As artists we collect books related to our craft, to learn about creative theory, writing techniques and approaches, to glean ideas, or simply to stimulate our creativity to help us grow. But how many of us read books about the psychological nature of being a creative person? What creativity means deep down to us personally and why. How it operates in our personality and our life. And I feel this understanding is vital to looking after yourself and your creativity – the ebb and the flow. So I’m going to run you through a few books that I have found very useful. In my counselling courses, I noticed there are plenty of books to address different psychological therapeutic approaches in the mainstream, but there seemed to be little that related directly to being a creative person, who have particular issues to solve for themselves linked to their projects and endeavours.
Most people know about The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Creativity by Julia Cameron. It was my first artist’s book of this nature and is well worth a read and to have by you on your bookshelf to dip into when in need of sustenance. It made me respect my own creativity more (and the kind of personality that comes with it), which I hadn’t acknowledged to myself properly for many years, even though it was obvious to others. Somehow, the image of being an ‘artist’ seemed too grandiose, too pretentious for me. Well this book changed my views on that, and I can thoroughly recommend it. But it didn’t give me exactly what I was looking for later on – namely a real investigation of what it means to be a creative person, how we think, feel, act, from a real psychological perspective, what is going on inside our heads and hearts and what gets in our way and why.
Next up was my mentioning to my writing tutor a few years ago that I was struggling to get on with my novel, wanting to, but finding ways not to, such as vacuuming or finding errands to run, or making excuses, and not having enough faith in myself (notice this comes last in the list when it should come first!) Did she know what I meant? Well, she didn’t own up to that, but directed me to a book by Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break through your blocks and win your inner creative battles. And with this, I was onto something and I found it a true revelation. A slap on the forehead moment! What I was ‘suffering’ from, and I recognised it immediately once pointed out in a multitude of ways, was what Pressfield calls Resistance. This is the very enemy of Creativity, hence a war ensues between the two. I passed the book on to an artist friend, she loved it too, and now we recommend it to other arty friends.
Resistance is a kind of performance fear, the tension that can build up at the prospect of sitting down and getting on with your creative work. Pressfield talks about this from his own experience as a writer, and this gives his feelings and interpretations real authenticity. So, understanding how this resistance operates within creative people (and I believe it operates in all of us), why it gets in our way and how, if we want to consider ourselves ‘professional’ creatives, then we have to do the work, regardless of how we feel. And in this way we win the battle. Resistance occurs precisely because our work is of utmost importance to us, there’s a lot at stake, and through that, we feel we’re at stake. There’s a lot of internal pressure to express ourselves, so anything this vital to us is likely to encounter resistance, while we’re asking ourselves questions like these, almost subliminally: What if we make a hash of it? What if it doesn’t meet our expectations? What if no-one cares about it except me? What if we fail? What if no-one wants it, buy’s it, publishes it? What if… Or the work may be so intense, so exciting, so challenging, that we balk at the prospect of ‘opening the creative pressure cooker’. Can we handle and direct the jets of steam and sparks that may fly out? So either through fear, or being daunted, we find ways not to ‘go there’, and we stay away from the work. Pressfield argues to counter resistance, we have to behave like ‘professionals’ – we have to be patient, act in the face of fear -‘a professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist’ , dedicate ourselves to mastering technique, and leave the creative intangibles and mystical inspirations to the muses who may or may not enter. We respect the mystery but get on with the craft regardless.
At the end of his book, Pressfield gives such wonderful encouragement : ‘Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor(artist). It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.’
A couple of years later, I finally found exactly what I was looking for. Writings by a psychologist focusing on creative people, what drives them, what blocks them, how they seek meaning in their life from their work and how to handle this. How they are prone to particular problems due to being a creative person and needing what their creative life gives them to survive. Dr. Eric Maisel is a trained psychotherapist with over ten years experience in this field and a fiction writer himself, based in California. In his work he became specifically interested the problems of artists, has talked to and coached many, and now runs creativity coaching courses, so artists can ‘coach’ other artists.
His most practical book is probably ‘Fearless Creating : a step by step guide to starting and completing your work of art’ . He explains the nature of creative anxiety which tries to stop us from beginning a project – he quotes Oscar Wilde: ‘The anxiety is unbearable. I only hope it lasts forever’ to show the paradoxes at work. But in understanding comes personal progress and he moves through the stages of creating, showing what mindsets are needed at the particular stages of: wishing, choosing, starting, working, completing, showing, addressing the particular worries inherent in each stage and how to handle them and change the problematical self-talk we generate. If we understand what is going on psychologically for us, we are in a better position to work through our issues with a wisdom that should see us through our life as a productive creative person.
Here’s a nice quote from the book, on writing a novel, by E. L. Doctorow, which I just had to include:-
‘Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights let you, but you can make the whole trip that way.’
At the end of the book Maisel says: ‘You know as well as I do that not creating is a dead loss; and that creating is one of the few genuine answers to the question ‘How can a life be meaningfully spent?’
And that brings me nicely to the last book I want to mention. Eric Maisel has written many guides for artists, but this book is one that came to me from Amazon as a hard backed, redundant library book originally from Phoenix Public Library. I was thrilled with this fact, as Arizona is where I want to return to one day for its wonderful canyons and desert terrain. Yes, a fanciful association, but I’m fond of them. The Van Gogh Blues is about depression, not mainstream medical depression, but creative depression, very much linked to an existential kind of depression associated with having to find meaning in life. And as creative people we could easily argue that our creative work gives our lives meaning, and if this is the case then we need to recognise that when we stop our creative work because of some personal/relationship/family problems going on, when we stop writing, painting, sculpting, composing or crafting, then we are probably at risk of becoming depressed. Why? Because we are not creating. Creating is part of our identity, and our spirit needs it like our body needs food and water. I’ve always had an affiliation with existentialism, and I was so pleased to find The Van Gogh Blues applying this to what many artists at times will find themselves going through. I came across the book title when I was looking up information on the strong links between sensitivity and creativity, and I was wondering if we were more prone to depression through being both sensitive and creative.
Talking about creativity and depression, Maisel says, ‘Creative people are people who stand in relation to life in a particular way and see themselves as active meaning-makers rather than as passive folks with no stake in the world and no inner potential to realise (not a judgment, but simply how we see it)…this orientation makes meaning a certain kind of problem for them – if, in their own estimation, it is important that they make meaning and find themselves not making sufficient meaning, they get down, they get blue’
In the book he talks to many artists and argues that if we take on board the fact that meaning is really a subjective psychological experience, then we have to take charge of our own meaning. It’s simply not going to come from anywhere else. Once you take this on board, then you’re not fooling yourself it comes from elsewhere and you are more free to get on with your work, and handle with more awareness, both the ebb and the flow.
So here’s wishing you happy creating!
And do feel free to share any thoughts, or books you’ve found useful.
(image courtesy of pixabay)