Courage to be Creative When the Well is Dry

Stoic philosophy elaborates a detailed taxonomy of virtue, dividing virtue into four main types: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

When we wholly give ourselves over to play or to making something, we feel in sync with Nature, one of Stoicism’s prized objectives.

Sometimes, however, that horse won’t go. The well is dry. Your muse splits on vacation with no forwarding number. Anyone who has a creative life privately or professionally knows that barren, depressing feeling when ideas which flowed so effortlessly yesterday or last week just grind to a halt. All that’s left is the accusatory hum of the refrigerator and the blank page or canvas. Except: you need to design that seminar, paint that painting, write that chapter, choreograph that dance, build that shed. So something’s gotta give.

Creativity, the process of idea generation in service of beauty, emotional impact, or practical effect is fickle. Yet, it’s absolutely necessary to solve problems, meet challenges, make art, and to feel fully alive.

When we inevitably experience dry spells or writer’s block, the four pillars of Stoic virtue can be helpful levers to keep us on track. Even when we feel our hearts just aren’t “in it,” whatever “it” is, we must find ways to keep showing up to our projects and plans and to avoid spiraling into self-doubt, paralysis and, hopelessness.

Stoicism contains ideas that can tease us out of our funks. The Stoics created an elaborate catalog of virtues embraced by Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation that can help us kick the rust out of our gears.

I know I’m slipping into a creative funk when I start to avoid or postpone whatever creative work is at hand. When this happens, I consider the four main Stoic virtues in sequence. I step away from my work and begin with considering my project in light of wisdom. Wisdom reminds me to take my attention off my current anxiety and to instead take the long view. As soon as I do this, I remember that it is the nature of our minds to generate ideas, but sometimes the mind takes a rest to replenish. This replaces my fear “I’ll never have a decent idea again” with expectant curiosity.

Next, I think about justice which contains integrity. I ask myself if I have something true to say with my art or my music or my writing. It is this question that can expose the instances when I’m trying to seem a certain way in my creations; I am vainly trying to control the effect my work will have on my audience. This leads to stilted art and a sense of bad faith. Adjusting in the direction of truth liberates fresh ideas.

Then comes courage. Courage is doing something even when it frightens you or makes you uncomfortable. The way I apply this in the case of writing, for example, is what I call “butt in chair anyway”. This means whether I’m feeling creative or desolate, I stay in the chair anyway and keep typing. I clock in, put words - any words - on the paper and clock out when I’m done. Even if I write garbage today, chances are, tomorrow I’ll discover a few gold nuggets in there that I can run with.

Finally, I attend to moderation which, viz. the creative process, I take to mean not coming at my work heavy handedly, trying to force ideas to fit together, or rigidly insisting that some music I’m composing be brilliant. Instead, I try to relax in body, mind, and spirit and allow ideas to be gently made welcome.

Cycling through these four virtues is a comforting habit, one that takes attention off the ego, and grants much needed perspective during those creative deserts that will always be part of any worthwhile creation.

The Pareto principle suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of activities and you can 80/20 your life when the creative well runs dry.

When you’re focused on the creative content of your future self, you don’t need a big to-do list. Instead, you need a focused and short list. Just one to three items each day. Count your wins. Make meaningful progress. Focus on the most important action, not the easiest one.

“Eat the frog” every single day, "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day."
— Mark Twain

When it comes to your to-do list, you need to do the most difficult thing — or in Mark Twain’s words, “eat a live frog” — ideally before 8 a.m. The sooner you knock out this task, the better you’ll feel about the rest of your day.

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