THE ECSTASY AND THE AGONY: Your Creative Cycle at Work

Not all parts of the creative process are fun…
Not all parts of the creative process are fun…

Not all parts of the creative process are fun…

 (5 minute read)

For the past week or so, my partner has been working feverishly on a new project.

He’s in high-tech, and the work he does is highly creative. Now, I can almost see some of you cringe. “He’s a nerd! NOT an artist!” I’ve heard that from people before. Sometimes I try to set them straight.

He is an extremely talented writer, who started off as an English major, tried his hand at fiction, but soon slid into non-fiction. He was awarded a prestigious Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan, a year or so after we met. His work was so good, it didn’t fit into any of their categories—so they created a new one, just for him. (He bought his first computer with the prize money.)

Yes, a computer. Because after he graduated, he worked in a department for the university. When the data management guy quit, Jon took over—and eventually taught himself coding. His superpower is using an open-source (“available for anyone to use or adapt”) information system, usually developed by others, and finding ways to create unique applications that meet the unique needs of each client he works with (“integration”). He has a skill for taking a product, and seeing the potential, usually outside of the original maker’s scope. He makes important work faster and easier for others.

If you don’t think developing new software to assist people in their creative work, that it isn’t creative in itself, please remember who the owner/developer of this blog is, and what he does, okay? (Hint: FASO? Clint Watson?)

He’s working on a new project. Typical of him, he dove into it headfirst, staying up late, getting up early, spending hours and hours in his workspace, on fire with this new idea and process he wants to bring into the world.

Then he finished it, exulting in all the issues, roadblocks, and problems he solved in the process.

Then, he crashed. He’s been in a deep depression ever since.

Okay, that’s the backstory. Where’s the creative lesson here?

This can be a normal part of the creative cycle process.

There are many different creative cycles.

 I took a workshop years ago with a creativity coach, Lyedie Geer. You can read more about her work at thelongingsproject.com. Here is the recommendation I wrote for her the next day:

“Last night I attended an amazing presentation by Integral Coach, Lyedie Geer. The focus was time management for creative people. I attended with much prejudice, assuming we were going to learn about day planners and Google calendar. I was prepared to be bored stiff and take away a nice idea or two. Well, Lyedie blew my socks off. Her presentation gave me a deeper understanding of my creative process, and how to use that understanding to focus even more on my creative and professional goals. Her information is the kind I would attend to many, many times, as I would ‘hear’ something different every time. The content is powerful, and Lyedie’s presentation style is earnest and heartfelt. Our entire audience of creative professionals (web designers, commercial photographers, graphic artists, etc.) stood up and applauded when she finished.”

 Welp, then we moved, and I can’t find my notes. But until I do, here is the U-theory graph that brought such amazement into my life.

There are other graphs and arcs and diagrams, of course, and many of them are good. But here’s the most important take-away:

You creative process cycle may be as unique as YOU.

The graph I learned was complex. The gist of it is, we start with the spark of a new idea, we go through experimental phases to explore it, figure out how to do it, how to perfect it.

And then, somewhere along the line we run into obstacles and setbacks. We get discouraged. We’re baffled, stymied, and frantic.

Many people walk away at this point. They believe they are too stupid to figure it out. They don’t see how it will make money, so why do it? They believe it’s just too hard, and so not possible. Or they postpone it until “the kids are grown” or “I retire”, when they believe they’ll finally have the time to devote to their creative work.

But perseverance pays off, we rise again, and we might just end up bringing something new into our work, our lives, and the lives of others.

And the cycle repeats.

In Jon’s case, he goes through this with determination and focus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him stuck for long, because he keeps at it until he figures it out.

HIS funk arrives at the end, after he’s accomplished his goals.

He’s exhausted. It’s not clear it will be received well. It’s not certain it will catch.

That’s because it’s happened before: Major breakthroughs that get chucked (by others), don’t gather the approval of management. Don’t make it to the finish line. (Years ago, the entire company he worked for shut down forever, two days before he could launch his biggest project.) So maybe there’s that dread for him at the end of all his efforts.  (When it does make it through, people/clients love what he’s accomplished.)

Or maybe he’s depleted from lack of sleep, exhausted by a 100% effort. Kinda like how awful it is after you cross that marathon line, when your body lets you know how much pain it’s really in…..

