Busting Creative Blocks in Sobriety

By Kate Kennedy Spindler

I sit down. I stare at the blinking cursor. ‘Creativity and addiction often go hand in hand…’

Nope. That’s stupid, delete.

‘The creative life requires bravery…’


I get up, put some change in the soda machine, pace while taking a few swigs of caffeine. I write a few more clunky sentences full of boring words and the syntax of a third grader. Every word is painfully, muddily wrenched from my sludgy brain onto the screen. Why do I keep trying to write? What is the point of all this? I have no talent! I’m a Midwestern mom of average intelligence and mediocre abilities. Who cares what I have to say about anything?

Ten years ago, this would have been the perfect opportunity for me to use alcohol, drugs, or food. Creative blocks are uncomfortable, and as a person with addiction, I had zero tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. I, like many I know, became convinced somewhere along the road to happy destiny that uncomfortable feelings were intolerable and would probably kill me. I know there are many more uncomfortable feelings than writer’s block, but in the moment, I can’t think of one.

Back home in my writing corner, I throw a pillow and flounce into a couch. I stomp around the house, cranky as hell. And because I am a bleeding pile of needy emotions (one of my best qualities!), I post on Facebook, “Hahahahha, writing a blog post about creative blocks and I can’t get one word down. I hate irony sometimes.”

So here’s your first lesson, if you needed a lesson: tell your friends when you are stuck. My inability to sit in silence with any emotion whatsoever often surprises me in how well it serves me. Thanks to my social media emotional plea, I suddenly had a list of things to read (How to Write A Lot, by Paul Silvia, “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of A Case Of Writer’s Block,” from the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis), several suggestions for breaking through blocks (write as if to a friend, or an enemy) and jokes (“just take a selfie and post it!”). Oh hey! Here I am, writing through a block! (*high-fives a million angels!*)

And these suggestions were just the new-to-me ones! I do other things besides use alcohol, food, or drugs when confronted with a creative block, now. I like to think I’ve become sort of an expert at busting through, but that’s only because I desperately want to be good at something, and I like procrastinating by purchasing books on Kindle. Still, I’ve learned a lot over the years! Reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron changed my life through her introduction of Morning Pages. They are hard, but worth it: upon waking, before you do anything else (ok, I get my coffee), get your favorite pen and notebook and write three longhand pages of stream-of-consciousness drivel. Don’t think, don’t edit. It’s not for publication. It’s for cleaning out the dross at the bottom of your brain. It’s tedious, but that’s why it works, and yes, you must do it in the morning because you need to get it done before you can think too hard about it. Don’t question the Morning Pages! Just try them! Cameron refers them them as “spiritual chiropractic,” and that’s pretty accurate.

Pick up Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Read anything by Natalie Goldberg you can get your hands on. Natalie will give you writing exercises, and you will suddenly be able to create again.

Text your artist friends. (I’m lucky; my inner circle includes at least three writers.) They will assure you that you will get through this, and you probably can even do so without picking up any of your drugs of choice.

When stymied creatively, your work now becomes finding the next “in.” You need a crowbar, or maybe just a Slim Jim -- just enough to make a crack. Because here’s the honest truth: when you avoid your work, and you’re a person in recovery, you may be in danger of using again. That block sits there, and your mind starts layering all kinds of silly things on top of it. Time passes, and your brain convinces you that this block is now a boulder. Then a mountain. Then that huge black demon thing that comes out of a mountain from Disney’s Fantasia. But it isn’t; it’s just a pause. It’s just a pause.

How do I know when I’m avoiding and when I really do need to take a short break from writing? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do know that when I’m having a block and I still pick up a pen or open my laptop and get 300 words down a day (thanks, Anne Lamott!), I’m still holding the string. If I’m not writing 300 words, maybe I’m researching, or taking care of my creative life in some other way. Hell, maybe I’m sitting down to color with my kids. If I am engaging my creativity instead of numbing out, I’m not avoiding. (I think. I will still probably numb out at some point in the day. After all, Netflix ain’t gonna watch itself!)

