Ebb and Flow

Something I’ve realized over time is that my creative energy ebbs and flows.

Flow (might as well just say “flow state”) is a delight.

The ebb periods can be brutal. Ebb periods go by lots of names. Blocks. “Resistance.” Creativity at a low ebb is painful. It is a depressive and somewhat neurotic state. When I was younger, my response to ebb periods was “delete everything and start over.” This was counterproductive. The best response to ebb periods lies in discipline.

I admire people who will knock out 1,500 words per day and just sit in front of a notebook or computer for as long as it takes to get that done. On the good days that could be an hour or two. On a bad day it could be half a day or more. I am not one of these people. For me, it’s better to ride the waves.

When you’re playing bad golf, your #1 problem is mental. It’s a loss of confidence. Tentative swings produce bad shots. A big part of scoring better (no matter your handicap) is developing strategies for finding confidence when it runs away and hides on you. The key understanding here is that your confidence (and/or skill) hasn’t disappeared. It’s just hiding away. (here I have shamelessly stolen this concept from the book Every Shot Must Have a Purpose).

I suspect the self-destructive tendencies people associate with creatives are rooted in unhealthy responses to ebb periods. A creative person unable to create feels as though a piece of her soul has been amputated. It is a kind of a trauma. It is natural, if unhealthy, to try to numb this with sex, drugs and booze. For some people this is a matter of life and death.

For me, surfing the ebb and flow of creativity means trusting that these states are temporary. When I’m down, I must trust that the highs will come back. When I’m up, I must recognize that eventually whatever creative euphoria I am experiencing will eventually ebb. For me, these cycles tend to last a few months to a year at a time. Consistency of output is a coping strategy, but it’s not a cure.

There is a deeper issue at play here: what is the purpose of creativity? What role does it play in my life?

There was a time when I would have said I wanted to make a career out of it. That wasn’t the right path for me. Making a career out of creativity ended up feeling like a shit compromise between earning a living and being creative.

Lately I have been thinking about how creating makes me feel. It is more or less a brain wipe. A productive creative period empties out my head. This is the mental and emotional equivalent of how you feel physically after crushing a difficult workout. It is a feeling of wholeness. I have seen this described in fairly woo terms as a form of co-creating with the universe. I think there’s something to that, even if it’s just some weird, evolved physiological response.