But here’s the thing: This is his cycle. My heart aches for him, that he goes through so much emotional pain and physical exhaustion at the end. But this is how he creates.

I know, when another glimmer of a great idea appears, he will go after it with all his heart.

So when things get hard, when it feels like no one wants our work, when it feels like we aren’t “enough”, take some time to think…  Maybe you are at the hard part of your creative cycle.

Do what it takes to help you stay the course. Don’t accept “failure” as a measure of your success. It’s simply the hard part.

And the hard part can land anywhere. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

What is your creative cycle?

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it. And if someone sent you this article and you liked it, you can sign up for more at Fine Art Views or my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com .

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

9 thoughts on “THE ECSTASY AND THE AGONY: Your Creative Cycle at Work”

  1. My mother was a mathematician and my husband is an astronomer — both nerdy scientists and both highly creative. Creativity is not just art, but how ideas come to us and are hammered into existence by our work. I happen to work with paint and paper and glue and fibers. My husband looks for planets, scouring through thousands of data points to find little blips. He writes computer programs to analyze the blips. He writes papers to share the results. All are creative endeavors with their own processes, the idea, the excitement, the fevered work… the failed experiments, the cursing, the dogged work, the boring work, the exhausting work, the breakthrough, the fever-pitch to meet the deadline and then finally closure and rest. Or not, depending on the semester’s schedule.

    My process is relatively simple and a lot less exhausting, but it follows a similar arc — idea, excitement, the sketch, the underpainting, the ugly duckling stage, the search for just the right materials to collage in (I can sometimes get stuck here), the ripping and gluing, more ugly duckling stages, and then it all comes together and I’m so happy as I do the finishing touches. I have learned to keep working when things are ugly…because like adolescence, it will pass and beauty will emerge.

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    1. Natasha, I love hearing about your parents’, your husband’s, and your own creative work–so interesting!! And I love how we are on the same page about what is creative work! I always ask visitors what their creative work is, and so many people say, “Oh, I’m not creative at all.” Then I rephrase the question: “I believe ‘creative work’ is bigger than just “art”. It is something that makes the world a better place: healing something, fixing something, restoring something, recycling something, teaching something, caretaking, healing, inventing, curating, decorating, story-telling, etc. etc. When you do it, it makes you happy, and when you share it with someone else/the world, it makes them happy, too. What do you do that brings you joy, makes you your ‘best self’, that brings something wonderful into the world?” They always brighten up and say, “Oh! I love to cook!” or “I build houses” or I volunteer at such-and-such” ….. I want them to leave my studio not only enjoying and valuing my work, but knowing they can enjoy and value their own creative work, knowing it is a force for good in the world.

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  2. This post is by Susan Delphine Delaney:
    “WordPress would not allow me to post this comment, but here it is: Gotta love the amazingness of U shaped curves. Gotta make room for them. I was talking to a computer visionary I have known for 50 years about the book “Author Unknown” by Don Foster, who invented the science of Literary Forensics. I told how, at a national meeting of haiku poets, in a presentation about that book, I read haiku written by persons present, and the members could easily guess who wrote them. Computer friend said that it was the same with code. He could look at code and know which of his “ever worked with them friends” or students had written it. So, yes, of course, your beloved is a maker. And of course, it is good to know your creative cycle and his, know the cycles together. That way you and he can say to one another, you are at phase E in your process and it usually lasts x hours/days. How can I help you right now? When we are in pain, it feels like it is going to last forever, but if we or a trusted one can speak the truth into that pain, we can see that the pain is temporary, and that lets us breathe. And, as a matter of fact, when we are in ecstasy, we hope that it lasts forever, but it doesn’t and we need to be ready to let go of it, until we earn it again.”

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    1. Oh, gosh, Patrice, I wish we had a laugh-out-loud button on WordPress! A great way to frame that hard part…. Much joy, but also frustration, exhaustion, and feeling sooooooo less-than. And then we find ourself on the upswing again. Love it!

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  3. It’s nice you write about other forms of creativity – thank you. I’ve worked with many tech people, and their drive and commitment to discovering something new is as powerful as me coming up with the next drawing.

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    1. Love this! Thank you for sharing your own experience, Sue. I’m coming to believe we ALL have a creative streak in us, and when the world tells us we don’t, well, that can put us in a really hard place. And I think realizing we have one, recognizing how it lifts our heart, and knowing we are a force for good in the world, is when we accept it as our superpower.

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