Thoughts on creative rut

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 29, 2013 – 12:00am

When it rains, it pours.” So the saying goes. And we have all experienced this both literally and figuratively. Sometimes, there seems to be an overabundance of stuff going on in our lives. When it is good and pleasant, one can only be thankful. When it is not, then we wait and sit it out until it passes and some sort of balance is restored.

Lately, I’ve been in some sort of doldrums. I catch myself losing my cool too easily. I have a hard time being patient, paying attention long enough to allow things to happen, unravel and get resolved. My equilibrium does get shaken a bit easily these days.

I am talking about my creative output mostly. I am having a hard time getting things done lately. I have tons of music I must write and there is this weekly column I must do every week, which gets done, thank God, but more often too close to deadline.

I know I have always been quite creative. I have been so, especially the last 44 years. I can often pull magic out of a hat with little effort. And some of the stuff I have made I am proud to say is worth sharing.

But I feel that in my continuing creative journey, I am walking at the moment in arid territory. The lush creative vegetation once common and accessible is quite sparse right now with just a few small remote patches here and there. While I generally trust my creative capacity, I sometimes (though rarely) entertain the possibility that I could lose it. There are dry spells, after all.

I have heard of artists who drop what they are doing for days, weeks months, even years. They stop painting, writing, performing, playing, acting or whatever it is they are doing for some unexplainable reason. They just lose their mojo.

I read a book written by a psychiatrist who had as his patient a big jazz artist. The musician was in a depression. The author described how this creative genius just suddenly seemed to contract into a silence and retreat into a dark corner where he seemed lost, insecure and helpless. He could not snap out of it. He had gone so far down the road of depression that he had lost touch with the best of what was in him. He had lost his confidence. When the shrink played some of the artist’s most brilliant recorded work back to him, the musician actually asked him who was playing.

I know a local brilliant songwriter with an impressive catalogue of hits who seems at the moment to be in a similar situation. He has hardly written anything in years, maybe even more than a decade. What was once an activity that gave him delight has lost its attraction. When I asked him why, he said it was because he felt like he was already old hat, a has-been. He could not identify nor compete with the new music young people were making. He felt so out of it. In frustration, he asked me what use it was to continue to write songs when it would not be played on radio, or television anyway. His feelings are completely understandable.

I asked him what got him to writing in the first place. He said it was because it gave him a great sense of relief in expressing deep emotions. It was a release valve that helped him cope with life. I asked him what he does now to take the place of songwriting to help him cope with the emotions he must still be feeling. He answered that nothing has replaced songwriting. No wonder he feels frustrated.

I am nowhere close to suffering a serious creative crisis such as the two examples I mentioned, thank God. But there are two valuable things I learned from two separate sources about handling creative rut. One of them is something I learned from my own experience and that is to show up for whatever it is you want. If you are not there, then nothing happens. This is absolutely true. It is not enough to have intentions. One must be there to animate one’s dreams into being. As Stephen Sondheim says in the song Putting It Together:

A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head.

If no one gets to hear it, it’s as good as dead.?

It has to come to life.

I have learned to always show up in whatever condition I am in. And, almost always, it seems that just being there is already half the work done.

(As Woody Allen once said, “Half of life is just showing up.”)

Sure, there are days when I do show up but without the full presence of my being. I am there physically but minus my usual enthusiasm, curiosity and can-do spirit. That happens, too, which brings me to lesson No. 2. The second lesson I learned is something that I picked up from a recovering alcoholic. He says there are days when he is so tempted to drink. To thwart the urge, he uses a strategy that he calls, “fake it to make it.” Basically, he pretends to not feel like drinking until the moment of temptation passes away.

Applying it to creativity, it is pretending you are enthusiastic, positive, open and willing enough to do what you must do until you do begin to actually feel all of the emotions you need to do it. In short, you talk yourself into doing it. You internalize what needs to be done. This to me is a very powerful tool that has helped me turn negative feelings and situations into more positive ones.

These past months, I have been procrastinating a lot especially when it comes to writing. Getting myself to sit and write this particular article is the result of these two practices I have learned and used through the years. I was in my resistance mode before sitting down a while ago. But I notice that once I show up and commit, I almost always end up writing something, anything. I almost never end up frustrated because a blank page is staring back at me.

The reason why an artist does what he does is because he is an artist. And making art is what artists do. It should be that simple. While it is difficult to ignore it, public approval should be looked at as a secondary aim, or maybe even best considered as merely a serendipitous result. In other words, it is a bonus. Fantastic as the feeling can be when one is acclaimed, it is not the primary aim of being an artist. If that is the main aim, then one may get trapped in shallowness and soon enough lose his ability to enchant, surprise and delight even himself much less his own audience. An artist creates new things. He does not tumble because his audience wants it.

I would like to end this with a very snobbish, presumptuous comparison. I would like to compare being a creator to being THE Creator.

God is The Original Creator. God did not and does not need anything or anyone to create. God certainly does not need our approval to continue creating. What He gifts us everyday is not based on how we react. If God did, then the wonders of sunsets, molecular physics, and the beautiful processes of physical science should have ended long ago since we do not seem to show enough appreciation for them. God would have simply stopped doing them by now if he cared about our reactions. God is as God was/is/will be. God simply creates. All creators must simply strive to do the same.

My favorite philosopher Ken Wilber was asked one time why he thought God created mankind when He/She did not need to. His succinct answer was simple but profound. He said, ‘Because no one wants to have dinner alone.’

Maybe that’s how artists should look at their audience so they don’t feel too intimidated when doing their work.

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Virginia Nicolas
Virginia Nicolas
7 years ago

This sure resonates…it couldn’t have been shared in a better way…thank you!

deborah wislon
deborah wislon
7 years ago

Without dark, there can be no light, without bad, no good can exist. Emptiness is just like that, just so one can be filled with abundance! You’ll be back in no time! Be well friend! 😉