The Terrible-No-Good-Very-Bad Dark Side of Creativity

After another nightmare fueled night of little-to-no sleep, I get up and look at myself in the mirror. At 31, I see an extra bag under each eye. It’s as if my tired eyes need an additional carry-on on this journey to flinging ourselves slow motion into the sun.

Sometimes, living a creative life is heartbreaking. Not because of the lack of money (that, too), not because of the rejection (that, too), but because there is a perpetual compromise that is being made. Living creatively is like a tempermental lover. You don’t know what it wants, but you do know you have to do it. It feels feverish and uncontrolled, yet persistent and unforgiving.

What does it mean to “live creatively”? Sure, we do it for ourselves, but we also secretly-or-not-so-secretly do it to strike gold.

Gold looks like selling a painting at an art show. It looks like a standing ovation. It looks like trolls on the internet (you haven’t made it until you get a few trolls!). It looks like refreshing my Medium account for more claps and comments. It looks like winning an award in middle school for best poem about sunflowers on a cloudy day.

And when we fail magnificently, (painfully, confusingly, frustratingly and most of the time) what does that look like? It looks like formulaic rejection letters for jobs and essays I’ve submitted all day, every day. It looks like eating sugar in the dark.

When I googled “The Dark Side of Creativity”, several well-researched articles came up. Like this one from the Harvard Review where we’re all narcissists, and this one from Psychology Today where we’re depicted as a bunch of liars. These articles give you statistics to ease your anxious brain. Don’t worry, creative minds, you are messed up — and there is plenty of data to prove it!

However, if you’re looking for something 100% emotionally driven, with little-to-no statistical data behind it, below is the ultimate list for you. I asked a dozen or so friends that are actively pursuing the creative life and here is an unofficial list of what we go through, in so many different ways.

1. The Never-Ending Nightmares

I’m no data scientist, but approximately 92.67% of my dreams are in fact nightmares. They range from mildly unsettling (sitting in a house with strange noises) to absolutely terrible (having to pull a lever and watch my entire family die in imaginatively horrific ways). Many creative ideas come from dreams, it’s true, but nightmares are not far behind — lurking in the corners of our minds. How many nightmares do you experience? When someone you love leaves you? When you feel guilt creep into your subconscious?

Our wild and untamed brains know no bounds.

2. Speaking of Nightmares: Spiralling Anxiety

Have you ever worried about something? Now multiply your worry by approximately 7 billion megawatts and obsess about it before, during and after for weeks (months, years?) on end. Anxiety seems to be higher when you’re a creative-minded person. That could be due to the uncertainty of what impact your creations will have, or the fact that you are consistently tapping into imaginative otherness of your brain.

If you don’t know the outcome of something, how many potential situations can your mind make up? That’s right, the answer is extremely uncomfortable and potentially infinite.

3. The Muse is a Fickle Lady

You think you’re on good terms with your muse. You think you’ve read all the books on creativity, did your little worksheets, showed up every day at the same time to your creative workspace, did hot yoga or whatever it is that gets you ready to create.

But then, once in a while — the muse simply doesn’t come. She may not come for 10 minutes, or miss your standing appointment for months on end.

“Hey — uh, Muse? Where are you?” You look under your desk, out the window, into the furthest depths of your mind. There’s just nothing there.

“Cough, cough”, she’ll say sarcastically into the phone, twirling her golden sunrise hair.

“I’m like, totally sick or something. I don’t know when I’ll be back to work.”

4. The Glamorization of Addictive Behaviors

Being addicted to something is not just part of a creative person’s persona. It encompasses all of humanity in devastating and sometimes irreversible ways. The only big difference is that if you’re a successful creative — it becomes quite glamorous. Lest we forget the “27 Club”, a club that no one wants to be a part of, even if you end up being immortalized. And who can forget Studio 54, where Andy Warhol probably sprinkled psychedelic drugs around like pixie dust.

There is something so gosh darn sparkly about the alcohol + drugs + art lifestyle.

5. And Let’s Not Forget Mental Illness

LET’S GET THIS OUT OF THE WAY: it doesn’t feel good to feel troubled. On the other hand, another very specific aspect of the shiny and mysterious creativity is mental illness. There is something so interesting and dark about being disturbed. Someone would pay big money to see your biopic!

Is that what it takes to be a true artist? Does it make Van Gogh considerably more interesting that he cut off his own ear?

One time, I asked my writers group about Elizabeth Gilbert, Author of Eat Pray, Love. They all scrunched up their faces in disapproval. Some of them hadn’t even read her work. Could it be because she seems too well adjusted to be interesting? That she looks like a know-it-all instead of having been-there-and-done-that-and-has-the-scars-to-prove-it?

6. Sometimes You’re Poor For a Long Time

If you are actively trying to pursue your creative passions as a career option — and you don’t happen to be in an Mad Men style advertising office in the 1960’s, it is likely that many of you have struggled to make ends meet.

Like winning the lottery, finding a job that both pays your bills and has creative expression sounds like a pipe dream. That being said, some are lucky and get a break early. Some people have worked up slowly and surely for a successful and illustrious career.

And some of us — well, may be forever poor.

The starving artist game isn’t just a physical presence either. You find yourself complaining about rich people for no particular reason. It inks into your psyche.

7. Very Much Needed Inflated Ego

What comes first, the chicken or the faberge egg?

More than once, I have been told how self-involved I am. If you live creatively, that means you are constantly putting yourself out there. If you’re constantly putting yourself out there, you’re ready and suspended for potential rejection.

As a creative mind, it’s absolutely inevitable that you go inward while simultaneously expanding outward. How do you keep soldiering on when all signs are telling you you’re making garbage? You literally have to inflate your ego to no return. You cannot keep going unless you tell yourself you’re going to make it. You can’t believe you’re going to make it unless you know you’re capable of such greatness that there’s no turning back.

What does your ego look like then? That’s right, it’s HUGE, and we’re all self-involved monsters here.

8. Isolation

If you were born a strange baby in a non-creative household, you may already know that some people simply don’t get it. You don’t know why you’re cutting up teeny tiny pieces of paper to make a mosaic of an octopus eyeball. You don’t know why you made two decoy journals so your parents wouldn’t find your real journal (even though it took you far longer to create the fake ones and hide them around the house in the first place).

The isolation keeps spiralling outward too. Your non-creative friends don’t understand exactly “what you’re doing”. You may get various comments that sound a lot like, “Oh, that sounds interesting, I guess?” or “So, when are you going to get a real job?” and on and on. Finding a network of excellent weirdos as a creative person is essential for survival.

9. Ew, What Happens If You Actually Make It?

From 2009–2012 I owned and operated my own greeting card business. I had representative companies work with me, I had an online store, and I sold my paper goods all over the U.S. I legitimately paid my bills with my own artwork.

At first, it was exhilarating.

And then… it was really hard to function. My fancy free designs were being criticized and changed. I was asked to make a never ending supply of birthday cards when I had excellent ideas for sympathy cards — mainly for myself.

And of course there’s the marketing. The constant pushing of goods to your friends and family members. The email lists. The taxes. The confusion of what you personally like versus what The People like.

We spend all this time trying to get to the top, but when we get to the top — is it everything we envisioned? Where do you go from living at the pinnacle of your creative life?

Downward, perhaps, back into the dark.

Do you need help dealing with consistent failure?

Writer + Creative

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