Notes on creative discouragement

A month ago I had a couple of off-weeks, then those gave way to a few weeks of tremendous creativity, followed by a period of scaling back (which may very possibly lead into yet another off-phase). I have long known that creativity comes in cycles, but this particular round of the cycle has been very straightforward to track, and I’m sure it’s because we’re more settled now than we have been in years — we’ve been in this apartment just over four months, which is the longest we’ve lived anywhere since late 2011. That’s very strange.* Without all the other factors getting in the way, it’s much easier to observe myself just moving in and out of the phases of the cycle, almost constantly feeling quite different than I did just a week ago.

As I said, I’m now in a time of scaling back. Partly that was a choice I made, when I recognized I was heading toward burning out on my own enthusiasm. But it’s also been an organic process, a natural outcome of the decline of the intense, unsustainable excitement of the early stages of a project. Along with that decline, I’ve also experienced more feelings of discouragement. I see it like this:

Graph showing enthusiasm about a project waning with passage of time

At the beginning, although I may have one or two doubts about the project (“am I good enough to do this?”, “will anyone else be interested?”), my own love of the idea is enough to keep me going. However, over time, the doubts proliferate (“that other artist has already done something very similar”, “my work looks frivolous next to my friend’s more serious project”, “I read this article in which a famous artist spoke critically of work that kind of sounds like mine”), and meanwhile my enthusiasm also suffers several dampers as (1) the initial exuberance loses intensity, (2) the work begins to feel less like play and more like, well, work, and (3) life just keeps me busy, as it tends to do. Right now, in the scaling-back stage, there’s the real possibility that the doubt will get powerful enough to kill the project altogether, overpowering my enthusiasm just as my enthusiasm previously overpowered the doubt.

Many people think that it’s the skill that’s remarkable about a work of art, but lately I think more and more that the truly remarkable thing is that it got made at all. I think I’ve said this before, but creating something is such a tremendous act of nerve. It’s a declaration of taking up space, of deserving to exist.** You have to say, first, “There is not this thing, but there should be,” and believe that. And then you have to continue to believe it, every single day, until you finish making it — which could be years — all the while fighting the enormous inertial pressure of the status quo.

Surely some self-assured makers don’t have this problem, but for me, that pressure is so constant and so compelling that I often wonder whether I would be happier just committing to a life of domestic ease, cooking and homekeeping (and probably childrearing) my way to contentment. It’s a real question. I think I could be happy that way, continuing to paint and write as I do, for my own pleasure, for a small audience — but it would be a different happiness than if I published several books and mentored other artists and helped build a community in that way.

I’ve been thinking about this, consciously and unconsciously, over the past couple of weeks — actually probably for the past several years — and I’ve come to two conclusions I’m putting down here because I want to remember them in future.

First: I was talking to Erik about this, and that got me thinking maybe I should be thinking of art more like my marriage. Being with another person is not easy, and sometimes, when you’re having the same fight you’ve been having for years, you do think — even if perhaps not seriously — that it would make more sense just to quit. In my case I never do think seriously about that option, because I know that no matter what, it’s nicer to have Erik around than to not. I should be thinking of my creative projects the same way: just stay with it, because I’d rather have it exist than not.

Second: One of the doubts I struggle with constantly is the fear that what I do is unimportant (and, by extension, that I am unimportant). I have a lot of friends (and Facebook friends) who are more activist than I am, more political, more outspoken, and so forth, and though I truly believe every contribution is important, it’s really hard not to compare myself and feel that I fall short. At times like this it’s useful to stop worrying so much about my own experience and just ask myself: “Should Peter Rabbit not exist, because it’s not Guernica? Did Roald Dahl ask himself why he was not Vonnegut? Can Schindler’s List not live in the same universe as The Grand Budapest Hotel?” Maybe Beatrix Potter isn’t Virginia Woolf, but when I try to imagine a world without Two Bad Mice, that is an infinitely poorer world. We need all parts of the spectrum. I feel passionately about that when it comes to other artists, but I still have a hard time translating that passion into belief in my own validity. I’m working on it.

Watercolor still life of fruit and vegetables


*It just boggles my mind. I mean, it’s my life; I was there; and yet I still have a hard time getting my head around it.

**And, as studies have shown, many women have a hard time with this concept.


24 responses to “Notes on creative discouragement

  1. Lisa, when I think about you, and your life with Erik, I see that your whole life is your art. You have so many facets and each is important and interesting. You are a mosaic of many colors and it all works together for a beautiful, complex whole. Many creative people are more one dimensional and concentrate all their energy in one place. I don’t see you ever being like that — and would you want to be? Just sharing some thoughts I’ve had, and they don’t necessarily pertain to your above essay.

    • Thank you, Sherry! Indeed, I wouldn’t give up my diversity of skills and interests, though that same diversity does complicate things sometimes — I’m not very good at prioritizing, or even often deciding what to work on at any given moment. On the other hand, since I am fortunate enough to have the means to pursue my interests, I have a fun life!

