Dancing With The Dark Side

(This post originally appeared as a guest post on Chocolate Scotch, a blog run by Sue Baiman in early August. I encourage everyone to check out the huge variety of thoughts on creativity posted there.)

There are far more ways to express yourself through art or craft or science than there are people. I’d go so far as to say that everyone is creative in some way. It’s something inherent in human nature, though not everyone allows that part of themselves to peak at the outside world, and only a few of us allow our creativity anything approaching free rein. Still, whether we consider ourselves creative or not, we all think of creativity as one of the most positive traits someone can possess.

So why do we have a cultural cliché in the tortured artist? Why do we feel on some level that we have to suffer or sacrifice for our art?

If creativity is a mostly positive thing, it also has its issues, moments that threaten the act of creation and sometimes your life beyond it.

Creativity has a dark side.

The Next Project

You’re in the middle of a project you love—a novel, a screenplay, a painting—something fun, exciting, and going very well. Creative energy burns through you, desperate to be turned loose, impossible to contain. A new idea sprouts in the back of your mind, something you can look forward to doing when you’ve finished. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

It’s the Next Project, and it isn’t content to wait in the back of your mind until you can give it the attention it deserves. The Next Project considers the Current Project competition, and it will demand more and more of your mental attention until you reach the point where you’d rather abandon the Current Project and start on the Next Project.

I’ve written 1/3 to 1/2 of at least five novels, and I don’t know how many short stories, this way. Yes, I have every intention of getting back to each of them someday, but there will always be a Next Project to distract me and as each abandoned story falls farther into the past it also falls farther down the priority list.

But I’ve found a way to counter this dark side manoeuvre, to scratch the mental itch. And it seems so obvious, so absurdly easy, I’d like to smack myself in the back of the head for not thinking of it years sooner.

Work on the Next Project, but only a little teeny bit, or in a way that makes it different, or both. Spend ten or fifteen minutes a day on the new thing. Maybe with a pencil and paper instead of the keyboard. Slower, yes, but it lets you keep your focus on the primary project at the same time.

The best of both worlds? Always up for debate, but it helps.

No Means, Well, Um…

Okay, so maybe you can work on more than one project at a time. Lots of people can and do. Variety is nice, but just how many major projects can you have going at the same time and still make any real headway on any of them? It’s easy to take on too much. Believe me, I know.

And it isn’t always self-inflicted. Sometimes people come to you. You may have discovered this law of nature in your day job, but it crops up in the creative world, too: the reward for good work is more work.

Someone really liked a story of yours they read in an anthology last year so asks you to submit to theirs. That voice work you did in your cousin’s podcast was great—and could you do this major character in my thirty-episode audio drama? The blanket you knitted for the new baby next door was beautiful. My sister’s having triplets…would you mind?

And sometimes it’s got nothing to do with you. The universe is sneaky and underhanded, and it will throw things at you to suck up all of the time you thought you had. Voilà! You’re overcommitted. And there are deadlines, and you fall behind, and your stress level goes up…

When you get a new idea, it’s easy to give it some time to see where it takes you. When someone comes to you to ask for your creative help, it’s easy to say yes. It feels good on both counts: getting things done and doing things for other people.

But when you’ve taken on so much that you can’t get anything done, whatever the reason and whether or not there are deadlines attached, you’ve got a problem: you can’t get anything done. For someone who needs to be creative in some way, this is nothing short of torture.

There’s a deceptively simple solution. Be honest. Both to yourself and to the people you’ve already committed something to. Prioritize and explain those priorities. And don’t be afraid to admit that the universe has thrown you a series of curve balls. Be as open as you feel you can be.

And if someone asks you to do something that really excites you, don’t say no, at least not outright. Ask them to ask you again in a few months, if the offer is still open, or drop them a quick line when you’ve caught up a little.

Honesty is still the best policy. It’s not always the easiest though, even with yourself.

Stealing Time

You’ll run across the advice sometimes that you should steal time from other parts of your life to pursue the creative endeavours that are so important to you. Take the laptop to bed with you, take a notebook to your daughter’s soccer game or your son’s karate lesson, and your boss certainly won’t mind if you do a little of your own thing on company time. Steal the minutes wherever you can and be as productive as you can with them.

Creativity’s dark side is whispering directly into your soul. There’s a huge difference between making time and stealing time.

Suffering a little for your art—giving up a few hours a week of TV or video games, or that thing you used to really love doing on Saturday morning that’s now far more like a chore than something fun, anyway—can improve your art, or at least the value and focus you place on it. Making other people suffer for your art just makes you a jerk, especially if those other people are your family and actually like having you around.

This is a hard lesson. The real world is very important.

Without Darkness, There Can Be No Light

Which isn’t the same as saying you should wallow in the darkness looking for a spark to clear it all away. You don’t need to succumb to the dark side to learn how to defeat it. You only need to watch out for the potential pitfalls your passion to create can lead you to.

Each of these things I’ve had to learn the hard way, and I’ve had to relearn them, too. More than once, and I’m probably not done with the lessons yet. There’s always more to learn, and more to create.

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