The Medicine of Creativity
Creativity is tricky business. For me, it is a force that lurks in the background of every detail of every day. My lurky little force spots faces in mountains, possesses an uncanny ability to detect a lyrical phrase in everyday speech patterns and can whip out a poem or jingle in a snap. My creativity also assists me in feeding some of my oddest fears, catastrophizing things like kittens or hugs and floodlighting my most embarrassing moments. Even when I have tried to contain its weirdness, my creative force oozes out of the cracks of my psyche and colors my whole world. My gratitude is deep on this one, as this creative force has possibly been the most constant strength in my life.
For me, creativity has been the most powerful medicine. It has been the backbone of all of my work, from writing to marketing to coordinating people to graphic design and now illustration. It inspired me as a financially challenged single parent to muster up adventures and vacations, to connect with the kind of clients whose collaborations fed my soul and our bank accounts, and helped me navigate confusing and chaotic situations while still keeping myself intact somehow. Creativity is a tool of survival and it can also support a full and purposeful life, supporting the healing process when living in survival mode is no longer necessary. Having built such a dependency on this life force, I would like to share the ways creativity has been just the medicine I needed, even if I didn’t want it…
Finding the inspiration for a collaboration or client work when it’s not there
Inspiration, like creativity, is an elusive and untamed essence that sometimes darts just out of reach. When I am on a design deadline, this can feel so unfair. Talk about touching on inner insecurities of ‘not having the resources I need when they are most needed,’ that shit goes deep for me. Much like the feast and famine of the actual financial reality of freelance design, there is a feast and famine of inspiration. Sometimes ideas come so fast I have to write lists of words with connecting lines just to make sense of them; the ideas just connect themselves and I am lucky enough to write it down. Other times, I spend five hours staring at a blank wall in my mind while I research and sketch unusable concepts before even starting a little project I have given a $55 quote to complete. And every once in a while, a collaboration will come to a dead halt and I will have nothing. Nothing.
Finding inspiration when it’s not free flowing can feel a little terrifying. When people make the decision to hire designers or artists they sometimes have an expectation that they are hiring mind reading magicians who will conceptualize and materialize their ideas into sparkly, shiny, airbrushed nuggets of perfectly curated content. When I have to call a client and just admit that I am stuck, I am often relieved to hear them exhale a huge sigh and admit that they too are stuck in their progress; in that way it’s not so surprising that the inspiration was dammed up. Disappointing as those times may be, they remind me that there really is a magic involved when people are creatively collaborating - the energy sure does flow more freely into the project when the players aren’t stuck!
The medicine in this conundrum is in accepting that this is the way creativity flows. Patience is not just difficult, it seems to work against deadlines and progress. But after working in creative ways for so many years, I have come to embrace patience. The ideas will come. They may need me to get a little more involved and do a little more poking. But they will come. Sometimes, in the middle of a spell of what I feel is procrastination, I am completely disconnected from the project, and there is no way I can work on it. Then I learn or hear something that I did not know, and it helps me to connect some disjointed ideas that allow me to complete something really beautiful - and I feel like all I did was nothing.
You've got to be willing to be seen - or for your work to be seen
What a paradox... So many freelancing creatives choose this field specifically for the perks of being homebound when doing their most important work. For some of us, a full time job is not only challenging for our free spirits, but they are extra taxing on our physical bodies and mental health. Choosing a field where we can set our own hours and work at our own paces - while in pajamas - and sometimes in bed on a laptop - we can relish the luxury of not being seen.
The internet has opened up so many avenues for creatives who struggle physically or mentally to find meaningful and lucrative work. But since the barriers to entry are so low, in order to not fall through the cracks, the internet demands artists and designers stand out and make a brand for themselves. In an attempt to be found by hiring art directors and others seeking artists, we have to enter the competitive landscape of social media and internet marketplaces. And in these places, the name of the game is being seen. If you have an emotional reaction to being seen, this can be a real difficulty to continue playing the game and working toward recognition.
