Every person I know—whether they identify as creative or not—goes through ups and downs, though I think the self-identifying creative or artist can feel it more acutely, as though our creative life rides on top of the water and rises and falls with the waves. We experience brilliant highs and depressing lows. When the wind kicks up and the ocean is wild, the highs are higher, and we feel glorious, unstoppable, and they crash harder, the glory gone. Stopped.
What helps is not looking too closely at the wave, but at the ocean itself. Pull back, look at the water from a hill ten miles distant and the water looks smooth as glass – as your creative life does, or will, from a distance. The dips and peaks evened out. This helps not because it makes one bit of difference when you’re at the bottom of a wave cycle and you feel like you’ve made your last good, beautiful, photograph or written your last honest word. It helps because it allows us to understand the cycle, to use it, to ride out the waves, even building momentum.
Our creative life, the very nature of how most of us work internally, is rhythmic. Brilliant creativity is unsustainable day-to-day. A wave that has a high, but is not flanked by lows, is not a wave: it’s placid water. No lows, but no highs, either. We have a word for it in the creative world – mediocrity. In his book, The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry says, “Mediocrity is a high price to pay for a lifetime of safety.” You can’t have this creative life, ask for the highs, and never get the lows. That doesn’t make the lows easier, but it’s nice to feel normal, isn’t it?
Creativity happens in the space between taking in and incubating as many influences as the world allows us, and the sudden rush of a newborn idea that comes into the world in a mix of hard work and joy, sweat and tears. The birth of that idea, and the execution of it, are often on the crest of the wave. They are the high points for which we live. If the high point of that wave is adoration and praise, then you’re missing out. Singer/songwriter Josh Ritter sings, “I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” Russian actor (and originator of Method acting) Konstantin Stanislavsky, said, “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” But that’s a digression, not really my point.
My long-winded point is this: it’s in the lows of the wave where we feed inspiration. If we are conscious of the shape of the wave and the way our process works, we know that wave will crest again. What we do at the bottom of the wave determines how much momentum we have at the top. We can spend that time being depressed and feeling sorry for ourselves, or we can feed the muse, take our Sabbath rest. We can go to the museum, the gallery, the coffee shop, the library, the theatre, or wherever it is you find your own paint stirred. Forget how you’ve suddenly lost your brilliance. Go find the brilliance of others and let it feed your soul. Go be with your family, read a book, and then, most importantly, do the work. Don’t set your camera down simply because inspiration hasn’t yet come.
Riding these waves gets more predictable the longer you do it; you see the rhythm in it, you begin to know your process. I will often mumble this to myself in the lows, when I am doing the work and my Muse (wretched, unreliable, prodigal Muse, where the hell is she?!) is nowhere in sight. “Trust your process, David. It’ll come.” and I keep working, mumbling other things, less savory and less family-rated things, but I keep at it, and the movement of the wave carries me forward, pulls me upward, as it always does, and I begin to get excited about what I might find at the top, and I get more grateful for the Muse (wonderful, reliable, always-present Muse!).
Be conscious of the highs and lows and give yourself the grace to learn to ride those waves. It’s easy to write about it, sitting here myself when the wave feels high and strong. But when we are in the lowest parts, thrashing about and choking on the surf, it doesn’t feel like an inevitable part of our rhythm. It sure as hell doesn’t feel like part of a process that will again pull us back to the crest of the wave. It feels lonely and dark and uninspired and every single person I know goes through it, those creating work that is the most personal, that feels the most as if everything is on the line, feel it the most. There’s no way around it but through it. But if you can hold on to a little perspective, recall the way this cycle has resolved in the past, it can give you hope. And when the lows are so low you feel your soul is about to drown, it helps a little to know that you’re in the innermost cave again, and this is where you do the hard battle. Will it help if I tell you now that your art will be better for it, and your story stronger? I doubt it. But it will be. And the surge will pull you out the way it always does. Chances are we’re both in a valley, separated by only one wave. We’ll make it. Let’s try not to swallow too much water.
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Know Your Rhythm is an excerpt from my book, A Beautiful Anarchy: When the Life Creative Becomes the Life Created.
“A Beautiful Anarchy is a manifesto that has changed how I see the world. Read this book if you want to make more meaningful photographs and live a more complete life.”
~ Chris Orwig, author of Visual Poetry.
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Thank you! As someone else already said this applies in so many facets in our lives. I needed to read this today tough…
Beautifully said, David. I can feel the lows and highs in my own life in my pursuit of my art. Sometimes the lows feel unbearable while others appear to be riding the crest of the wave continually. This is a reminder for me to concentrate on the art that I’m creating and not on what others are doing.
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Thank you. Your perspective on a journey applies in so many facets of our lives. I know I’m not the only one in the valley of the wave. I just can’t ‘see’ anyone in the valleys, only the ones on top of the waves. But it helps to get a bigger view.
Thanks so much for this, David — really strikes a chord with me. It feels easy to get stuck in these troughs even when working on a daily basis, when it becomes drudgery rather than inspiring. I’m going to start using that a as a signal to look towards the crest instead.
Fine words David.It’s safe to say that I’m in a step back from it all time at the moment.Been there and done it all before,it’s so sad in these situations that you too easily forget the good times are never too far away.I have been catching up with your blog since discovering it via friends on twitter.Great stuff,really inspirational,keep up the good work.Jon.
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I knew there was more than one reason I liked you, Tom. 🙂 Thanks, I’ll keep my eyes open…
Wow. It’s like you just described my life perfectly. Almost eery.
It amazes me how many times I’ve read your posts and they have struck a cord with me… have been a needed boost and made such complete sense out of things I struggle with. Recently, I hadn’t touched my camera for weeks, feeling incredibly low about it, wondering if I’d lost the passion. Then out of the blue I picked it up because I bought a new plant and loved the flower and was consumed with capturing it…and I’ve been shooting and editing pieces since. This post makes total sense to me and I will remember it when next I drop into the next low, as I’m sure I will. But I’ll get through it easier after this. Thank you. 🙂
Yet again, you’ve given us a piece full of honesty, perspective and encouragement – thank you!
My pleasure, Cathy. Thank you for saying so.
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”
― Kurt Vonnegut
Thank you, this was an entirely excellent read !
You’ve nailed it again mate! Very well said – these little details we sometimes forget and you’ve always done good at reminding us all. I like the line that ends ” and I get more grateful for the Muse (wonderful, reliable, always-present Muse!).”
That’s it! She’s there, just don’t give up on her because she won’t give up on us.