Mountain High, Valley Low
If you think of the creative life topographically, you would likely categorize a period of productivity, creativity and expressive success as a peak period, or perhaps as a mountaintop experience. Bright, majestic and thrilling. Periods of inactivity, expressive and technical failure or lack of inspiration might feel like a valley. Dense, dark, dangerous and oppressive.
Right now, I am rolling around in the highlands, making a lot of new work, experimenting successfully with new techniques, styles and workflow and feeling good about myself as a creator with a worthy artistic point of view. It feels right to be an artist and to be making the work. In valley periods, that feeling is so difficult to come by. I have had many of those valley experiences, and I have little doubt I can expect more throughout my lifetime.
But during this time spent at higher ground, I’ve been thinking a great deal about preparation for the next time I’m in the valley. It’s not that I think I should set a date or anything. Knowing that inactivity, self-doubt and perceived failure will probably come very gradually and quite unnoticed, however, I think it’s important to consider how I can be more aware of myself as I am walking back down the mountain, instead of waking up from a blackout state on the valley floor, wondering how I got there and what to do next.
On Everest, You die on the descent
Did you know that among the climbers of Everest who do not complete the trip alive, most of them die on the descent? It’s true. They reach the peak. They achieve the goal and feel the thrill of success, but they don’t survive going back down. I think it can be a similar fate for creative adventurers. Being in a peak creative time is thrilling and rewarding in a hundred different ways, but you can’t stay at the top forever.
In order to avoid dying on the way back down, I’m trying to cultivate habits that might normally seem counter-intuitive to productivity, like not doing serious art making every single day, or diversifying the projects I work on, and even making scheduled time to work instead of leaving potential productive hours open ended. I’m also making ritual out of things that might normally only be used in the valley as tools to get out. I’m looking at and for art that inspires me. I’m reading about artists lives and processes, trying to align my mind with the minds of creators I admire. I’ve browsed through and cleaned up my inspiration boards on Pinterest. I’ve read my favorite poetry, learned how to do a few cool techniques in Photoshop and listened to other artists talk about their work. I’ve been working on writing projects too, and revisiting older, unfinished works.
In my experience, these are some of the disciplines that make time in the valley, however painful, ultimately successful. They are the brutal climb out of the swampy valley and back up the mountain. Making small survival techniques into habits is a sign that despite creative destitution, you haven’t given up, or bought into the lies of a troubled mind and burdened heart. The predators of the valley are not going to take you without a fight. Making them habits and sources of energy now, in the peak experiences, seems to already be effective in sustaining my current productivity, but also keeping me prepared for when I don’t have the satisfaction of a successful, finished piece to work from, or steady stream of ideas to keep me occupied.
Think. Wait. Fast.
All of this made me think of one of my favorite books, given to me by my 12th grade English teacher. He gave me Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, and as soon as I had finished it, it had become a life-changing experience for me. In writing about this peak time meditation, I was reminded of this passage from the book:
“I am without possessions,” said Siddhartha, “if this is what you mean. Surely, I am without possessions. But I am so voluntarily, and therefore I am not destitute.”
“But what are you planning to live of, being without possessions?”
“I haven’t thought of this yet, sir. For more than three years, I have been without possessions, and have never thought about of what I should live.”
“So you’ve lived of the possessions of others.”
“Presumably, this is how it is. After all, a merchant also lives of what other people own.”
“Well said. But he wouldn’t take anything from another person for nothing; he would give his merchandise in return.”
“So it seems to be indeed. Everyone takes, everyone gives, such is life.”
“But if you don’t mind me asking: being without possessions, what would you like to give?”
“Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish.”
“Yes indeed. And what is it now what you’ve got to give? What is it that you’ve learned, what you’re able to do?”
“I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”
“I believe, that’s everything!”
“And what’s the use of that? For example, the fasting– what is it good for?”
“It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn’t learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for.”
Surely I will encounter another challenging season in my life, but when I get there, and until, I know I can think, I can wait and I can fast.