Are You Struggling to Be Creative? This Might Be Why
I talk to my wonderful mother on the phone every night. We talk about everything from health to books to psychology to faith to whatever might be making us grumpy at the moment. This week while discussing health and diet, she shared something she’d read that said she was now at the beginning of the Third Act of her life. According to the same math (every thirty years equals an act), I’m at the beginning of my Second Act.
Naturally, as a storyteller and story theorist, this language appeals to me. It made me think about how my thirties are the opportunity not just for a deepening of my story, but for a new beginning of sorts. I quite like the idea of thinking of myself not as a thirty-three-year-old who is supposed to (and doesn’t) have it all together, but rather as if this were my second time to be an innocent, expectant, wonder-filled three-year-old—who just happens to have thirty years of experience and knowledge. (To expand the analogy, this means my mom is experiencing her third time being a six-year-old—but with sixty years of experience and knowledge behind her.)
I particularly like this right now as I find myself, rather painfully, stripping myself back to basics. As I examine the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical load I’ve been adding to for the last thirty years—some of it good, some not-so-good—I find myself longing to return to my three-year-old self’s easy trust in the sheer magic of life. As a professional creative, I not only want this, I need it.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is Neil Gaiman’s disarming response to someone who asked, “I want to be an author when I grow up. Am I insane?” He replied:
Yes. Growing up is highly overrated. Just be an author.
The older I get, the more I agree. Mostly, this is because the more and more grown-up I get, the less and less I see life’s magic and the smaller and smaller my window of creativity becomes. I know I’m not alone in this, even (especially?) among writers.
As I’ve hinted before, the last few years have turned out to be a crucible of sorts for me. Although there were contributing reasons and events, I now see them more as just an inevitable, if dramatic, conclusion to the growing-up pains of my twenties. After an unexpectedly stressful move a year ago, these growing pains bottomed out with me feeling more disconnected from my creativity than ever before.
During the last few years, I kept plodding faithfully, finishing one book and starting another. But during this time, I was also largely in denial of my growing panic. I had been creative my entire life. I had been a storyteller my entire life. I had felt life’s magic always. And now, increasingly, for years, that magic was becoming only a bare flicker in my soul.
Was my creativity leaving me? Was my writing meant only to be a short chapter in my life? And if I wasn’t meant to soar on the wings of my creativity anymore, then God help me, because what could ever replace that?
As of this month, I now believe this crucible of what has been a dark night of my soul has finally begun to reach its Climax. Perhaps the best and most encouraging insight I have uncovered from a larger host of insights glittering up at me is a realization about why my creativity seemed to desert me—and, even better, what I can do to reclaim this most precious part of myself.
If You’re Struggling to Be Creative, Ask Yourself “Where Is Your Energy Going?”
Creation is a deeply energetic act. As we’ve covered in discussions of whole-life art, being an artist or an author isn’t so different from being an athlete. Both require not just talent and dedication, but the cultivation of holistic health so that we will be able to bring optimum focus and energy to the act of creation.
As finite beings, we each possess a finite amount of energy. Every day dawns with the same possibility for productivity, but each day also dawns with a limited (if renewable) supply of energy. Our ability to turn that energy into creativity requires we wisely husband it, allot it, and utilize it. Energy spent on one area of our lives—be it hanging out with a loved one or worrying about finances—is energy that cannot be spent on creating.
Because creativity is an output of energy, it necessarily requires an input. The well can be filled by feeding all parts of ourselves a healthy diet—books and art for our minds and imaginations, proper diet and exercise for our bodies, satisfying relationships and fulfilling work for our emotions. Whenever we find ourselves struggling to be creative, we rightfully turn first to checking that our energy inputs are flowing properly.
But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes you can be doing everything right to fill yourself up with good energy on every level—and still you find yourself struggling to be creative. This is incredibly frustrating. What else could there possibly be left to do?
That was the question I was asking myself. For a long time, the only answer I could see was “wait.” Wait and surely something will change. But if things were changing, they didn’t seem to be changing for the better. If anything, I felt my window of creativity getting smaller.
But then, just recently, I had a breakthrough. For years, I’ve been interested in depth psychology, including the idea of the “shadow” (the theory that aspects of the self are unhealthily repressed into the unconscious). In reading Beatrice Chestnut’s excellent book The Complete Enneagram, her description of the shadow as simply the place where we put the things (emotions, desires, pains, fears) we do not want to look at clicked for me. She wrote:
The Shadow represents everything we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves that nonetheless impacts the way we behave.
As I started examining afresh what it might be that I did not want to acknowledge, I was astounded to realize not just the sheer load of stuff I started digging up, but also how much energy I have been putting into resisting looking at these things.
That’s when it clicked. The reason my level of creativity had plummeted in the last few years was not that I was becoming “less creative,” but rather that more and more of my daily allotment of energy was being used to wall off more and more of the things I found too painful or overwhelming to face.
Creativity is an energy that wells up from our very life force. It is an energy of flow. It is an energy of opening ourselves to our own vulnerability and emotions—even our own pain sometimes. By its very nature, it is antithetical to the energy of resistance and repression.
What Are You Resisting?
Creativity is limited along a spectrum. The limitation might be as small as a block over an important confrontation between characters. Or it might be all-encompassing enough to induce the panic that maybe your writing days are ending.
