quiet and a really busy pool has the opposite effect on my mental state than an almost empty one! For all other times, my favourite rhythmic activity (and my passionate hobby) is cooking. Yours might be walking or knitting or crochet – or sorting and tidying. Whatever rhythmic activities you have in your daily life and that you enjoy, when you feel STUCK in a creative process is exactly the time to go and do them.

I love the processes of weighing, peeling, grating, slicing and arranging ingredients into bowls ahead of the cooking or assembly stage of meal-production and then watching everything come together in the pot(s). When things are stressful with my creative work, nothing sorts me out like a cooking marathon. Something in the sorting and preparation of ingredients helps align things in my mind, as well.

little squares of sourdough pasta

ingredients for a radish and rhubarb salad in the colander, ready to wash before preparing to eat

the undercelebrated joy of a dish filled with tomatoes and a paint tester strip to the left, demonstrating my wish to match the tomato colours to Dulux paint shades

Two weeks ago, working on the Agony Aunt Uploads, I sat down and wrote out some pointers in my KNITSONIK Bullet Journal and some notes on how I’d deal with each of the queries that came in. However, it took making several soups, salads and stews for me to work out exactly how I was going to approach the filmed responses for each one.

In fact, I happen to think that without last week’s Grand Sourdough Hot Cross Buns Experiment (of which more another time) the content would not have been filmed.

Sourdough Hot Cross Buns - a most productive prevarication!

I’m trying to stop judging every instance when I do something else before starting a big project as “procrastination” because more and more these activities seem like important processing steps between different stages of a project. Sometimes the reason we are STUCK is that we need more time to process what we know so far, before moving onto the next phase. Cutting up carrots (or making Hot Cross Sourdough Buns) might be just the right mix of rhythmic, familiar and mundane that a more complex problem can be processed at the same time.

3. Use visual reminders and put the things on which you’re working in your view, allowing your mind to mull them over them during other tasks.

It’s surprisingly powerful how the presence of an object or image around us can exercise a subliminal influence; if you’re interested in something but don’t know why or what you want to do with it, put it somewhere you can see it and let it work its magic quietly in the background. Visual reminders can be objects or photos placed around the home; pinned to a board; used as a background or wallpaper on your phone; or stuck on (or inside) a notebook you often use. It doesn’t matter where you put visual reminders as long as they go somewhere where you’ll see them often.

the photo of the sky that I taped to my kitchen cupboards while working on this project

When I was working on the Skystone Armwarmers for the wonderful Arnall-Culliford Techniques book, Boost Your Knitting, I taped photos of the sky and the stones of Porlock beach onto our kitchen cupboards.

porlock stones - they are "grey" on first inspection, but then when you look closer, you realise how many more colours are involved!

I knew I’d see them every day while cooking, and that this daily visual reminder would both prompt me to get on with the project and stimulate ideas about which colours to use and how to approach my design.

My swatch for the KNITSONIK Skystone Armwarmers project with the photos of sky and stones behind it, showing the links between inspiration sources and knitting

4. Be kind.

It’s very easy to undermine tentative creative experiments with judgemental, unhelpful thoughts. WHY DON’T I KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT! WHY IS THIS SO BAD! I’M NO GOOD AT THIS etc. it’s also easy to be incredibly dismissive of our efforts; WHAT’S THE USE IN DOING THAT? WHAT A WASTE OF TIME! HOW TRIVIAL, WHY BOTHER GOING TO ALL THIS EFFORT TO DESIGN AND MAKE SOMETHING WHEN YOU CAN BUY IT FOR £20 ON THE HIGH STREET etc.

