Pursuing creativity leads me to experience an idea that dominates my imagination which moves me to make something with this idea. The making is often accompanied by invited (and too often unsolicited) criticism which makes me realize that what was in my head hasn’t been realized. I wallow. And sometimes, this is where the story ends but, when I have luck and providence, a new experience occurs—my failures evolve and the original idea matures into a vision that sparks greater ideas.
The cliché goes that one must suffer for their art and, try as I might to bracket this observation as stereotype, it seems the creative process is fraught with emotional pain.
Otto Rank, the existential psychoanalyst, in his work Art and Artist, put it this way in distinguishing between a neurotic and a creative:
The neurotic, in the voluntary remaking of his ego, does not get beyond the destructive preliminary work and is therefore unable to detach the whole creative process from his own person and transfer it to an ideological abstraction. The productive artist also begins . . . with that recreation of himself which results in an ideologically constructed ego; [but in this case] this ego is then in a position to shift the creative willpower from his own person to ideological representations of that person and thus render it objective. It must be admitted that this process is in a measure limited to within the individual, and that not only in its constructive but also in its destructive aspects. This explains why hardly any productive work gets through without morbid crises of a ‘neurotic’ nature.” (emphasis mine)
It seems that the pursuit of art can make an obsessive demand on the artist, which can resemble madness. Those who have faced a real or figurative blank canvas have felt their mind twist when they’ve had to consider disappointment bleeding towards despair.
Rank summed up art as, “. . . life’s dream interpretation. . .“ and his method towards understanding its practice is stated well by Anais Nin in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol.1: when she describes the doctor by, “. . . his curiosity, not the impulse to classify . . . relying on his intuition, intent on discovering.” The psychoanalysis Rank practiced with Nin deviated from his fellow Freudians, in that he lived through the author’s “writer’s block” with her (to the point of a sexual relationship), rather than removing himself from it towards diagnosis, and emerged as a character within her work, “The Winter of Artifice”.
Rank practiced a more active and egalitarian psychotherapy focused on the here-and-now, real relationship, and conscious mind and will, rather than past history, transference, and the unconscious. He therefore used empathy as a means to insight, which in turn made the creative process, and its inherent anxieties, real.
The words used to describe the creative process seem to validate the observation that creativity and crisis are inevitable partners.
We speak of great works being “wrought” with “painstaking” attention and “born” from “vulnerable” places that can be “raw”, “tender” and “fragile”.
But, why is this?
The creative cycle seems to follow a predictable path of awareness, introspection, self-criticism, despair, back to awareness. Each new Idea seems to come with a mix of enjoyment and angst.
My writing process often goes something like this:
- I get excited about an idea I consider ambitious,
- I share this ambitious idea
- People don’t get it and I get upset at their confusion
- Embarrassment follows when I understand and agree with the confusion
- Despair strikes, I want to give up
- I start over
F is usually the point where my inner-critic tells me to run from the embarrassment I’ve brought and suggests a scheme to do something else that has lower emotional costs.
A sort of Rankian empathy from a fellow creative person (usually my wife) accompanies G with a call to improvise.
It seems that the pain of creativity is related to the loneliness of disappointment and the cure for this pain is to consider that I’m not as terminally unique as I might think.
I’ve made a recent discovery that has accelerated my ability to get past my disillusionment.
My “day job” is in the world of communications strategy and recently I’ve been doing some reading on an idea known as the "Gartner Hype Cycle".
Considering the “Hype Cycle” has given me a better idea of how my creative process is not an anomaly, but rather a standard experience for any new idea that looks to be meaningful to other people.
Gartner is an information technology research and advisory firm located in Stamford, Connecticut and their "Hype Cycle" was developed to show a visual path for the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies. Here’s what it looks like:
It’s easy enough to read. You consider a new idea against the visibility it engenders (e.g. sharing a play concept with a variety of friends) relative to the time it takes to make that idea meaningful to others.
There is an initial peak of inflated expectations, and this peak is followed by an inevitable crash when the new idea doesn’t seem to live up to its expected importance (e.g. Microsoft’s “Zune” as a competitor to Apple’s “iPod”).
Recently, The Hype Cycle has been used to better understand how “old” media (e.g. TV and print) has become secondary to “new” media (e.g. Twitter feeds) and the resulting analysis that is needed in the face of strategic confusion and/or disillusionment (e.g. the inability for companies to monetize the attention their Facebook page gets, where the anticipated instant groundswell of “customer created” grass-roots campaigns has not resulted in immediate profitable product sales, despite the campaigns “branding” success, evidenced by the “likes” their Facebook page has received).
For my creative discipline, play-writing, this cycle seems to approximate my creative process.
I refer you back to my A through F experience above.
I find it difficult to persevere sometimes while working on a play because I worry that the struggles I have evidence my illegitimacy as a writer.
My wife is a choreographer and she has shared the same struggles.
And while we are only a sample of two, it seems that the angst we experience is similar to that of fellow creative friends.
These struggles have made me keep asking, why is that?
But when considering the Hype Cycle, I’ve started to think that asking “why” is less important than asking “where”.
It isn’t necessary I understand why I feel the way I do but rather what my feelings tell me about where I am in the process.
If I am filled with certainty that my new idea will create a revolution within the concept of say something like, how exposition works, then it might be good to check my “Hype Cycle” and at least consider that I am riding a wave of inflated expectations.
If I am in despair that I am dried up and no ideas can come to me after another scene in my writing group has failed to communicate my intention, then I might need to see that I am resting in a trough.
And whatever my feelings might be in a given moment I can recognize that if I provide myself the charity of time there is a probability given the “Hype Cycle” that I can ride towards enlightenment and productivity.
The “Hype Cycle” and more specifically learning to ride my personal “Hype Cycle” seems a good navigation device to get through the emotional storms that crop up in the creative journey. I’m seeing how it can be a model for me to better understand that the despair I often feel when trying to create something has little to do with my personal failings, it might just be the creative pursuit’s objective nature.
Disillusionment stops being an abusive parent and instead becomes part of the process where the slow climb out of it towards future productivity is enjoyed over time.
To reiterate Rank, considering the “Hype Cycle” puts me, “in a position to shift [my] creative willpower,” and seems to offer a partial answer to the question of creativity’s suffering.
An artist is not that different than the "idea generating technology" Gartner has mapped.
I shared this hunch with my writing group and we seemed to agree that a writer grows as a writer when she identifies a process that brings her enjoyment or, as Rank puts it, when the artist can detach from their work and, “ . . . render it objective.”
Letting go in this way helps new ideas to happen.
The question remains, why do creative pursuits hurt sometimes?
The Hype Cycle offers an implicit answer, because they do until you understand that they do and, that’s what they are supposed to do and, then they don’t anymore.
And you keep writing.