Close your eyes and picture an artist.
What do you see? Is he dressed in black or wearing a scarf? Both? Does she have a preponderance of bracelets? Is she vaping? If you are a little more old-school, maybe he’s wearing a beret and smoking a clove cigarette.
Is he drinking? Is she high? If so, it’s because he’s tortured, by his genius and by the inner fire that burns so intensely within him. In an airy Brooklyn loft, surrounded by half-finished canvass and with paint on his fingers, self-medication is how he creates. How he taps into that, oh, let’s call it a spark.
Whatever it is, it’s magnetic. He’s the toast of high society, despite his poverty-stricken years coming up through the scene. Breaking hearts left and right, he is both inspired by and destructive to the beautiful women (or men) who surround him. But tortured, as we said. The booze and the art are the only things that take him out of his head, and we all know the pace is unsustainable. At some point, he languishes, inspiration fled, and the magic simply doesn’t flow anymore. This is headed for a bad end, we can see it as clearly as we see the sunlight shifting through the smoke above his head.
Something like this, with minor variations, is what we have culturally decided it means to be a successful artist. Note the agony. The happy poverty followed by the unhappy wealth. The lack of productive output after finding success.
Doesn’t sound like very much fun to me.
I’m a professional artist, or rather, I’m someone who flexes creative muscles every day in the hopes of getting paid for it. You can call that an artist if you want, but I find the word to be too much air and not enough earth. I write, I make photographs, I paint. I have clients and I sell prints and originals. I make pitches and I take assignments. It’s a busy life, and it’s taken a lot of hard work and practice, a stellar support system, fortuitous networking, and blind stinking luck to even begin to make a living at it. I’m here to tell you, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for romantic agony.
It’s interesting, this idea we have of the suffering artist. We certainly don’t think of plumbers in the same way, or teachers, or anyone else really. When’s the last time you heard a firefighter say “I can’t extinguish fires today, Bridget, the muse is not upon me. I simply can’t face it.”
Who knows how many millions upon millions of people in America woke up today and felt like ditching work? I’m going to say many. Many many. And yet for the most part, they went. Kids got taught. Drains got unplugged. Fires were extinguished. The world made another full rotation, muse be damned.
This is something I have only recently begun to understand, and the reason for this is I’ve only recently been putting bread on my table as a . . . well, whatever you want to call me. Creative professional. Before jumping into this I held a variety of other respectable jobs, and I made art on the side. Or, I should say, I thought about making art on the side and occasionally followed through when the right combination of motivation and circumstance allowed me too.
Anyone with a half-finished novel sitting in a google doc knows what I’m talking about.
I know there are people out there who wake up at 4 am to add words to a screenplay and every single morning is a joy because the words always flow. People who doodle on every napkin in sight, who are bursting with creativity so bright and so brilliant that if they don’t create they feel physically ill. But I have this idea that these people are way fewer and further between than we like to believe. I think most people are like me: marginally talented folks who have to force themselves to practice their craft. And if you don’t find a way to do the work, to put in the work . . . a part of you withers.
When I was twenty-one I began to suffer from a crippling double shot of anxiety and depression. Only we’ve come a long way in mental health awareness since 2002, and at the time I had no idea what was going on, and none of my friends, co-workers, or mentors did either.
For those lucky enough not to suffer from such ailments of brain chemistry, here is a short unscientific primer based entirely on my own experience.
Depression manifested itself in me as a bleaching of happiness. Suddenly things that once brought me joy began to seem like an overwhelming burden: my career, my relationships, the creative pursuits once so important to me. I feel the pleasure slipping out of all these, only to see it replaced with a kind of grey exhaustion. I ended up napping a lot, sleeping a lot in general. Missing work, ignoring phone calls from friends and family. My lofty ideas of writing and creating documentary films in my spare time sank like raindrops into the cracked and dusty ground of my unhappy mind.
Anxiety came with a different set of problems. To me it feels like an engine pushed way past the redline, running hot and headed for trouble. Have you ever had an argument with someone about something totally silly, only to them it’s the most important thing in the world? That’s what anxiety is for me. Everything is equally important, everything is worth getting upset about. Donald Trump, the garbage patch in the Pacific, the sleeping habits of my friend’s children, unloading the dishwasher, getting a run in, which pizza place to order from. All equally upsetting. Sleeplessness, agitation, irritability. It’s a fun set of symptoms.
