Now, I believe in life, and I believe in the joy of human existence, but these things cannot be experienced except as we also face the despair, also face the anxiety that every human being has to face if he lives with any creativity at all.
Cyril Connolly wrote, “The creative moment of a writer comes with the autumn.” I hope he was right. The summer season, alas, has not been very productive for me. Now, as autumn flowers are already in bloom and deciduous trees are beginning to turn a paler shade of green, as the morning air elicits occasional involuntary shivers and the land seems quieter as some of its summer inhabitants have migrated to warmer climes, I feel a sense of anticipation tinged with anxiety: anticipation of the year’s final crescendo before the land’s orchestra shifts to the mournful adagio of winter; anxiety about the fickle nature of creative epiphanies, and the inevitable build-up of doubts when on a prolonged creative rut.
Despite decades of riding the creative roller-coaster, despite countless memories of blissful creative resurgence following episodes of creative despair, despite schooling myself on the science of human creativity, I still can’t take it for granted that this, too, shall pass. I expect it will pass. I have all the rational reasons to believe it will pass. Still, the knot in my stomach will not unravel. Ironic, perhaps, that this knot, this menacing doubt, this period of relentless what-ifs, is an essential and necessary part of creative living: an inevitable precursor to rekindling the creative flame.
There is no rushing creativity. There is no way to compel or to summon it. Creativity will come, in its own way and time. The real danger is to have creativity knock on your door and not find you home, ready to invite it in. If you are preoccupied, if you are distracted by trivial or mundane concerns, if out of fear or insecurity you give up and pursue instead what’s safe and familiar, you might miss it, and it may not wait. You must remain open and mindful to hear its quiet whispering, to catch from the corner of your eye its fleeting form among the leaves and rocks, to be attentive to its subtle gesturing from among everyday things, to sense that something is a bit different from what it was the day before, the moment before, even if you can’t immediately tell how.
Then, when you have met creativity, you must earn its trust before it leads you. Hesitate, waver, overthink, play hard-to-get, and creativity may decide to choose another for its gift. “Creativity takes courage,” said Henri Matisse, but he did not explain why. Creativity takes courage because trusting takes courage, because doing what you have not done before takes courage, because departing from the trodden path and from the safety of the herd takes courage, because letting go of comfortable habits and predictable expectations takes courage, because acting without regard to—even in defiance of—the judgment of others takes courage.
In his book, The Courage to Create, Rollo May distinguished between “pseudo, escapist creativity on the one hand and that which is genuine on the other.” The difference between the two, according to May, comes down to the intensity of the encounter between artists and what inspires them to create. “Escapist creativity,” May wrote, “is that which lacks encounter.” He then added, “We cannot will to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity of dedication and commitment.” I am willing.
But creativity, even when it finds you and even when you have found the courage to follow its leads and cues, is no guarantee of productivity. “It takes a special energy,” wrote Oliver Sacks, “over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all.” The more creative your ideas, the more likely they are to fail, at least once, perhaps many times, perhaps every time. Did I already mention courage?
I can, of course, make myself more productive even in the absence of creativity. I can make beautiful, popular photographs in beautiful, popular places, several of which are not very far from my home. I can trawl the internet for information, plan to be in all the right places at the right times without creative risk and without needing an iota of courage. I can pursue guaranteed popular success. Not creative success. A lesser, safer, more predictable, and less satisfying success than creative success, but success nonetheless.
I might be tempted to believe that I can pursue this kind of safe success while waiting for creativity, to fill in the time, to allay my doubts, to be a good businessperson. But I know better. I know that creativity doesn’t like to share. I know that if I want a chance (no guarantees!) at creative success, I must be willing to eschew other forms of success, to consider these forms as less desirable, to live out my doubts and anxieties and the pains they cause me until creativity returns. I must believe that it will. I may not survive long if I believed otherwise.
The arrival of autumn will find me already living in the landscape, open and mindful, willing to give myself wholly to any worthy encounter. It is as much as I can do. I may ultimately not have any significant new work to show for it. But when the final note of this great movement plays out—when the last leaf falls, when the first freeze that will not thaw the following day sets in, when the high mountain roads close for the season, when the details of the land become blotted under a sheet of white until spring arrives, I will no doubt have some worthy memories to recall. And that will make the season worthwhile. And if that’s all I get before winter, it will still be enough to sustain me.