When I was on my decluttering bender last week, I mentioned that my mother had once said that when we have the energy and the desire to pursue something creatively, that we should consider it a gift, because it probably won’t last.
I fully recognize that decluttering isn’t, in and of itself, a creative activity, but the passion with which I decluttered last week was something that could never have lasted, because a. real life would, eventually come in and drag me back by my hair into its deep, dark lair, b. I would run out of things to declutter and/or c. I would run out of motivation juice.
I have been a creative person for my entire life. It is written into my DNA to be a binger: I binge on progress, on writing, on projects, on food, on people. I am not, what Gretchen Rubin calls a moderator. I cannot, for the life of me, moderate my behaviors when flow starts.
When I first heard of the idea of flow, I immediately recognized it as what I considered a creative binge.
There was a kid in my class throughout my schooling, Chris was his name, who loved science fiction novels. Whenever there would be the slightest pause or digression, he would whip out his current book and pick up where he would have left off. I remember thinking that he was a genius, but also noticing that sometimes he got called out for his inattention by our teachers. In his defense, he was reading, not making conversation with other kids. He was in flow.
In fifth grade, my teacher required a spiral notebook for each subject. I took to keeping an extra, identical spiral notebook out on my desk, one that was uniquely for surreptitiously writing stories.
In fifth grade, I filled seven spiral notebooks. In sixth grade, double that. By seventh grade I was filling twenty a year. I just couldn’t stop.
Math class creativity
When I was in high school, Texas Instruments had just come out with the big honky graphing calculators that were called TI-81. We all had to have one for our math classes. I loved math, but math class was…well, math class was not exactly my favorite place to be. I had a delicate little math teacher with a sweet voice and some pretty amazing polyester 1970s pantsuits.
Long story longer, I discovered that my TI-81 had a text function, and could store several hundred words of text. So instead of paying attention in my math class, I would write stories on my calculator. It got so that I could not wait to get to math class, because I knew I would have 42 minutes to type out a new story. In the evening at home, I would copy down the story into a notebook, delete the text in my calculator and start over the next day.
I considered that “doing my math homework.”
It’s funny because it’s true. It’s funny because writing short scenes on my calculator in math class was thrilling for me: a little bit dangerous (what if I get caught?), it was a secret, and because I was doing what made me feel alive, writing.
A photographer friend of mine has, as his Instagram profile photo, an image which reads, “I want to be normal.” I feel that, down to the deepest core of my being, I feel that.
I have tried to moderate. Sometimes this works: when I have a big project, like planning an event or publishing a quarterly journal, I could be absolutely narrow-mindedly focused. I could obsessively retro-plan each day, sometimes each hour to get things done. These feed into my love of progress.
When there is a big “project”, there is less time for creativity, and so I don’t miss it.
What is the absolute worst is when there is no project to obsessively plan, and the creativity ebbs. The emptiness left by the flow looks like the deep gashes left by moving glaciers. Everything is different. Everything feels different.
The ebbs of creativity are the hardest part of being a creative person. They are difficult on an emotional level: the emptiness can feel like sadness, veering even towards despair. Will I ever have that passion again? The emptiness can lead to risk-taking behaviors, in order to jolt a creative person back into feeling something again. (This is, according to Jim and Julie Crabtree, why so many artists struggle with drug abuse.)
Planning for letdown
I discovered when I was very young, just after being in my first play at the age of seven, that there is inevitably a kind of decompression period at the end of a creative period. I still remember the nostalgia and the sadness, two feelings that were brand new to me at the time.
What I have learned (although have not always managed to implement), is that whenever I enter a period of flow, no matter what it is, whether it is a decluttering bender or outlining a new novel or creating a new database for work, I need to start planning for the inevitable letdown.
It stinks, in the middle of an unexpected period of flow, to have to stop and think, “How am I going to help myself transition out of this?” But I have found that if I do not, I can make some pretty stupid decisions when the time comes. Mistakes I am not proud of and regret profoundly. Risks that were not worth taking.
This, my friends, is why I celebrate everything. Because I have made the mistake of not planning ahead, I now try, at every possible juncture, at every moment of flow, to ask myself, “How am I going to celebrate this?”
Twelve years ago, when I finished my first novel, I knitted a sweater I called my “grieving sweater”, because I knew I would need to grieve the relationships I had formed with my characters, and I felt like knitting would give me the quiet time I would need to decompress. (I still have that sweater and mend it constantly…also, side note: I never have been able to let those characters go…so I just kept writing about them. The prequel to that novel is the one I am currently shopping around to agents!)
When, just this last March I sent my book to be rejected by a first publisher, I had a tea party. I got dressed up in a vintage party dress and drank my favorite tea, all by myself, like a complete dork.
After a concert, which on its surface is just a one-night affair, but weeks of group rehearsals and individual practice, I try to take one evening, after the boys are in bed and when my husband isn’t home, and do something completely useless, like take a bubble bath and reminisce.
The essential is to plan for it, so that this kind of decompression aftercare becomes part of the project itself. Building time to decompress into the totality of the project means that we will be less likely to get off-track, to follow our less noble instincts or start seeking out excitement in other, more harmful, ways.
Whether you are a creative or not, I would really encourage you to stop and think about what would be a motivating celebration for you. Make a whole list of small things you love to do that you would consider “celebrations” for accomplished goals.