The Gift and the Curse of the Artist’s Life

Mar 19, 2021

Artist Inspiration Creativity Self-Awareness Persistence
a man and woman dancing contemporary

Photo by Robert Collins

Sometimes the words don’t come. They stubbornly refuse to show up and be tied down. Perhaps they have better places to be, other writers to visit for the day. Even in the waiting, the silence, I have to trust the process. In the mundane act of holding still, there has to be a sense of conviction that no amount of stillness is ever wasted, if done with presence and purpose. Creating something out of nothing is no small feat. Even if all the words showed up, we’d have to figure out how to put them together just right. How to take pieces of imagination and assemble them in a meaningful way. Something I’m having a hard time doing right now. And so it goes…

At what point do we put up our white flag and quit versus continue to push through? When is the silence beneficial, serving as an incubator for our creative ideas, and when is it simply a dead end, stale air? It seems every artist must decide this for themselves.

Perhaps the silence stems from not having filled our “inspiration tank.” Julia Cameron calls this going on an ‘Artist Date’:

Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration.

It’s quite difficult to go on an artist date during a pandemic, while in the middle of a winter with freezing temperatures, and with no car. But alas, I have to make do. Most artists can’t have creative output if there is not enough experiential input. Sometimes the best thing we can do creatively is put down the pen, the brush, the instrument, and venture out into the world to see what it’s been up to while we were away, working on our craft.

It’s not unlike a scientist gathering data for her research project. We explore externally so that we can take that with us and chew on it internally in order to mold the data we have gathered into a piece of art.

The world has an abundance of narratives for us to draw from — characters, conversations, sounds, sights. We are asked to pay attention, to be fully present to what is. This requires a heightened sense of awareness, a keen inner eye that sees past surface-level interactions.

The artist is always being asked to be attentive to life’s peaks and valleys. To be sensitive to the things that spark emotion in them, and those that leave them empty. We cannot create good work without aligning ourselves with our deepest longings and woes. When the words don’t come, we recognize it is time to heed the call to be more attentive to the world around us, as well as the world within us. The treasures are always there; we have just forgotten how to find them.

When the artist’s soul is parched, could it be a sign that something is brewing inside, itching to come forth? That some idea wants to be shaped into form, to be birthed into existence? It seems the grander the creation will be, and the more impactful, the harder the artist must dig to find the bounty. The drought is merely a signal that the artist is ready to move to the next level of their creative expansion. They have arrived at the latest milestone on their journey. And all it will take to cross over is everything they can muster to bring forth from inside of them, regardless of the agonizing birth pains.

Sometimes the words don’t come for a reason. They need time to germinate. To soak in a rich soil made of stories and memories and experiences. Trust the process. Go on an artist date. Take in the souls and sights around you. Listen to your intuition. Pay attention to the silences in-between the producing of material; it has just as much to say, and sometimes more. No amount of stillness is ever wasted, so long as it’s leading us to our next milestone. The creative path has no shortage of opportunities for growth, for digging deeper. This is the gift and the curse of the artist’s life. If we embrace it fully, we will create heartbreaking and beautiful things. But if we allow it to deplete us, we are left with this bitter truth so eloquently stated by Maya Angelou:

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.