I wrote the following post ten years ago, and had long forgotten about it until Lisa Leslie, Tiffany Trent, and Stephanie Burgis kindly shared it on social media this week. (Many thanks to the three of you.) After a year and a half of living with the stresses, fears, and sorrows of a world pandemic, and the many changes it has brought to our daily lives, and thus to our art-making, quite a lot of people I know are feeling burned-out right now, their creativity flagging. If you're one of them, I hope these words from painter Jane Champagne and others might help....
In a previous post on artists' blocks and creative burn-out, I quoted the Canadian artist Jane Champagne (1930-2008) as saying, "Sometimes, if you just wait it out, and go on about your business without trying to force a solution, it comes -- almost as if the old artist has to die before the new one can be born."
Australian artist Christina Cairns responded: "I especially like the Jane Champagne quote. It reminds me of the affinity between artist and Shaman, that a kind of death needs to take place for the new life to begin. And also of that need not just for solitude, but of 'fallow' time to allow the seeds of new ideas to emerge into the light in their own time."
This in turn reminded me of am article I wrote some years ago, called "The Dark of the Woods," which discussed the importance of journeys into darkness and despair in myths and shamanic traditions world-wide. Here's the opening passage:
" 'In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood,' writes Dante, in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards -- but helpers also appear along the way, good fairies and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward."
"In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, and Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell. This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes -- yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of 'archetypal psychology' draws extensively on Greco-Roman myth, echoes this belief when he argues that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul's cycles to those of nature."
It's hard, however, to descend to the Underworld with equanimity. I have no fear of darkness per se, but what I hate is the feeling of emptiness that marks creative burn-out for me: a flatness, a lack of enthusiasm for paint or words or light or color or any of the daily, common things that usually fill my heart to bursting with beauty, wonder, and inspiration. It's a kind of death, living in that grey, muffled Underworld where I can see, but not touch, the bright world above. Each time I descend, I despair utterly, forgetting all that I know about myth, and life, and art. Forgetting that there's nothing to truly fear down here. The Underworld is not one's permanent destination; it's simply the mythic/shamanic/creative passageway to next part of the cycle, rebirth: the ascent to a new self, to a new stage of life, and to a new way of making art.
Going back to the "Dark of the Woods" article:
"Rites-of-passage stories...were cherished in pre-literate societies not only for their entertainment value, but also as mythic tools to prepare young men and women for life's ordeals. A wealth of such stories can be found marking each major transition in the human life cycle: puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause, death. Other rites-of-passage, less predictable but equally transformative, include times of sudden change and calamity such as illness and injury, the loss of one's home, the death of a loved one, etc. These are the times when we wake, like Dante, to find ourselves in a deep, dark wood -- an image that in Jungian psychology represents an inward journey. Rites-of-passage tales point to the hidden roads that lead out of the dark again -- and remind us that at the end of the journey we're not the same person as when we started. Ascending from the Netherworld (that grey landscape of illness, grief, depression, or despair), we are 'twice-born' in our return to life, carrying seeds -- new wisdom, ideas, creativity and fecundity of spirit."
Yet it's hard not to panic when one finds oneself in an artistically fallow period; it's hard (at least for me) to accept, even to welcome, this part of the creative cycle. "I've lost my spark, my inspiration," I wailed recently to my friend and writing-buddy Wendy Froud. "I don't seem to even want to write anymore. What if I've lost the spark for good? I'll have to get a job at the hardware store...and I'll probably just suck at that too...."
"Your muse will come back," Wendy assured me, laughing, "and she'll come sooner if you turn your back on her. Do something else. Take a walk. Read a book. This happens to me too; it happens to everyone. But I find if I do something else for a bit, inspiration comes back in no time."
"I've lost all my fire," I whined to my husband. "I've never felt this empty before."
"Sure you have," he reminded me patiently. "It happens whenever you're over-tired, or over-stressed, or when some new idea is gestating in the dark. Listen to your body, listen to your spirit. They're both telling you that you need some time off. The fire will come back, it always does. And it will come back stronger than ever. "
He's right, of course; I have been through this before...and you'd think by now I would recognize the pattern. As Jane Champagne says: sometimes the old artist has to die before the new artist is born. And the "death" part takes as longs as it takes. It doesn't care about schedules and deadlines.
As younger writers or artists, with energy to spare, we often pushed ourselves to produce and produce and produce, living on caffeine and nerves and adrenaline...and that's fine, even fun, at a certain age, but not sustainable over a lifetime of work. Now, as a woman deep into her middle years, I know I must find a different rhythm -- one that is cyclical, seasonal, sustainable. To quote Christina Cairns again:
"Everything else in the natural world works in cycles of activity and inactivity, fallow and productive. Why should we humans think we are any different? And yet we push ourselves, or allow others (clients, deadlines, family and so on) to push us to keep going, not stop (or feel guilty if we dare to), and keep producing. No wonder the well gets empty, the creative flowering grows weaker and less beautiful. But it's not just in the arts, it's everywhere. I just noticed a headline yesterday, that Australian workers are working longer than ever hours, and yet are more inefficient than ever before...hmmmm, I wonder why?!"
Here in Devon, there's an old rural tradition of swaling: a controlled burning of overgrown heath land that clears out dead vegetation and allows for new growth. Perhaps creative burn-out can be viewed as an inner form of swaling, creating the space and enriching the soil where fresh ideas can germinate. A burn-off rather than a burn-out, clearing the ground for years of life and art still to come.
So here's a toast to creative burn-out and burn-off, and to the tender new growth that emerges from them. I'm emerging at last from my own fallow time (a period of weeks that has felt like years)...and Howard is right: the spark of inspiration is not only returning, it's coming back stronger than ever. But someday, I know, I'll return to the Underworld, or awake, like Dante, in the dark of the woods. And when I do, I'll try to remember not to panic. To remember that it's all part of the creative/mythic journey. And to move through it with just a little more grace.
"Dark of the Woods: Rites of Passage Tales" was published in the "Healing & Transformation" issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts, Winter 2006; all rights reserved. The journal stopped publication in 2008, but some of the articles published in JoMA are archived here.