Creative Droughts and Spiritual Famines
The creative life is the greatest life you shouldn’t bother with if you have a choice. It comes at you, stampeding down the slopes of your mind, crashing into the walls of your heart, commanding you to write, paint, dance, or matriculate through any other innumerable displays of creativity. You become the pen, the mouthpiece, the brush, the embodiment of art, and this sensation tickles such a delight that you only vaguely notice art’s scheming plot of dependence. It has you, trapped in a mosh pit of high-toned frenzy and need. And then, after infatuation has fatigued into a more manageable routine of custom and penchant, art’s caprice withdraws from the mind and heart leaving nothing but frustration and insatiable cravings.
This begs a question. Is art a form of spirituality or is spirituality a form of art? For who hasn’t enjoyed a span of communion, emphasized and distinguished by invocations and benedictions, the numinous sacred breaching profane monotony, only to be deserted by the holy and left humdrum and lonely? Usually this is followed by a period of self-blame and self-doubt. And when your spirituality is so closely blended with your art, it feels as though the world itself has abandoned you. Self-blame and self-doubt can fester into greater questions. Keith Miller, a Christian writer, describe writers’ block this way: “As a serious Christian, it has been my habit to face and try to remove any behaviors, attitudes, or motives that keep me from loving God, others, and myself. Since writer’s block affects my relationship with God, my audience, and my family negatively, I have come to believe the experience may well be a signal that there is something unacceptable in me.”
Isn’t that so typically Christian? Something isn’t working. Things aren’t going well. There must be something wrong. There must be someone to blame. And who else to blame for creative and spiritual torpor than yourself? After all, who else could be blamed for something that is fundamentally internal?
But it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be about you.
Frequent readers of my blog will have surely noticed by now that I haven’t posted anything in some time. A bad meeting with an agent, a conflict, a change in medication, or a combination of other forgotten events drove any sort of creative impulse away. If it is my fault, it isn’t entirely my fault. And if it isn’t my fault, I still contributed. This has happened to me many times before and it will happen again.
So how do you deal with creative and/or spiritual slumps? Different people have different answers. I have heard advice that one should work their way out of the creative desert. Others suggest taking up drinking. Sensible folks suggest using the time for reading and reflection, which, as reasonable as that sounds, neglects the fact that reading and reflection are forms of creativity. A former writing instructor of mine described what a friend did. “He said, ‘you know this is just part of my creative process when nothing’s happening. So I just sit on the sofa and wait for it to start happening.’”
I think I most closely resemble that last bit – a sort of spiritual quiet in the divine void. Surely, I have watched more Netflix and Hulu in the last two months than I have in the last two years, as I passively wait.
Recently I took to the sea on a fishing boat, just over the lip of the horizon where there was nothing but water and clouds in every direction. We were looking for sea bass and snapper and grouper but instead all we caught were grunts and sharks. What we wanted was below the surface, out of sight, and while the captain had fancy equipment to help him find schools of fish, I could no more distinguish one spot in the ocean from another. All I could do is drop my line down and see if anything nibbled.
It occurred to me that this was the perfect metaphor for a creative, spiritual slump: nothing much to catch and nothing but sameness in every direction. I imagined what it would be like if the engines stopped working and there were no oars to paddle home. A specific and all-encompassing sense of powerlessness came over me. Surely the Psalmist felt something similar when he wrote, “Will you forget me forever?”
The answer to the Psalmist question is, of course, no. God will not abandon you forever. The creative life that feeds you energy and enthusiasm will return. The best thing to do is really the only thing to do: stay in the boat. The wind will blow, a current will pick you up, better fishing grounds will eventually be found. Drifting isn’t all that bad for your creative, spiritual life, so enjoy the slow ride.