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The Failing Creative: Trying To Make Magic When Your Mind Won’t Play Ball

By Emma Edwards.

Trigger warning: this article describes mental health challenges including depression, anxiety, burnout and postpartum anxiety.

There are countless studies that say being creative helps improve your mental health and wellbeing. In fact, creative pursuits have been touted to reduce the likelihood of dementia, alleviate anxiety and even aid in healing from trauma. Shit. You’d think getting to be creative everyday would make me the sanest person on the planet, if that’s all true.

But when it’s your job to be creative, I find it can actually have the opposite effect. Once your ability to pay your bills depends on it, it’s not quite as simple as whipping out an adult colouring book or knitting a scarf for your cat. And you know what? Anxiety, depression, trauma, burnout or anything else from the pick ‘n’ mix of mental health tribulations can completely block your ability to be creative at all.

To produce creative work, you need to take your mind to a certain place. You need ideas and you need a lot of them. You need to be able to churn and burn through thoughts and go off on tangents and explore new pathways with an open mind until you arrive at something that’s cleverly constructed and so intelligently crafted that it's seemingly simple to an unknowing eye.

For that kind of creativity, you need confidence and clarity and an ability to refine and refine and refine on an almost subconscious level. You need to have the sense of self and mental stamina to be so completely wrong, without letting it completely bulldoze your self worth. But how can you do that when your mind is stuck in its own trap of emptiness and negativity?

It’s like a paper jam in your own head. Thoughts get stuck, swallowed up and rejected, left crumpled and unusable.

When your mind is dark, empty, stuck, racing, distracted, or any other manifestation of dwindling mental health after 15 months in a pandemic, it’s stifling. It’s like a paper jam in your own head. Thoughts get stuck, swallowed up and rejected, left crumpled and unusable. You have to use palpable mental force to even attempt to choke something through the haze and out onto a page.

Copywriter Kira* struggles with postpartum anxiety, and explains it “manifests as a complete overstimulation and overwhelm.” She feels as though her creativity is “sucked out and replaced by an incandescent rage,” leaving her submitting work she’s not happy with and feeling even worse about it as a result. “It absolutely kills me,” she says.

You doubt everything you know and everything you once knew. Great ideas come from pushing through walls until everything falls into place. But in times of mental darkness, the next step always feels like it’s on the tip of your tongue, but it never comes. You can never push through that wall. What was a previously beautiful crazy process of exploration into the weird wild and wonderful becomes a dead end that you can’t seem to get yourself out of.

You find yourself grappling with whether you can stand to serve up a cold bowl of poorly thought out literality and pass it off as creative thinking, just to free yourself from the mind prison. But doing so in itself admits defeat. It admits to yourself and the world (and your clients or your boss) that you can’t do what you once could. That your mind isn’t capable of creating the magic that you were once proud of. And even when you do wave your white flag and deliver that sub par work, you’re still not free from the mind prison. You’re just in a different cell. One of regret and hindsight and frustration at yourself for what you just can’t get yourself to do. Even if you do land something, your perceptions of what’s good and bad are so shot from the mental game of Boggle you’ve been stuck in. Fellow creative Anna* describes it as “a constant fear of not being enough.”

“The feeling of being unable to be creative makes me feel like a failure,” says creative Sarah*. “And if that wasn’t enough, you become increasingly self critical in the times you are able to create. It’s exhausting.”

Things that would previously have been a creative indulgence, that brought you joy, simply become things on a to-do list that you can’t wait to finish. Writer Laura* says during periods of poor mental health her focus turns to “checking things off my list.” And when your creativity is part of your identity, you can feel yourself start to lose that. “At heart I’m a writer, but I feel like that’s kind of been lost over the years as my focus has shifted to just getting things done,” she continued.

You wonder if you’re just not trying hard enough, even though everything feels like more effort than it ever has.

You gaslight yourself. Is it you? Are you just not as talented as everyone else? Did you lose ‘it’...whatever ‘it’ is? Maybe you’re not cut out for this job. Maybe you just fooled everyone into thinking you had a skill that never really existed. You wonder if you’re just not trying hard enough, even though everything feels like more effort than it ever has.

It feels a bit like trying to scream but having nothing come out. Ideas just don’t fucking come. Motivation evaporates into the ether almost as quickly as it arrived. That butterfly in your stomach when you’re on the cusp of something great is fleeting and muted, like it’s been trodden on and left to twitch its way back to consciousness.

And all you can think about is how easy it used to be. How naturally it came to you. How people would ask you how you did it, or say they wished they could have ideas like you.

Seeing other people being creative, doing the thing you know you know how to do, strikes an ache. A yearning for that part of yourself to just wake the fuck up. Sometimes it stirs. You get a flicker of a flame, like striking a match that doesn’t quite light, and you rush to your laptop or notepad or the closest thing to scribble on that you can find. But nothing. Gone. You get that feeling of stifling confusion like when you walk into a room and forget what you came in for. Fuck.

And every day that passes moves you further and further away from that person you used to be. The longer it’s been since you produced work you were happy with. The more distant it is to find any evidence that you can actually do your job well. It becomes an almost chicken and egg situation. Do you feel like shit because you can’t be creative, or can you not be creative because you feel like shit?

When your livelihood depends on your ability to be creative, darkness in your mind leaves every day of work feeling like a game of roulette, except the table never ends and your chip is bet on zero. This in itself can leave us creatives choosing to over-index in diligence and conscientiousness just to feel some sense of place or purpose at work, further sucking up energy and mental capacity for any sort of creative repair. And so the cycle continues.

And after more than a year in a pandemic, going in and out of lockdown and forever obsessing over the next bit of doom to hit the news, I worry about us creatives. I worry what the speculated mental health crisis that’s to come will do to us. I worry how many of us will end up drained beyond repair. If you’re still feeling mentally chipper and have the clarity of mind to go through the creative process without drowning, I applaud you. It’s no mean feat.

But if you’re struggling too, know you’re not alone. Creativity sucks balls sometimes.

*Names have been changed for privacy.


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