Nothing will get your project stuck quicker than a spiral like this and the only thing I’ve found helpful at such times is to amplify counter thoughts with a special focus on curiosity and enthusiasm:

  • Monkl in a massive sea of rainbow-coloured hearts - if there is a more uplifting and joyous image in this world I'm sure I don't know about it

    When I am STUCK it’s often because I am at my lowest ebb: tired, anxious and out of capacity to come up with solutions. This is the worst time to launch an attack or start demanding more from myself. What’s needed instead is rest and activities that will replenish – rather than deplete – precious creative reserves. When we are tired or stressed, our fight or flight response kicks in. In this state, we make snap decisions rather than thinking flexibly and with nuance, and are least able to deal with ambiguity. In this mood we would like to set fire to the annoying project or, as my Dad used to say when my three brothers and I had worn him out and wound him up “RIGHT: THAT DOES IT! LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF! EVERYONE BACK TO BED”.

    I feel vulnerable sharing this but, as it’s proved to be one of the most appreciated aspects of my KNITSONIK Bullet Journaling Course, I’ll include it here. To keep my stash of counter thoughts well-stocked, I use my KNITSONIK Bullet Journal (amongst other things) as a cheerleading space.

    golden excellence seal stuck into KNITSONIK Bullet Journal along with the following scrawl: "finished knitting shawl - it is the shiz!"

    A page celebrating the slow sweet brilliance of THE SNAIL - the stamp of a snail and tape showing grass are shown beside an uplifting text that celebrates the agency and pace of the slow and steady mollusc whose timings mean they are best placed to appreciate all the sensory delights of this earthly life

    If I’m having a bad day, I go straight to my journal to set up practical lists to get me out of the fug, and to write myself kindly reminders. In my journal I also sometimes write out positive feedback I’ve received on the value of my work; when folks take time to email me something meaningful and positive about the impact and value of KNITSONIK it goes into my Bullet Journal. I can then use it as evidence to boost the counter arguments when worrying and self-criticism try to gain a foothold and trash whatever it is I’m trying to do. I also have a medallion of power that lives on my studio wall; it’s a small embroidery hoop covered in wool fabric onto which I have attached affirmative and uplifting enamel pins from some of my favourite fellow small-business owners.

    THE MEDALLION OF POSITIVITY - a little embroidery hoop with positive and uplifting reminders on it such as I AM ENOUGH; INVISIBLE ILLNESS CLUB; SPOONIE-CORN WARRIER; COURAGE IS FOUND IN UNLIKELY PLACES; FELIX FELICIS (a potion badge); a silver egg badge; and a badge that represents rose-quartz crystal

    This is my creative solution to all creative projects but perhaps especially to the project of being self-employed, running my business alone, and needing a supportive framework for reviewing my own performance and assessing how I’m doing. Too often I end up focusing on all the things I need to do better without taking a moment to confirm the value of what I have already made. This is true for the project that is running KNITSONIK LTD. but it’s true for all creative projects – even designing new stranded colourwork, based on an everyday inspiration!

    KNITSONIK Bullet Journal page featuring washi tape to colour-in, crystal stickers and a scrawled WELL DONE FELIX!

    I don’t think I could do the scary adventure of building a tiny creative business were it not for the skills that I keep honing through being an artist (managing uncertainty and risk; having faith in my ideas; practicing self-kindness). Self-kindness isn’t about insulating myself from critical feedback or evaluating what’s going wrong. Rather, it’s about ensuring I have the resources to deal with those things so they don’t destroy me when they inevitably arise (and they always do). Crucially, practicing self-kindness, encouragement and reassurance in my own creative work means I have those things at hand to share with participants who are taking any of my online courses. I feel a great deal of responsibility as an educator and one of the things that means I can continue to support other peoples’ creative processes is the generosity I try to extend to my own.

    Last week I had a bad mental health day – I’d had a rough night of anxious and unrestful sleep and had woken several times to the unhelpful MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT THOUGHTS. After lying in bed unhelpfully turning over, in my mind, EVERYTHING WRONG I EVER DID, I was not ready for a good day of productive work. As my boss, I told myself to take the day off: no emails, no driving, more rest, kind thoughts.