I’m grateful to be sober. Of course I am. This life is a thousand times better than those dark days of sickness, lies and self-hatred. I will admit though, I’m annoyed that I’m not a zen master yet. I really thought recovery would make me more impressive. I had grand visions, at the start of this journey out of hell, that I’d be in high demand as a motivational speaker, or maybe a modern creativity guru. I assumed I’d have several memoirs written by now, filled with pearls of wisdom and beautifully crafted sentences, and I’d float along with a bemused smile on my face at the folly and beauty of the world and its inhabitants. The reality is, mostly I just need to wear yoga pants more often and take a lot of naps.

Sobriety didn’t uncover a brilliant talent, but it did uncover a deep tenacity to keep doing my work, even if it’s terrible. Especially if it’s terrible. And while that doesn’t bring in speaking fees or my own line of scented candles, it is the gift that keeps on giving me a quiet, determined satisfaction that was never available when I was drunk, high, or using food. So today I do the next right thing, as often as possible, and it is good. The next right thing usually means sitting with icky feelings like inadequacy, fear and annoyance in order to get to the “good” stuff. (Maybe it’s all good stuff?) Life is difficult, sometimes thrilling, but ultimately peace-giving and satisfying - two things I never would have had without sobriety.


Kate Kennedy Spindler is a writer, actor and storyteller living in Saint Paul, Minn. She has three kids, one husband and two cats. She is an NYC Moth StorySlam winner, and you can find her wherever stories are told. Read some of her work at www.jizomom.typepad.com, and listen to her podcast Love from New York, We Did Saturdays Right on iTunes. She is in recovery from lots of stuff.

We Could be Heroes for Just One Day

By Kara W.

When I was a kid, I used to close my eyes and internalize my own death. Inside, I would dissipate, folding into sheet after sheet of darkness. Even the sheep in rows on my sheets couldn’t protect me from this paralyzing terror. I would call out to my mom just to remind myself I was alive. I am a girl. I am 9. I have a dog named Missy. I have a mom and a dad. I live in a house, in a suburb. I am in a warm bed, and I am safe.

I have always been fascinated by death because of my fear of it. One either fears that which we don’t understand or has a reverence for it. I have a mix of the two and therefore have always felt a need to push life to the limits. It is this supreme fear of death that also drives me to create. Like novelist Herman Hesse’s character Goldmund, I have an unusually strong motivation to leave a footprint on this earth.

He thought the fear of death was perhaps the root of all art, perhaps also of all things of the mind. We fear death, we shudder at life's instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something that lasts longer than we do.   
- Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

Anxiety has always been with me, along with some perceived obligation to give back to the world the gift of life, which was so freely given to me. I create for different reasons, but first is survival. Second is transmission: communicating a thought or feeling to the world that reflects my own human experience and connects it to yours. When I am not creating, I am not happy, mostly because I feel disconnected. Creating allows me to merge the inner world I protect so much with the outside world. It allows me to be in the present, to be the present.

At one time, I bought the popular myth that to create I needed an altered experience, for the doors of perception to be cleansed. And for that, I believed I needed to be intoxicated with substances.  That, of course, is the falsest belief I have ever tested over and over and over and over. The mindscapes and moods I experience sober have proven far more profound than any of the short-lived highs I once had.

Never did I dream that I would become addicted to heroin three years out of high school. Total annihilation was not part of my life plan. I moved from stealing chicken from Jewel at age 20 to hustling for cash at gas stations on the West Coast by age 22. I made it to California, but was eating out of the garbage. What a pity. No one back home in Illinois really knew; the West Coast provided a great cover. In reality, I was in a desperate survival cycle: next money, next fix, next meal, in that order. No time or energy for anything else. And, all the while, I was overwhelmed with frustration and anger at my inability to change.

Thinking back to high school, I can see a pattern in the music I liked: John Frusciante, Syd Barrett, PJ Harvey, Joni Mitchell – artists who at some point destroyed themselves with darkness or displayed it vividly in their work. Like Shakespeare once said, as an artist, you reflect nature, and my nature was that of fear-fueled destruction.

It wasn’t just the drugs. I became addicted to dying and being reborn, a thousand times over. Because isn’t it transformation that we are all after? That transformative experience where we can leave one skin for the other? Like Lazarus, I could come back from the dead. But life didn’t change. I got into a cycle that was governed by nature; I would get sober in the fall, then pick up in the winter and be full blown in my addiction by the time warm weather arrived. I did this for three years, never actually experiencing rebirth – only pauses in my self-destruction. I was stuck in a purgatory, burning until I could make a decision.