  2. “Many people think that it’s the skill that’s remarkable about a work of art, but lately I think more and more that the truly remarkable thing is that it got made at all.”

    this sounds JUST like the core concepts the “Art & Fear” book touches on! i just finished reading it right now and so many of the things you mentioned in this post are addressed in that book. i think you will really appreciate it when you read it.

  3. Dear Lisa! When I initially read your wonderful post this morning, I left you a long message but for some weird reason WordPress wouldn’t let me post it with my other email account. Now all I will say is that I really, really appreciate what you’ve written and I agree with your thoughts. I also think that doubt is necessary, and so are the days when one lacks enthusiasm, or when one cannot bring oneself to create. It is also good to question why one must create, and the significance of it to oneself and to others. But I think the truth is that it is a part of you, your art that is, and to not give in to it is to deny yourself of being whole. And whether you know it or not, it inspire others. I love your drawings and I hope to convince you to paint me something someday. For the days when we can’t create, I believe it is nature’s way of telling us to go and do something else.

    • Dear Jane! I love this and especially your last line. You know, I think you are quite right about that. Of course my brain thinks it is smarter than nature, though, and knows what is best for me. ;b

      I also love what you’ve said about denying my wholeness if I’m not creating. That is another beautiful way to think of what I do — not worrying about whether it’s good or whatever, but just to think, I am doing this because it is part of my wholeness. Thank you. ❤ ❤

  4. Hi Lisa, I really enjoyed reading this post. You are a little hard on yourself sometimes, no? Everything’s relative and there would be no end to comparisons. As long as you enjoy what you do and put your heart and mind to do the best you can at that moment. I like what Jane said above – if you can’t create, maybe it’s time to stop and do something else (or, if I may add on, do nothing at all)!

    P.S. Four months in one place is the longest you’ve been in the last few years? Wow! That takes nerve too 🙂

    • Angelina! I’m so glad you liked this post. I am extremely hard on myself sometimes, and I wonder wryly why that doesn’t translate into being more productive, but rather the opposite: paralysis. ;b But you’re so right. Comparisons are so often the death of joy… and doing nothing at all is something I’m very bad at, so maybe I should practice that as much as I practice everything else. 😉 (Time to give meditation another try, perhaps?!)

      Isn’t the four-months number just wild? I can’t believe it myself, although come to think of it, maybe that’s also why I’m so angsty these days. It’s easier to let go when we’re literally going to be in another place in a month or two.

      • I don’t meditate. Never tried as I always think that I’ve too low an attention span to do it right. I find that if I can just focus on doing one thing at a time, instead of multi-tasking, my productivity increases!

        Ah, those vagabond days 😉

        • One thing at a time is one of my golden rules. 🙂

          I’ve heard from some people that they prefer movement-based meditation practices, like walking. These moving meditations may not be as traditional (although they might be; I don’t know!), but they make more sense to me. 🙂

  5. Hi Lisa!

    Somehow this post ended up in the tabs at the top of my internet explorer window. Often in the morning, I go through facebook, twitter, linkedin, etc, and click on lots of things I think I might want to read during the day, but don’t read them until later. Consequently I have no idea how I got here.

    I am a writer who has written for myself and friends/family until very recently. I *JUST* posted my first article to linkedin. I was feeling EXACTLY what you describe here. IT’S LIKE YOU WERE INSIDE MY BRAIN. This post is EXACTLY what I needed to read, at exactly the right time. Thank you for writing it!!! I’m following you on twitter now, and will sign up for your newsletter. Thank you again!!

    • Erin, thank you so much for commenting! I know exactly what you’re talking about with those “save for later” tabs, so I’m pleased to know my blog was one of yours. 😉 I just read “Networking for Introverts” on your LinkedIn page and I LOVE it — it’s exactly how I felt the first time I discovered networking and making friends were pretty much the same thing. I’m an ambivert who skews a little more extroverted, and I think I’m getting more extroverted with time, but I still have that residual yucky feeling around the term “networking” (and schmoozing — haha, I love how you described that). Keep writing and hope we’ll talk more at some point!

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  7. I think that if you have a creative mind then it is almost a sin not to use it. I know people who never read books, never write a word, dependent upon outside stimuli entirely. It seems a sadder life to me, but they seem happy. Can you imagine the chaos if we were all creative thinkers? It might be fun for ………. 24 hours. Maybe you are a just one of the brighter shiny pieces of the kaleidoscope. 🙂

    • “I think that if you have a creative mind then it is almost a sin not to use it.” Quite right there, although sometimes I wonder if it’s similarly a sin not to focus that creativity. But it’s only a short road from there to beating myself up for not being somehow 100% perfect (whatever that means) right this second. ;b

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  9. Oh my lord, this is so what I needed to read this morning. I’ve been going through a creative slump for the past week where I’m NOT in the mood to sculpt–or work at all, really–and I get all wrapped up in self-trash talking, saying that I “should” be grateful to have such an awesome job. And yeah, I really, really am grateful AND at the same time, I’m in a creative slump. It happens. Thank you for this. 🙂

    • Aahhh, thank you, Mo! Glad this spoke to you. 🙂 It’s taken me years and years of writing about (and observing) my creative cycles to really come to terms with them as a way of being.

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