In the face of all this, I didn’t find much desire to make art. Of course I didn’t! For the next ten years, my creative flow slowed to a trickle. I mourned this loss, but didn’t do anything about it, because I believed that that’s just how it was. Sometimes the muse abandons the artist. As Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”
It was only after more than a decade of suffering, a lost job, and countless broken relationships that I started to get a hold on things. I got married and my wife talked me into counseling and meds. Those two things alone allowed me to get a toehold on other positive habits that were previously out of my reach. I started meditating, changed my diet, rediscovered my love of running. I began the process of repairing what relationships could be repaired.
Was I cured? No. There’s no cure, at least not for me. Only management. Coping strategies. Little ways to find joy again. Ways to survive.
And I started creating again.
Not because I felt like it. I didn’t. I didn’t feel like doing anything (depression), and when I did feel like it the thought of actually doing so, and producing crap, made me want to shriek with fear (anxiety).
No, managing my mental illness didn’t help me rediscover my muse. What it helped me discover is that I don’t believe in muses.
I started again because I came across the idea that creativity is not a force that springs unbidden from some mysterious internal source. Creativity is a muscle. And muscles can atrophy with disuse and neglect.
Or they can grow strong with repetition and intentionality.
This was a profound and deeply satisfying realization for me. Think about it. If creativity is an internal force bubbling up from a well deep within me . . . that’s a problem. My well is poisoned! No two ways about that. My inner landscape is more like a blasted nuclear apocalypse than a serene zen garden with cherry blossoms and a waterfall. I’m working on it and I’ve come a long way, but still. It’s hard to pull carrots from a pumpkin patch.
But, but, but! If creativity is external, if it’s something I can choose to practice rather than something that demands perfect internal circumstances before it arrives . . . game changer!
Suddenly I could start creating again. Working again. Working as a creative professional. All it took was intentionality.
Bonus points: forcing myself to be creative in the face of my mental illness became an arrow in my growing quiver of ways to manage that very illness.
To be clear—flexing the creative muscle is not a cure for my mental health issues any more than meditation, medication, or regular exercise is. These are not cures. They are tools in a toolbox that help me manage the hand I’ve been dealt. But this is exactly why creativity must be practiced, why it must be chosen. As every tradesman knows, if you take care of your tools, your tools will take care of you.
Artists suffer, not because they are artists, but because they are human beings and suffering is a part of the human experience just as much as joy. Maybe artists are just better at expressing the pain in a creative and dramatic fashion. I don’t really have an explanation for the cultural ideas at play here. I know this though—I’m only as tortured as any nurse or McDonald’s assistant manager who endures the same faulty brain chemistry as I do.
It’s my job to be creative. If I wake up in the morning and the work seems as joyless and grim as the grave, I do it anyway. If I’m in the middle of the process and suddenly it seems overwhelming and terrifying and every wrong brushstroke is like glass grinding behind my eyes, I do it anyway. If illness and pain and loss strike me or my family, I do it anyway. Maybe I take a day or two off, maybe even a week. Sometimes that happens, to every person in every profession. Life rolls over us all, on occasion.
But in the end, I start showing up again.
I go back to work.
I do it for all the same reasons that everybody goes to work, a mixed bag of complicated factors: because it gives us a sense of purpose, because we are expected to, because the health insurance bill is due, because the baby needs to eat, and if we are very lucky or we have chosen wisely or we have our philosophy properly aligned or the meds are balanced correctly, because the work, just occasionally, feels good. But the feeling good part is the least important part. You cannot hang your productivity as an artist on how you feel when you do your art, because feeling good about it cannot be counted upon.
Hey, at least not for me. And lots of folks like me. Maybe you aren’t one of them. Good for you! You are, I believe, extremely rare.
A quick search reveals countless books on how to tap into creative potential. I’ve read lots of them. I think every artist eventually works out her own strategy, a combination of rituals and hacks that help her flex that creative muscle. I think Annie Lammott has written about this most eloquently. But eventually, no matter what the strategy, it all boils down to moment when the job must be done. The pen must go to paper, the hand must find the saw.
Do the work.
Like a boat builder. Or a carpenter.
Or an artist.