Maybe I thought chasing death would cure me of my fear of it. But it didn’t. And at some point, I became willing to try something else. For the first time in my life, I started to listen to what others told me to do. Believe me, I didn’t take all their suggestions, but enough to get me through that first door. My grandmother was an integral part of my life during this period. I lived with her after I got out of a halfway house in 2009. She was the first person to trust me, even though I stole more than $1,000 worth of quarters from her the year prior. She taught me about faith, because she was so unwavering in her own right, a straight-up Irish Catholic mother of seven. She had an underlying faith and trust in me, and that gave me courage because no one else trusted me at the time. Riding on my grandmother’s faith in me, I began to change.

I initially got sober in 2009, from heroin. But each time I would get a year sober, I would relapse on alcohol or weed. For three years I did this. It was the turning-over period, but I gradually transitioned to a life of sustained recovery in 2012. During this transitional period, I went to Africa and shot a documentary film with my friend, wrote tons of music and went back to school. I was getting my footing – learning anew about the world around me and how the God of my understanding speaks through people. I took an immense liking to blues music – the real blues music, because I could relate to it. Listening to old howlers like Son House, Johnny Lee Hooker and Blind Willy Johnson taught me how to talk to God through music. It was a great awakening. Learning how to live sober, and communicate again. I felt like a newborn babe. I began going out more than ever – playing music, really enjoying socializing, laughing and creating with other people. I discovered that creative collaboration fulfills a great need for connection and intimacy – a need I had previously neglected by isolating myself from others. I learned to have a relationship with a higher power by having relationships with other creatives and sober people. Recovery has enabled me to evolve creatively from visual art to music and film – every medium leading to the next, just as every experience and person I have met in sobriety has led me through the next door.

In recent years, I have taken my recovery even more seriously, leaning into it. I have had some tumultuous periods: periods where I could have been committed to a psych ward, but I managed through with the help of others and by creatively exorcizing my demons. Instead of picking up alcohol or other drugs and ending up in jail, I made a short film, entitled Red, about my internal fire (which was related to my intimate relations at the time.)

As humans, and artists especially, we want to be loved and understood by others. I have always had a problem with priorities, but recovery has helped me focus on what I can control – learning to love and understand others and myself. And that’s an effort that continues to require ongoing commitment. I am a relatively needy person, as it turns out, and demand an awful lot. Satisfaction and peace are elusive, but I experience them in longer stretches as time goes on. I have astral expectations for myself, and those closest to me, but am lucky to get cut down to size pretty quickly. I’m able to focus on the more important need – loving and seeking to understand my family and friends, and helping them love and understand me. Recovery has helped me see how much, in the past, I have overlooked the needs of those closest to me. I’m learning more every day one of the great paradoxical wisdoms of life – that self-love actually comes from focusing less on self. Love transforms you, and God is love as far I am concerned. If you can love, you can experience God, and that experience can push you forward. I have been transformed by love: looking for it, learning about it, losing it and finding it again.  

On occasion, I envy those who seem to have all the time in the world to devote to themselves and their art. I occasionally wish I had more time and less responsibility. But it’s clear now that such singular devotion comes with a cost – one I can no longer pay. Over time, I have come to be extremely grateful for the roots I have dug, the people I have met and the experiences we have shared. I wouldn’t be where I am, or have what I do, without them. Relationships are the plants that produce the seeds from which all else grows, including my art. Giving birth to my son in 2014 allowed me to see and appreciate the power of creation in a natural, biological sense. Though I am not necessarily a nurturing woman, I have found that motherhood suits me; it is surprisingly natural. It also has drawn my focus away from myself, which in turn has opened me to a whole new world of inspiration. I love being a mom – so much so that I now want many more children.

The great thing about being a sober artist is the endless amount of raw emotion that you may kindle.  These days, I am focusing on film work and getting out lesser-told stories that need to be told, providing a voice for the unheard. My friend and I are about to release a feature-length documentary, which is rather exciting. I also have a TV pilot swirling around in my head, inspired by the senior housing facility where I work during the day. Imagine Days of Our Lives meets the movie Cocoon! Yes, I need a lot of stimulation. I need to be constantly learning. If I get bored, I start to be destructive. It is up to me, with the support of others, to initiate the stimulation and connection I need in my life. I thrive on constant transformation, and that is a good thing. But it also requires consistent effort. I have found that recovery has guided my effort in the right direction, gently pushing me where I need to go when I am ready. I do not determine when that is, by the way; some other force is at work. Typically, I want quick results that I can physically see. And sometimes I get those results, but usually in long strides and rarely when I want them. The biggest changes for me have happened from within – subtly and quietly. Profoundly.