    KNITSONIK self-help journal pages - a list of practical things; positive steps and actions forward; and little heart-shaped kindnesses on the page to motivate myself

    Once I recognised that I was not feeling well, it was easy to make a list of doable things. Clear off a cluttered table. Put clean dry laundry away. Empty and reline the kitchen bins. Sort out my fulfilment spreadsheet. Make a salad. Have a shower. And write some encouraging notes to myself in my journal: TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER; YOU’RE DOING YOUR BEST; I BELIEVE IN YOU; IT’S GOING TO BE OK.

    The next day I filmed and edited a rich set of short Agony Aunt Uploads which gathered a positive response from the person who had submitted their question, who said it had pushed them forward and given them the nudge they needed in order to get back to it. Had I not rested and been kind to myself when I needed that, the helpful upload would never have been made.

    Which leads me to my last and final tip for UNSTICKING a creative project that’s got stuck, which is sort of a mix of everything we’ve talked about so far:

    5. Keep going.

    It really raises the stakes and makes it feel extra scary to encounter BEING STUCK if you learn that reaching this point means the whole project comes to a crashing halt (“everybody back to bed/let’s call the whole thing off!”) Instead it builds confidence and feels reassuring to know that there is always a next step that feels doable and that means you can continue, even while uncertain and unsure. For my KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork swatching projects, these steps might be:

  • CHANGE THE VIEW: Start a secondary project using your own (or someone else’s) pattern, incorporating the same colours you’re exploring in your swatch, so you can see them interacting in different ways in a completely new and fresh context.
  • DO SOMETHING YOU ENJOY: Knit a few plain rounds to put space around the motif you’ve just tried, and to enjoy the simple rhythm of knitting without the stress of immediately solving the problem you’re facing.
  • USE VISUAL REMINDERS: hang your swatch up on a wall, or place it somewhere around the house where you’ll see it little and often and can reflect on possible next steps in idle moments or while doing other things.
  • BE KIND: if you’re getting in a snit (and haven’t we all at some point?) as silly as it sounds, write out your critical thoughts and then imagine what your favourite kind and supportive friend would say in response. Write out their imagined replies, emphasising curiosity and enthusiasm, and turn to these when meanness, perfectionism, frustration or anxiety threaten to steal away your joy.
  • PUT THE KETTLE ON: honestly underrated as the first move towards resolution and reconciliation when things are going wrong in any creative project (or indeed in life).
  • …but I reckon these general ideas can be adapted to unsticking any creative projects that isn’t working out. What do you think? As I said these are the things that work for me, but I’d love to hear what you do when you’re STUCK. Mostly, I think GETTING UNSTUCK is about demystifying creativity and relating it to our mental health, wellbeing and resources; it’s not a magic process at which you are either a success or a failure but an ongoing practice that’s grounded in lovely normal comforting everyday life and that requires rest as well as action (just ask my cat, who is a deeply wise and creative being if ever there was one).

    Joey Muffkins sleeping on the bed - my fuzzy little muse!

    I hope you’ve enjoyed these thoughts on UNSTICKING creative projects that are STUCK – you’ll find The KNITSONIK System and the Agony Aunt Uploads that inspired me to write it here. Also, if you enjoyed this post, you might also like this guest post that I wrote for the excellent KDD&Co. Allover Club. Writing that piece provided a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the mechanisms of my creative practice which has inspired me to say more on the subject.

    Yours in kindness, time and tea –

    16 thoughts on “Unsticking Stuck Creative Projects

    1. Very grateful that your newsletter today led me to check out your blogs, and to find this one here. Many of the wise, sound bits that I picked up in your wonderful Bullet Journaling course a few years ago feel to me to be even more beautifully and directly distilled here. Like others, I’ll be returning to this post — transcribing a bit of it (in my benevolent bullet journal! receptacle of cheer, clarity and kindness!), returning to reread the post and absorb the photos, and perhaps printing up a page or two! Thank you Felix

    2. I knew I needed to read this but had to wait until I had space to absorb it. I’m glad I saved it to read this morning. And I’m going to bookmark it so I can re-read it. It is both practical and inspiring. Thank you.