Regardless, I now believe your first reaction should be to slow down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “Okay, what am I resisting?”
The answer might be a simple, “I’m afraid I’m not good enough to write this scene” or “I’m afraid of the painful memories this scene is going to stir up for me” or “I’m afraid of opening my emotions to the extent required to honestly portray this scene.”
But the answer might also be much bigger. For each of us, time inevitably encroaches upon the wide-open, unwounded innocence of the three-year-old. Some of us, as Gaiman suggests, are lucky enough to maintain creative outlets into our grown-up years. But even for us, the more we grow up, the more energy we end up devoting to all the stuff we’re silently and often obliviously refusing to acknowledge.
Sometimes the things we’re resisting are not hidden within us. Sometimes we’re dealing with real-life stresses—the same kind of outer-world obstacles we’re always throwing at our characters. Real-life jobs, relationships, and health challenges can steal our energy just as surely as can our own inner conflicts.
But for my money, it’s the inner conflict that is most insidious (not least because it usually rides the tail of any and all outer conflicts). Just as we demand of our characters, if we’re going to overcome the lies holding us back, we must be willing to face those lies. In my experience so far, it’s the facing itself that is the hardest part. Just zoning in enough to notice our white-knuckled grip on an unacknowledged pain or unfulfilled desire is often enough to release us from some of our unspoken fears.
With this release comes a slight opening in the wall we’ve created inside ourselves. A little of our lost energy returns to us. A little light shines through. A little fresh air starts its flow. And with that flow comes the first whiff of a familiar breath—creativity.
4 Faces of Creativity (or, You May Still Be More Creative Than You Think You Are)
As I begin walking myself back into what I hope will be a complete restoration of my creative energy, I find myself realizing that perhaps I haven’t spent these last few years in as much of a creative desert as I thought. No, my creativity wasn’t flowing to the same degree or flowing into the same vessels. But I never stopped moving. I kept husbanding whatever creative energy I had and using it as responsibly as I could under the circumstances.
In recognizing this, I also see that the return of my creativity may not mean an immediate deep dive into writing for hours on end every day. First, it may require that I use my creativity more… creatively.
If you too find yourself on the return journey after struggling to be creative, it’s important to realize you are even now probably employing your creativity in many vital ways. Creativity in life isn’t just about creating art. It’s shows up in other parts of life—all of which are equally important to actually getting yourself back into writing shape.
For example, you will need your creative energy for:
I recognize I am currently in a chapter of healing. Even though part of myself is impatient to really and truly get back to the writing and the creative life as I used to know it, I can sense my energy isn’t there yet. Right now, my returning trickle of creativity is best used to encourage the spiritual, emotional, mental, and even physical healing I need in order to return to the page in top form. After years of walking a path of mental resistance, I need time to sit with myself and remember how to be friends with the deepest parts of my imagination.
Throughout these difficult years, I have never stopped reading or actively learning. Even when I could barely get myself to sit at the computer, I could at least still read a novel or a book on Jungian archetypes or a writing guide. Sometimes the reading came hard too. But I maintained enough discipline to keep at it, and as long as new information kept coming in, I always found the trickle of creative energy necessary to be interested in it, to think about it, to absorb it, and—eventually—make use of it.
3. Faithfulness in Projects
Early last year, someone asked me how to keep writing when it was tough. It was a pertinent question for me at the time. I only remember part of my answer, but it has stuck with me as a sort of personal challenge throughout the hard times. What I told him was that there were many days when I didn’t want to show up and write. There were many days when I wanted to just give up and take a break until life was clearer and my creativity returned in force. But when I looked into the future, the one thing I was sure of was that I would be much happier to have a completed novel under my belt rather than nothing.
And I am. During the period of my creative doubt, I wrote a massive novel and half of a massive outline for its sequel. I didn’t feel creative during that period. Clearly though, my sheer faithfulness in chipping away at my projects a little every day proved I was much more creative than I knew.
4. Excitement and Passion
The best kind of creativity is the kind that whirls you into that ecstasy of excitement. When you’re so passionate about what you’re writing that you can’t think about anything else, it’s the best high in the world. Life is filled with meaning and purpose, love and joy, satisfaction and anticipation. Even the comparatively hard days when you’re sure what you’ve written is terrible, there’s still that urgent sense of life itself buzzing through your body.
It’s awesome, in every sense. It’s the reason we create. I daresay it’s even the reason we live.
I look forward with a true and homesick longing for that creativity which I have not felt in so long now. In gaining a better understanding of why it seemed to have drifted so far away from me, I have total faith it will return to me and I to it. But in the meantime, I also see that my creativity is still there, manifesting in all the ways necessary to recreate a foundation solid and healthy enough to sustain future surges of excitement and energy.
Writers always joke that the writing life is hard. Sometimes it’s hard in ways that we, in the innocence of our First Act, didn’t always expect it would be. But life goes on. Energy is renewable. Our stories have more than just one act, and with patience and discipline, we all get second chances. If you find yourself in a period of creative doubt or difficulty, know at least that you aren’t alone. If you happen to be walking in this tunnel with me, it may be that I am now a few steps ahead of you on the path, and from here I can tell you the view shows me there is a light at the end. Keep writing, friends.