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.