The Life Cycle of Creative Work
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the cycle of creative work. In my own creative life I seem to go through distinct phases, and rather than each phase co-existing I cycle through them, usually to a point of burnout, triggering an abrupt departure from one phase to the next.
I have been attempting to unpack this cycle, to try and understand it better, and I think it can be best divided into three phases: Practice, Creation and Promotion.
As a musician, this is working on technique, drills, improvisation exercises, transcribing or learning new pieces of music. It’s the kind of work I keep to myself until it’s done. It’s a chrysalis phase, of developing and refining something until it’s ready to go out into the world. This phase offers a great deal of control, which can be very pleasant compared with the other two. The outcomes are often finite and tangible. Problems are broken down into manageable chunks, and often time and patience is all that’s needed to solve them. Of course there are moments when the outcome can seem impossible, but these have decreased as I become better at practicing. In this phase, however, I can sometimes become lost inside my own head and never feeling ready to emerge, as with each problem solved a new one appears. Too long in a practice phase I find myself yearning to break out, and it’s often the time I start devising a new creative project to work on.
For me this is writing and composing, exploring an instrument, freely improvising or playing with other musicians. It requires an openness of mind and spirit, and surrendering some control. In this phase the outcomes are far less tangible than the practice outcomes: you know there will be an end, but that end could be anywhere and anything. This is both exciting and daunting. I have the most fun in this phase, but it requires a certain level of technical proficiency, and there have been many frustrated moments when I’ve felt that my ideas are beyond my ability to execute them. On the other hand, this phase offers the freedom to explore my art within the confines of my current abilities, and those boundaries can be a useful limitation. While I love to make music just for myself, there is the underlying desire to both share it with others, and to use it to further my career and open up new opportunities. For this to happen promotion is necessary, which is the natural next step in the process.
This is all the things I do to get my music heard and progress my career. It’s booking gigs, managing social media, contacting press for reviews and interviews, applying for grants, scholarships and other opportunities and writing blog posts like this one. This is the phase I have the least control over, and although the outcomes and expectations are often quite tangible, it’s mostly out of my hands whether I get booked for a gig, sell an album, receive a grant or have someone share or write about my work. The possibility of expectations not being met is very high, and so is the likelihood of disappointment. This phase often marks the completion of a project, and for my most recent projects has ended in burnout and forced me to retreat back into my practice shell where I can regain some control over my work. It’s also a particularly extroverted phase, and as a naturally introverted person this adds to the feeling of exhaustion that can trigger a retreat. I find this the least enjoyable of the three phases, yet it can be the most addictive. Once I get on a roll I want to ride it as far as I can before my energy gives out. Even now, working on this piece of writing, I can feel it taking over my headspace, so I am working in 5 minute blocks, and drafting on pen and paper to stop myself from editing as I go.
I find myself now somewhere toward the end of a Practice phase, having spent the 8 months since releasing my second album learning to play double bass. I really crashed after the album, and was not in a good mental space for some time afterward, which is probably a topic for another post. Bass was a hiding place, and in that hermit hole I discovered I actually really loved the instrument. I am feeling the itch now to do something creative, yet my abilities on the bass still have a long way to go before they meet my creative ideas, so I am devising some other projects to keep me going while I continue to work away in my practice room.
I am more and more aware that working on these phases in isolation is not sustainable. My natural tendency is to binge on one thing at a time, often obsessively, finding a state of flow and riding it for as long as I can. This means I can be quite determined when I put my mind to something, but often to the detriment of other parts of my life and practice. Instead, I need bring creativity into my practice, to stop me from getting bogged down in perfectionism and allow me to explore my instrument with freedom and openness. I need to be strategic in my creative time, tackling creativity the same way I tackle technical problems. And I need to be promoting while I practice and create, rather than binging on it toward the end of a project, working on it in manageable chunks and making sure I still have projects on the go to keep me occupied if the promotion gets hard. I haven’t figured out yet how I’m going to tackle this particular problem, but now that I’ve discovered the problem I hope I’m on my way to a more sustainable solution.
I am interested to know whether other creatives experience similar or different cycles in their own creative work, so please feel free to get in touch with your thoughts via a comments, email or on social media.