It’s easy to have romanticized notions of what it’s like to do creative work. I sometimes imagine actors or writers or painters or musicians or chefs or any other talented person working effortlessly at their craft. They probably wake up, do yoga, have a cappuccino, and the creative genius just flows. I imagine that they experience a kind of creative ecstasy all the time, and that they overflow with good ideas and the talent to make something of those ideas.
That, of course, is far from the truth. Every single artist I know and have worked with agrees: creative work is hard work. Sure, it has plenty of moments of being fun and deeply satisfying, but most of the time it's like running into a wall. Or like your legs are lead when you’re finally ready to run the race. Or it’s like feeling stuck in a rut, with no clear way of getting out. And that's because creative work is plain, old fashioned hard work. Like digging ditches. Especially when you’re working with deadlines and you’ve got to make something happen, no matter what. You know you’ll probably run into lots of failure along the way, but you’ve got to keep going. Your livelihood depends on it.
Even with that sobering realization, it’s still easy to envy people who seem naturally creative. "If only I could be creative like that. If only I could paint, or draw, or cook, or write, or sing, or, or, or..." For some reason, creative talents and skills can tend to make us monomaniacal,
So what do we do then? How do we practice creativity, whether in art making practices, or homemaking practices, or in our classrooms and churches when all we feel is lack? Because deadlines are real, and classes have to be creatively crafted. Blog posts need to be written. Dinners need to be made even with half-empty pantries.
Recently, I’ve been learning that sometimes emptiness is the best place from which to begin. Rather than seeing lack as a foe, I’ve found it a friend. And the turn came when I began using a personal creative motto: “use what you have to show something real.”
Here's what I mean: those moments of total lack don't need to inhibit my creative pursuits in the ways I fear they will. And that’s because they, even they, are part of my experience of reality. They’re tools, bits and pieces with which I can be creative. I can embrace them, and square up with my real limits rather than my imagined ones. Instead of running away from creative shallowness or trying to wish it away, I can use it. It can serve me.
In fact, I think of it as a kind of gift. The gift of creative emptiness can make us honest because when we feel that lack, we’re less likely to rely on tricks or what’s always worked. When we feel like we’ve dried up, we’ve got to find new ways forward to show and share our experiences of reality. We can let our real limitations and our real emptiness serve us, guiding us to make new things, or make more honest things. Rather than running away from the feeling of emptiness, we can run headlong into it and make something of it.
These moments of feeling creative lack are scary. They tempt us to focus on an overwhelming list of things we can’t do rather than celebrate the things we can. So when we feel like empty wells, we’ve got to keep going. We’ve got to move from fear to embrace, realizing that even our experience of being totally uninspired is itself a kind of inspiration. We can use it and make meaning with it. Or we can acknowledge that yes, we don’t have any good ideas. But if we keep moving forward in courage, doing the hard work that it takes to be creative, they’ll come. We’ve got to keep stepping forward even though we’re sure we’re going to fall down or mess up.
But you know what? When we take those steps of creative courage, we often end up surprising ourselves. When we strip away our tendency to use tricks or follow old creative patterns, and we embrace the feelings of emptiness, good comes. Honest, real, free expression comes, and it serves us and those we share it with.
So keep running forward into your creative work, even in emptiness. Don’t let your limits or your lack make you afraid, but embrace them. Use what you have--what you truly, honestly have, and make something of it.