productivity is seasonal, not constant
Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash
The conveniences of modern life mean that we don't really pay much attention to seasonality anymore.
Sure, maybe if you live in Canada, the seasons are sometimes force-fed down your throat with the occasional (or frequent, what do I know, I'm from Buffalo, not northern Saskatchewan) 6-ft snowdrift, but in general our livelihood and daily routines are not dependent on seasonality. We have heaters and central A/C; we can import bananas year-round; and most of us do jobs that aren't dependent on the weather. And if you live in California, like I do now, seasons are really hard to recognize, because they seem pretty similar and the changes are subtle.
So sometimes, we have trouble recognizing a rhythm or natural cycle for what it is, and instead panic, because change is scary. What's really just a colder winter than usual seems like the fucking army of the dead from Game of Thrones: doom incarnate.
As artists, it's important to be connected and aware of our natural creative seasonality. It would be nice to be able to create, create, create non-stop forever and have a steady paycheck coming in that looks the same from month to month, but the fact is that art imitates life, and life is seasonal. Constant, uninterrupted production requires a steady stream of raw materials, but an artist's raw materials are things like emotions and life experiences and inspiration and other such intangibles that don't come along in a regular, measurable fashion. It's a terribly American/Western expectation we have of ourselves that we will be able to make art every day, and that that art-making will be productive every day, and that we are functional little art machines that chug along, increasing quality and quantity just like the national GDP. And it's not very accurate.
So when we can't; when we just can't go anymore, when the ideas aren't flowing and we're reusing our old shit and we know it's derivative and bad, it feels like a crisis. It feels like we are failing, and maybe we're not meant to be artists, and we may never have another good idea again. But it might just be a season.
I believe that all artists have creative and destructive seasons.
Creativity is--quite literally (it's right there in the word)--the ability to create something. Creation doesn't come from nothing. It requires synthesizing unique ideas, stolen ideas, experiences, tropes, forms, years of artistic skills, and raw materials into an actual product. There is only so much creation a person can do before they have exhausted those building blocks, and have to go get more, or before they must dismantle prior creations to help build a new one. This season is a lot like spring and summer: there is a lot of output, and it often seems like magic with flowers blooming left and right where you didn't even know there were any seeds, and before you know it all the dead trees of your despair are covered with new leaves and the sun is out and you can just pick your meals off the ground and they are chock-full of vitamin C and all your livestock are fat and happy. But a creative season requires the expenditure of a ton of energy. It requires snowmelt, and soil nutrients, and the remnants of last season's dead vegetation. Growth like that is expensive, in terms of resources. Eventually the resources run out and you can't compete.
Cue fall and winter.
The destructive period in an artist's life requires dismantling prior systems and understandings of self and of the world. It requires storage. Autumn is when hunting season begins; it is harvest season. The wheat gets chopped down, livestock get slaughtered, salted, and stored, and people prepare for the winter, which finishes the job of breaking down what grew over the winter. For an artist, this season means absorbing--reading books, going to art museums and concerts, and generally exposing yourself to new ideas and experiences. It means reconsidering the principles and narratives on which we have been guiding our lives. I think this is a little bit where the myth of "tortured artist" comes into play, because sometimes self-destruction, and breaking out of the self that we know with unusual behavior and some mind-altering drugs, has an overall net positive on one's art. But there are a hundred million ways to self-destruct, and some of them just involve sitting quietly and thinking. For a person who has been doing too much drinking and drugs, "destroying the self" might look a lot more like sobriety. The point is simply to undo what you have already done, to break it into parts you will be able to manipulate later on, next spring, into something new.
So if you find yourself sitting there, questioning who you are and what you've been doing, or looking at your past art with a wrinkled nose, unable to produce or do anything much except absorb, know that you're not failing. You're just in a destructive season. Inevitably the earth will round its orbit and the days will start getting longer and you'll find more energy, and new ideas in the remnants. Wait it out; get yourself a hot chocolate and sit by the fireplace. Remember that seasons are normal, and constant 21st century productivity is not.