I enjoy explaining things, which is a good thing, since I have an almost-five-year-old who likes to ask questions. I suppose this is not unusual, but I’ve always viewed it as an interesting challenge to give him answers that are clear but comprehensible. And as time goes by, his questions get more and more interesting and perceptive.
I’ve noticed a trend in our explaining-things conversations: my answers tend to inevitably progress towards more basic underlying concepts, usually with a single fundamental tenet at the end: entropy and the laws of thermal dynamics, basic evolutionary theory and genetics, or often, the idea of energy. (I realize that these are fairly abstract concepts for a small child, but my philosophy is to be honest and clear and try to give examples that relate to familiar things).
‘Energy’ is one of those words with a lot of definitions, like ‘time’ or ‘spring’ or ‘clear‘. It’s a rich and subtle concept and underlies a lot of our relationship with the world. Everything we do, indeed everything in the universe, can be expressed and understood as an exchange or a transformation of energy.
Creativity is, of course, no exception. While creating ‘something out of nothing’ is a nice turn of phrase, under the surface nothing new is ever really created, we just move things around and reorganize them into new patterns. That’s still a lot, and making new patterns is a profound and transformational thing to do! But here’s the thing: it takes energy.
And in my own life, energy has been at something of a premium for the last few months…
working for the weekend
I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll lay it out again here: like many other people who like to do creative work, I also have to make a living.
In my case, I don’t have a ‘day-job’ that is completely disconnected from my creative work; the job that is currently paying most of my bills is, viewed through most lenses, a pretty fun and creative one. I play piano and keyboards in a dinner show that combines circus, cabaret, music and theatre, alongside a 4-course gourmet dinner. It’s work, but it’s also a blast much of the time.
And it takes quite a lot of energy. Not just physical energy – it’s a very dynamic show and does take it out of me some nights; not just mental energy – I have a lot of cues to remember and try to execute with precise timing, not to mention the basic demands of playing an instrument; but creative energy too.
What does that mean?
Well, one of the things it means is that when I’m in the thick of a performance season, my other creative work (such as this blog, or the Sound Fascination project) tends to fall by the wayside. I find it really difficult to spend the limited free time I have engaged in creative work, because I have learned over the years that I actually do need a bit of real downtime to recharge the batteries.
Sometimes I have something specific in mind that I’d really like to focus on, such as this blog post which I’ve had percolating for weeks; sometimes I just feel that I’d really like to sit down and let some directionless play coalesce into something, à la Sound Fascination. But it never seems to happen, and that has me thinking about energy supply.
lines in the sand
Now I’m a believer in the saying “if you want something done, give it to a busy person” – just beneath the surface of this quirky turn of phrase is something we intuitively know to be true: some people are just generally able to get more done in a day. They are more efficient, more focused, they have better productivity habits, whatever. It seems that the more they take on, the more energy they have to take on more, whereas for most of us it’s just the opposite.
However, there has to be a limit. No-one is ‘on’ all the time. If we try to push ourselves too far past these boundaries, we are bound to crash eventually, even if we surprise ourselves a little along the way with just how much is possible…
Or perhaps we won’t hit the wall in a spectacular fashion, but will simply find that the quality of our work suffers eventually, or our capacity to enjoy it. That’s not a happy place to end up either.
While I’m not going to try to position myself as an expert on dealing with this particular issue (for that you should probably turn to the delightful Michael Noobs of Sustainably Creative, who has literally written the book on the subject – well, several actually), I have come up a few tricks for helping myself deal with it.
Some of these are drawn from a perennially fertile metaphor, long distance running: we can transfer many lessons about pacing, training, hyperfocus and rest, building endurance over time, and so on from one sphere of activity to another.
However, what I want to talk about today is something altogether different, and perhaps a bit simpler…
don’t have a cow, man!
Basically, I’ve just learned to relax about it, not beat myself up because I had to take a hiatus from one kind of creative work to focus on another. If being truly involved in my performance work means that I have to put down the other projects for a couple of months, so be it. It’s better in the long run, I believe, than being half-involved in too many things and doing none of them well. I’d rather make sure I really deliver on one thing at a time.
I suppose this is a luxurious choice to be able to make, since many people are struggling with trying to find the mental or physical energy to do any creative work at all, but it’s my particular cross to bear and I can assure you that if I let it, it can be just as frustrating.
So arriving at a place where I can simply give myself permission to dig deep into performing-creativity, even if it means a lapse in composing-creativity and writing-creativity, is definitely progress.
Finally, I can try to remember that the particular richness of experience that having many interests and many outlets allows, even with all the limitations that come along with it, has another deep long-term benefit: the extraordinary cross-pollination that can occur between different aspects of your work.
I like to think this is a kind of cousin to the kind of creative fertilization that can occur when we collaborate with others, or when we plant our creative seeds in a rich bed of influences. I know that some of what I am doing now will percolate and combine and mutate subconsciously and will come out in myriad unpredictable forms later on when I do get back to my other projects.
And that’s what’s helping me get through what in earlier years I might have experienced as an uncomfortable creative dry spell.
What works for you? How do you handle it when one kind of work or one project suffers at the expense of another? Your thoughts, as always, are welcome in the comments just below…