Creative Droughts

Image: “End of Drought” by DanielKHC

What to do when the well runs dry.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

“One must accept that one has ‘uncreative’ moments.  The more honestly one can accept that, the quicker these moments will pass.  One must have the courage to call a halt, to feel empty and discouraged.” Etty Hillesum

In my mind, the perfect day would involve glorious hours spent in creative endeavors – churning out book chapters, penning thoughtful poems, even knitting a scarf or putting that last piece in the Van Gogh puzzle that’s been dominating the living room coffee table.  When I imagine an artist’s life, I see hours spent amongst canvases splashed with colors, or peering through the lens of a camera to capture a moment in time.  I think of young Shakespeare tearing through quills in Shakespeare in Love, or Jackson Pollack knee deep in splashes of paint in Pollack.

What I fail to remember – and what movies of famous artists and writers sometimes gloss over – as that for every artistic high, there’s a low.  There are times of plenty, when ideas flow and the words spill out on to the page, and there are times when every sentence feels ancient, rusted-out and inconsequential.

As Sarah Ban Breathnach describes in her book Simple Abundance, the fallow period alights unexpectedly.

“Whether you’re a poet, parent, or performance artist, one morning you’ll wake up, put the coffee on, being to prime the well to continue in the recreation of your authentic life, only to discover that the well has run dry.”

Every artist/writer/creative experiences these times of creative drought.  But its inevitability is no comfort when you’re stuck in the middle of parched earth, with no inspiration in site.

“Uncreative days are real life,” explains Breathnach.  “Every artist knows them, although few of us care to acknowledge this except in confidential whispers. Uncreative days are the part of the yin/yang of artistic yearning.”

When we commit to living more creatively, to finally listening to our inner muse and embarking on a life full of writing, art or other artistic endeavors, we have to be prepared for the times when “the well runs dry.”  The question then becomes, how do you weather this storm?

But doing nothing, advises Breathnach. “Wait it out,” she says.

“Accept the fallow period as graciously as you can, and get ready for a quantum leap in creativity or consciousness.”

Fall is actually the perfect time to discuss creative lapses.  As summer comes to a close, we begin to reap what we’ve sown.  Go to any farmers market or fall festival, and you’ll see what I’m talking about – not just fruits and vegetables, but jams and pies, teas and honeys, and crafts of every shape and genre.  While stall after stall packed to bursting symbolizes bounty, the truth is that behind each creation, each harvest, there was a time of germination….a time of rest and hibernation.  And with winter not too far in the future, harvest should also be a reminder to stock up for the long, cold nights ahead.

Because when spring arrives, you want to be in prime shape to tackle every opportunity and challenge that comes your way.

“If you’re feeling uncreative don’t despair.” Breathnach advises. “Start getting excited and save your strength.  You’re being prepared for a quantum leap in authenticity.”

In the meantime, though, rest and recuperate – even when every fiber of your being resists.

“It is so difficult to come to a halt, especially when we want to get on with our careers, relationships, health, creativity,” says Breathnach.  “But when you’re too parched to pray, beyond tears, or too drained to give a damn, it’s time to cease and disist.  Not all our hearts are billable.”

But resting does not mean giving up.

“No, this does not mean you can quit,” warns Breathnach. “You still have to go through the motions, keep showing up for work: on the page, at the drawing board, stove, sewing machine, computer.  Continue to prepare the canvas, moisten the clay.  Pretend you’re a creative temp, here to fill in until your authentic self arrives.In the meantime, defer making any life-altering creative decisions until you receive operating instructions.  Your only assignment is to replenish the well.”

How do you replenish your creative well?  By following some of the tips, tools and exercises I’ve discussed in the past:

Why do these fallow periods appear? “Often the derailment of too many dreams can bring on a drought,” explaines Breathnach. “But whenever there’s a dry period, there’s still plenty of Light,” she reassures.

But it’s equally important to take some of the pressure off yourself.  Life ebbs and flows, and so will your artistic output.  As Breathnach instructs, “If you’re creatively barren, give yourself a break.”

Expectation and pressure can certainly send you off the rails.  As can taking on too many projects, saying “yes” too many times, trying to do it all, all by yourself.  And then “real life” will bust in with it’s own demands, and the next thing you know, you’re tossing and turning when you should be sleeping. You’re reaching for the chips and soda because you’re just too exhausted to make that salad or sauté those vegetables.  You skip the walk because it seems to make more sense to write out “to-do” lists and balance your checkbook in the hope of finding an extra $100 in some mathematical error.

But that’s exactly what you should NOT be doing.  Now’s not the time to straighten out the prosaic elements of your life.  Now’s the time to invest in some poetry.  Don’t deprive yourself, or skip the habits you know make you feel better.  Get a little selfish and indulge in yourself.  Take a nap, or a yoga class.  You may feel like you can’t afford the $25 pedicure or the $40 massage, but just this once, bust your budget a bit – that little indulgence will pay off in dividends that cannot be put down on an accounts receivable chart.

And plan for some future event or project to look forward to: a day trip up the interstate, an off-season holiday at the seaside, a spring break in the mountains.  Even small, economical plans can generate buzz and excitement  – plan to bake something from scratch (nothing says “Fall” like homemade pumpkin bread), or buy a glossy magazine you usually glance at while standing in the checkout line.

Sometimes you have to work at generating hope.  You have to make sure to cultivate anticipation and excitement the same way you plant the seeds of your cliffhanger in the first few chapters of your novel or the first few stanzas of your poem.  An old coworker of mine described it as “something to live for.”    I think of it as that cool glass of water waiting at the end of the finish line.

And while you rest and recuperate…as you train and go through the motions and plan for a better day…as you narrow your focus to the day-by-day, hour-by-hour, realities of life, those rain clouds will gather in the distance and before you know it, the drought will be over.

“In the natural world, droughts depart as suddenly and as mysteriously as they arrive.  This too, is God,” says Breathnach.

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9 thoughts on “Creative Droughts

  1. That’s really good advice! Writing (or the equivalent for other arts) through the droughts can result in a whole lot of rip up 🙂 It’s good to keep an eye out for a very extended drought to make sure something else isn’t up (depression for instance) but everyone has down time.

    For me, my less creative moments can be lessened by a long walk in the woods. At times I may just feel moderately creative and allow myself to go for a long stretch just hitting my daily word goal (which is on the low side and something I’d usually prefer to double).

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