    3. Thank you Felix. This is a keeper. Something I need to keep coming back to, as I think I’ll get more from it each time. Your posts are so colourful and so inspiring. I also love your medallion of power. That’s set me off with some creative ideas for something to go above my desk. Thank you again.

      1. Really glad you found it helpful, Clare. And thank you for taking the time to let me know you enjoy my posts here – it’s very heartening! Good luck with whatever you make to go above your desk – everyone needs some form of the medallion of power!

    4. Ah, Felix! This is such a great post with helpful tips and also beautiful photos. New scenery and visual reminders are especially very appealing to me . And yes, we must be kind too. Thanks for this one beautiful friend ❤️

    5. Such a helpful post – I read it and thought you’d been looking at parts of my creative practice and had written this just for me! There are so many things I can take away from this, most notably how to be kind to myself and the firm, yet gentle reminder to keep going. Then, there’s the change of perspective, I walk over my fields everyday, at roughly the same time, just after sunrise. Maybe I need to walk just before sunset to see the difference in the light and the impact that has on the mountain. I really need that last section at the moment as there have been a lot of distractions recently. I’ll be fixing a print of this post to my pinboard for the times when I get stuck and need a boost. Thank you so much Felix X

      1. How lovely to hear from you Claire, how are things going? The need for self-kindness in our creativity cannot be overstated! Your morning walks just after sunrise sound lovely and yes why not change up the timing a bit if it means getting a slightly difference view? Honoured to be pinned on your pinboard in some form and bon courage with all your projects!

        1. Life (and retirement) in Herefordshire is wonderful, we’ve found the quiet we craved, we have lots of space and we’re living a community that has values like ours. We took our first steps as a local food producer last year transforming land that was over grazed by sheep into low density grazing for geese. This year we’re adding pigs and hopefully from that starting to produce our own charcuterie. Since we moved here in June 2021, we’ve planted over 500 trees and a meadow to add bio-diversity.
          I’ve changed my perspective adding a walk just before sunset; it’s made a huge difference the light is very different, just before the sun finally sets it peeks out from the far edge of the Cat’s Back (do look it up, it’s wild and beautiful) and gives it a sort of halo.
          My kindness is paying off too, I’m happier with my current work, tea consumption has increased! Your post is on my pinboard, albeit obscured by my current art work.
          I hope you and Mark find a new home that gives you as much fulfilment as I’ve found, much love xxx

    6. I love reading your posts and looking at your photos. I may never get to see where you live but I have seen the parts you share. It is so helpful to hear your thoughts on unsticking. But mostly I love your thoughts on kindness to oneself and others. Thank you for the time you share with us

    7. This is very helpful in ways far beyond knitting. I have been struggling for a long time with the inability to finish things – anything, really. There are projects all over the house that I’ve either started, or at least set up the materials needed to finish, and there they sit, eating away at my self-regard, day after day. I’ve started to think I may have developed ADHD during the pandemic because I can’t seem to prioritize, then follow through, on the list of things I want to have done. I will be re-reading this piece numerous times and probably adopting some of your practices that are much kinder than the droning “shoulds” I’ve been dragging around. You’re a peach, dear Felix, and I love your work and your writing. You are helping a lot of people, I bet, some who you’ll never hear about or from. Just wanted to say thank you for all you do.

      1. Dear Terry, thanks so much for your lovely heartfelt comment – I think it will collectively take us all a long time to process the fallout of the pandemic and lockdown, and its impact on our sense of safety, security and the structuring of our time. The droning “shoulds” can really strip us of any of the motivation we need in order to finish anything, or to keep going with tasks can’t they? I think the more negative our associations are with any given task, the less likely we are to be able to muster the energy we need to get it completed. I wish you all the luck in the world with finding gentler and kinder ways to approach the things you want to do. Thank you for reading and for always taking the time to comment here – I appreciate you! Xx

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