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  • Elise V Allan

Creative Drought - Effort Or Surrender?

first published June 2018


Sometimes we can feel like we’re in an inspiration drought. I wonder what would help.

It might be useful to question our assumptions. Is it really a drought? What else might it be? How else can we interpret what’s (not) happening? How can we best work with this phase in our lives?

I’ve written before about the studio snooze – and incidentally,  I came across an article today that indicates that there's scientific evidence that we think more creatively when we’re sleepy than when we’re wide awake. An unresolved painting, a problem in a novel, or the answer to a conundrum; it’s easy to recognise that incubation is the phase that enables answers to percolate up to the surface unexpectedly. After a snooze, after a period of small playful but purposeless doodles or scribblings, after walking away from the work to play the piano or violin, or to literally go for a walk, suddenly we know what to do next; the word, the colour, the concept comes to us in the gap, the period of incubation.

Then often there are longer gaps between one work and another; sometimes we don’t see a clear path from completing one work to starting the next. Unless we have been fired up by possibilities that each lead directly to the next, bridging those gaps can take a little time. Preparation periods will no doubt involve research, whatever means of investigation we employ - and possibly taking themes that have interested us forward to a new phase, dropping some elements and developing others. In this period of incubation between one work and the next we can experience a scaled up version of studio sleepiness, even a period of listlessness, allowing the subconscious time and space to really percolate all of the possibilities within the area of work we’ve chosen.

And so it might seem logical to expect that when there’s going to be a big shift in our creative direction, change that involves new questions, new values, new doors to walk through, the period in between might feel like a huge dip in energy, even a period of feeling unmotivated and apathetic. If this is the case, what might be the best way of working with it? I’ve written before about being a big fan of pottering, or moodling, as Brenda Ueland calls it, but during those big shifts, with their big gaps, and deep apathy, there is no certainty that we will move into a new phase of creativity.

The harsher sub personalities, the inner voices that accuse us of laziness, lack of commitment, grit, or staying power, tend to seize the opportunity during these phases to give us a hard time. It’s wonderful if we can find the strength and steadiness to tell them to quieten down, and to let them know that trying to leap straight into the next point in our creative cycle and to start intensively making work again is going to be fruitless. Like trying to force a seedling to produce fruit before its roots are established.

Yet driven by the desire to keep going and live up to our ideals of being hard working artists, we will often force ourselves to keep pushing ideas that we know have no more life in them. But we can choose instead to take care, to do whatever small things we can to prepare and support ourselves for the next phase, keeping our eyes and ears open for signs of life. How do we tell the difference between these big periods of incubation and the resistance/avoidance that elicits such deep disapproval? What information can past experience give us?

For me, avoidance goes like this; the bath needs cleaned but I decide do it tomorrow. The bin needs emptied but if I push everything down and compact it, I can get more rubbish in. I have a painting that’s going well, but I allow myself to get distracted by meaningless activities instead on a studio day.

While incubation, in my experience, has looked like this; everything is in place to start work, perhaps I’ve done  a series of tiny, humble experiments, but they’ve gone nowhere, and I feel I could sleep for a month. There’s a fair bit of complaining. I’m impatient, ready to give up and wondering what I can do that will feel as meaningful for the rest of my life. I want to sleep. I have to acknowledge that I’m not in control. I can choose to go on producing by force of will alone, but it’s clear that life is not backing me up; the work is stale.

In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer describes the period in Bob Dylan’s life where he made a huge creative leap and wrote Highway 61 Revisited, including songs such as Like a Rolling Stone. Lehrer writes that it was preceded by his decision to quit song writing, feeling that he was creatively burnt out and wanting out of the whole music and fame business. But then the new ideas came in a flood. This feeling like a damn bursting after an apparent creative drought is exhilarating; even for those of us who will never work at Dylan’s exalted level, it can seem to us at that point that inspiration will never end. Or there can be false starts, but sometimes a tiny trickle is the beginning of what will eventually become a huge river; and sometimes it feels like ice is gradually melting until it suddenly becomes clear that at last, creatively, we’re on fertile ground. 

The difficult part is in surrendering; acknowledging that we're stale, that no amount of self discipline will force inspiration. "Surrender, not control, is always the path." wrote Victoria Nelson. And Aldous Huxley wrote,  "In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing." Also from Huxley, "I can only infer that the not-I, which looks after my body and gives me my best ideas, must be amazingly intelligent, knowledgeable, and strong. As a self-centred ego, I do my best to interfere with the beneficent workings of this not-I."  

It can help to know when effort is required and when it's going to interfere - when surrender might be more appropriate. What are the signs for you that you’re simply avoiding getting down to work? And how do you recognise when you’re in transition, incubating on a large scale, and needing to surrender?

Image - Whisper the Dive by Elise V Allan 2016

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