If you think about any relationship you’ve ever had, you’ll notice that there were phases to the relationship. Sometimes you were sitting on the couch shoulder to shoulder eating cookie dough ice cream and watching Netflixed episodes of “The Office” (British version, preferably) and you couldn’t stop laughing and finishing each other’s sentences. Other times, you were kind of quiet and it was just nice. Other times you went rollerskating and you couldn’t stop falling down, in a good way.
And then there were those times when there was just nothing to say. Phone calls felt heavy; there were lots of long pauses, and not the good kind. You got on each other’s nerves without meaning to; previously endearing odd little habits began to seem like dealbreakers.
Maybe in your younger years, the not-so-good times felt like sound reasons to end the relationship; but as you got older and had more experience, you began to see that it was important to ride them out because the ice-cream-on-the-couch times could always come back.
You have a relationship with your creativity, too. And it needs to be accepted, nurtured and protected just like any other relationship you care about. But a lot of times (and what I see happening most often with my clients) is that we either neglect this relationship or ignore it — or, at the other end of the spectrum, we push it so hard and try to control it so much that it withers or hides from us.
Accept that your relationship with your creativity has seasons, cycles, ebbs and flows. You can — believe it or not — trust these ebbs and flows. Most of us are afraid to trust them. We love the flow, but the ebb, not so much.
So I won’t talk about what to do when you’re in creative flow. Most of us love that place. I’ll address the dreaded ebb (though you shouldn’t dread it — it’s really simply the yin to the yang that is the flow).
A creative ebb is a period in which nothing much feels like it’s happening creatively for you. It’s not the same thing as feeling stuck — stuck has to do, usually, with your fears around what you’re creating, or when you’ve reached, say, the middle of your novel and you have no idea what happens next and nothing you try feels right. When we’re stuck, it’s important to bring our fears to light and give them voice so we don’t dig our wheels further into the mud.
An ebb is a bit different. You might feel it for a few days or weeks after you’ve had a period of unusually high creativity. I used to create and sell these little paintings, mostly of cats. The way my process worked was I’d get a very clear picture of what I wanted to paint in my mind, often when I was out walking, and then I’d come home and get out one of my little canvases and the image would flow out onto it, usually quite similar to what I’d envisioned.
For a period of time, I did about three of these paintings a week. And the more people bought them the more I wanted to create them. But after about nine months or so of this, the ideas gradually stopped coming. I didn’t rush to my canvases the way I had. The art I created didn’t feel as inspired to me. Some of it wasn’t selling.
I was at an ebb. How do I know it was an ebb? Well, luckily for me, in this case I’d thought of this artwork as pure fun, not at all my “life’s work” or “serious art” — I didn’t have any of those ideas attached to it that can create stuckness because we make it so big and important. So when the “flow” stopped happening, I didn’t freak out. I just kind of noticed. By now I was about to move into a new home anyway, so I focused on that. The part of me that did the paintings rested.
And within about six weeks, I was ready to go again. I starting getting new ideas and now I was incorporating collage into the paintings. I began selling them again and I got my first overseas customers.
Creative ebbs don’t necessarily last for weeks. The ebb can occur, on a smaller scale, on a daily basis, when you do your writing in the morning, say, and it goes amazingly well but by evening you’re wiped out. That evening time is what Julia Cameron calls “filling the well” time. Although it’s true that the more I create, the more creative energy I tend to have, it’s also true that a prime component to our creativity is this resting phase, whether that’s a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days.
So what do you do when you’re faced with a creative ebb? Ideally, not much of anything — putter, water plants, daydream. But I know that doesn’t sit well with you if you make your living through your creativity, or if you’re on a tight deadline. In those cases, let the resting, “be-ing” energy be there as much as you can, while keeping up a regular creative habit. Sometimes this looks like doing the minimum that needs to be done and calling it a day.
Whatever you do, don’t demand of yourself that you reach for the creative high you experience when you’re in creative flow. That, my friend, is a sure-fire recipe for getting stuck.
Allow the ebb. The ebb is your friend. When the flow returns, you’ll reap the benefits of the ebb and see just how much richness that “fallow” period has brought to your creativity.
Announcement: This Thursday, Aug. 2, is the last day to sign up for the next session of Jenna Avery’s Just Do the Writing Accountability Circle. I’m Jenna’s co-coach, and I’ve also been a participant in this group for nearly a year. It’s a great way to develop a regular writing habit and get group support. Check it out here!
Also: I’ll have openings for new coaching clients starting in mid August. If you’re feeling stuck or scared around your creativity, or it seems like life just won’t stop getting in the way, feel free to set up a free consultation with me.
Image is MUD FLATS © Slidepix | Dreamstime.com
4 thoughts on “Creative Ebbs: Not the Same as Stuckness”
Jill, great analogy about relationships and creating. It’s comforting to be reminded of the ebb and flow of creating. We perfectionists have such high expectations of ourselves and equate the ebb with failure. My favorite line was about trying to push it and control it so much that it hides or withers. I think deep down inside many of us are afraid our work isn’t good enough, the perfectionism breeding the fear and the ebb phase feeding it even more. Thanks for the reminder that the ebb is just part of the process of creativity.
Lauren, thanks so much for your comment. You make a really good point that if we’re already in the mindset that our work isn’t good enough, creative ebb periods can be more scary! So much comes down to accepting ourselves, and our work, and trusting that the flow will always return if we are open to it. Thank you for reading! 🙂
Call it what you will, and I guess ‘creative ebbs’ is a good re-frame, certainly more empowering, but even so; I think stuckness is great! I love the burst of creativity when it finally breaks out, and I’m learning to trust that mine always does, eventually. A recent erruption of mine brought forth this : Seven surefire steps to staying sick, scared and stuck – think you might like it 🙂
Love it! You know, I think if more of us felt as you do, that stuckness is great, there would just be less stuckness! IMO, it’s those scary thoughts we have about our “creative ebb” periods — that we’ll never get going again — that create the “stuckness.” Really enjoyed your article — great way to turn the whole thing on its head! Thanks for sharing it. 🙂
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