The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of the world, but those who fight and win battles that others do not know anything about.   
- Jonathan Harnisch

I am so grateful for those before me who have told their tales of moving beyond addiction. They are heroes to me. And I’m grateful now to share my own, and, most importantly, to have learned what they knew – that to defeat the fear of death, we must participate in life. I am a hero just for today.

Kara is a mother, musician and filmmaker. She works and advocates for seniors on the North Side of Chicago, and loves animals and being outside with her family.

Photo is John Duncan's painting, “The Riders of the Sidhe” from 1911.

Embracing the "Ugly Beauty" of Our Dissonant Lives

By Kevin O’Connor

I don’t really identify as an artist. But I am a creative person, albeit a highly reluctant and shy one. I write, paint and plow my way furtively through musical expression. And I create two-wheeled contraptions that are better labeled as art than conveyance. It gives me joy to ride them and even more satisfaction to build them for friends and family.

As a public radio programmer and host, I have devoted my life to supporting the creative endeavors of other artists, mostly musicians. I consider my own talents highly subordinate to theirs and am grateful to be in their company. I suppose there is an art to presenting the art of others, though I don’t expect the MacArthur Foundation grants to be rolling in anytime soon.

But dissonance? Oh my! I can certainly speak to that. In jazz and improvisational music, dissonance is never shunned. In fact, the most revered jazz artists always embraced atonality and what Thelonious Monk described in a famous piece as “Ugly Beauty.”

From the time I could hear notes, I was drawn not to melody or catchy phrasing but to tones of a decidedly more jarring nature. This was a logical response to a noisy, chaotic and traumatic childhood, or so I theorized.

My earliest heroes were people like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler, and Charlie Parker. Less astonishingly, these and many other geniuses paid dearly for their visitations with addiction, mental illness, or both.

It’s pretty etched in jazz mythology that everybody took heroin so they could play like Charlie Parker. A more apt exploration might be to imagine what he would have sounded like without the junk. He’d have been faster, for sure, which really boggles the mind.

It is these dangerous myths, my connection to art and artists, and my own desire to be well that drew me to the Dissonance community. I had heard about the nonprofit from a colleague and attended its Unhappy Holidays event last year in Minneapolis. The idea of creating safe spaces where creative people with (or without) mental health and addictive issues can share a bit of solidarity and comfort resonated with me instantly.

Freely sharing support—however that manifests itself—among artists who identify as depressed, anxious and/or chemically dependent is nothing short of inspirational.  Dissonance is at once focused and inclusive. And, frankly, it serves such a clear need that it’s surprising such communities are so rare.

As for me, I certainly was experiencing dissonance years ago.

Some kids fantasize about being rock or movie stars, practicing in front of a mirror with a hairbrush microphone and broom guitar. Well, at age 10, I was practicing what I anticipated to be my first remarks at an AA meeting. Out loud. Tears and dramatic inflection were well rehearsed by the time I was 12. I wish I were joking, but that’s how hard-wired we were in my family toward a sort of soused pre-destiny. I confess to a slight saturation of after-school specials as well. Who knew Mary from “Little House” could play drunk so well? Or was that Laura?

All too often, it is the creative person who runs toward the fire. For many of us, that impulse is always there, despite varied – and often damaging – results. Finding a balance between following the risky calls to the fire and seeking safety and serenity is a goal I have not yet fully achieved, and precisely why I’m grateful for a community like Dissonance.

Kevin O’Connor is the music director and afternoon host at KBEM-FM, the overnight host at Classical Minnesota Public Radio, and a person in long-term recovery.


Editor’s Note: You are invited to the Warming House, an alcohol-free listening room in South Minneapolis, for a Happy Hour on Thursday, Oct. 26, at 5pm. It’s a chance to learn about the mission and programming of Dissonance, the network of resources and how to get involved, from events to blogs like this one to board service. There will be refreshments, light snacks and music from Theyself. It’s an open invitation to come, connect and unwind a bit.