As a person who has avoided instagram until the very recent few months, it’s a bit hard on my hermit heart. Those algorithms are apparently very real, and extra cruel. They don’t encourage but demand a level of artistic production that is easily conflated with content creation. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two - add to that the sense of measured and public judgment, and whoosh. That can just sweep your productive feet right out from under you. If you’re working with your own inner desires to hide away and not be seen, being an artist will pin the desire to not be seen right up against the desire to be successful and there lies the good medicine, sigh. But that’s not where the medicine ends… There are a few more blessings that come along with a creative soul.
You learn how to fill a space of uncertainty and emptiness with something that feels better; but not before making friends with a few turds.
People sometimes entrust me to create something today that didn’t exist yesterday. I am honored that they respect my artistic skills so much that they place that kind of trust in me. And I want to create something that really moves them. No pressure… Beginning something from nothing is daunting. Sometimes it’s so daunting it just fuels the procrastination wagon and it feels like just floating in uncertainty, knowing that I have volunteered to fill that emptiness with ideas and seeds that will hopefully grow up into finished pieces. I used to feel a lot more discomfort and anxiety about this space. Now, I know there is a certain uncertainty that I have to wallow in before I embark on the beginning.
The blank page of beginnings often looks like a blank sketchbook page in my world. Sometimes the emptiness of the page is intimidating and I wonder if I am wasting pages by sketching out my first, unfiltered thought nuggets - so unevolved... But once I see ideas on paper, they start to interact with each other and I can follow those connections toward concepts that I know will work visually, and I can present those ideas to a client. I just have to start somewhere… and I may have to turn out a few turds first.
My “start somewhere and make friends with the turds” muscles have been built up over a few years of practice… What this means to me is that even when I have a vision of the finished project, the start is often messy and unrefined. Those are the turds: useful, part of life - not something you often want to share. There is a lot of pressure from “out there” and also within to produce perfectly glorious work. I’m looking at you, Instagram... There are not a lot of artists out there willing to share the turds of their work, and I admittedly struggle with this also. But lately I have found a lot more freedom in making things when I allow messy starts. More doodling and experiments mean more idea seeds that may spark some great connection.
Creativity demands that you face and really contend with certain vulnerabilities
Putting creative work out there is hard. Even when I feel like I’ve had plenty of practice making messes, tuning into the best times of day for my inspiration to flow and I am making friends with many turds, this is a vulnerable place from which to live. It’s a space of feeling constantly driven to bring something only seen in the mind to life. It’s the push to go to one more art festival only to pack up and bring home all the art you hoped to sell. It’s crossing the threshold from starting something to powering through the inner fear to completing something important.
I believe it was 2006 the first time I ventured into The Artist’s Way, and I recall how difficult and eventually liberating it was to learn how to set boundaries with myself when it came to my creative work. Still, it’s a practice, and I have to stick to some good boundaries boundaries when unhealthy inner criticism rises up in an unhelpful or abusive way.
There is something dynamic and collaborative about the entire creative process. Even when working on my own projects, I enjoy collaborating with myself in a sense. So I may not be the first artist to admit to setting boundaries on that critical voice and then working with it to improve my work or to challenge myself to do something I am afraid to do. The truth is, I can’t stop making things just because something within me is resistant and super rude. It’s so much a part of me, my mind is constantly creating.
Some people hold their faith as a thread of continuity that runs through their whole life. Some lean into family structures that have remained a safe constant throughout their lives. For me, the most constant, safest thread in my life has been this creative force within. As long I can remember I’ve been comforted, entertained and motivated by this force that has helped me brave and dance in some major life storms, kept me company when I did not belong and supported me in crafting my way out of a few very dark holes.
My medicine is in the surrender; the practice of acknowledging judgment and still moving forward; the practice of opening up to a state of (often painful) vulnerability in order to really experience the cosmic connection that helps me transform ideas into reality; respecting all phases of the creative process; allowing myself to create art for the sake of making; processing something painful into something beautiful; processing something enraging into something that makes a difference.
As I learn about my own inner resistance, and also about the things that push me forward, I extend my most gracious thanks to the creativity that has suspended me in beauty even in times of despair. I don’t see a life for me without creating and making art, and for that I am so grateful for the many forms of art in this world.