The World’s a Clusterfuck. So Why Am I More Creative?

This article first on Little Black Book.

The world’s a clusterfuck. I go to sleep with the same anxiety I feel when I wake up. Why am I suddenly more prolifically creative than at any point in my career?

Artists of all disciplines are products of their environment. And the greater their stimulus, the greater their creative vocabulary. 

One of the great joys of my job is giving an art director or designer an open brief to execute against an idea. But I nearly always start with the same challenge; share your visual inspiration before committing to a direction. It’s like an internal tissue meeting and opportunity to give the team ‘pitch tingles’, plus create some momentum and excitement. Doing this of course prevents wastage in precious hours and budget. And from a purely selfish point of view, it enriches me with interesting, innovative or emotive ideas and visuals I might never have been exposed to.

Thanks to the gazillion different blogs and platforms out there, the way we conceive of and execute ideas has never had as much stimulus. And unless you simply stopped giving a shit, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t advance your creative repertoire year on year – whether it’s on client business, spec work or side-hustles. 

In settled times, I find the compulsion to create among artistic types is fairly consistent. In that, if we were to draw a graph to measure a creative person’s output, we might see a gentle upwards curve with the occasional peak and trough depending on mood, circumstance or how they channel their inspiration. 

But in unsettling times, my observations are that an artist’s capacity to make work much more violently peaks or troughs. Some get manically productive, others become the opposite. A sentiment shared by other creatives and coaches I’ve talked to in recent weeks.

An old CCO of mine likened creatives to bees, “they only make honey in the right conditions. If it’s too hot or too cold, they simply don’t create at all”. So, if anything I can fathom why a kind of creative hibernation would manifest itself in such deeply distressing times; The news is crushingly bleak. It’s discombobulating enough worrying about whether you’ve brought Covid into your home after a smash and grab at the Co-op, and if there will be a ventilator available if you were to fall sick. And then there’s the fierce economic backlash to look forward to. What will this mean for our country, our clients, our company, my livelihood and my ability to house and feed myself or my family? 

Emotionally stressful situations do affect the way we perform. This is why professional athletes are trained to think under pressure – and how Johnny Wilkinson made that drop goal, or Serena Williams nailed that ace. 

A year ago, I spent unnecessarily sleepless nights worrying about a leak coming through a wall in our spare room. The anxiety paralysed me. Was it rising damp? Was it the roof? A slew of builders and friends came through my house all trying to identify the problem, vying to bring some emotional stability to a man on the brink… because there was some damp accumulating in the brickwork of a 120-year-old house. I confess, mindbogglingly trivial though this appears 12 months on – it consumed me. And, to the sheer bewilderment of Jamie sitting opposite, it throttled my flow of thought for one unproductive week.

Little anxieties can distract me from creative flow. Ask anyone who I’ve travelled to an airport with. I begin my panic about missing my flight days before I’m due to be at the airport. For the record, it’s not a fear of flying – I genuinely don’t care if the plane plummets into a mountain, just so long as I’m on it, it left on time and I’m perched in my designated seat. I’m the same about trains. Or just getting anywhere, full stop. 

A year later and the contrast between a leaky roof and getting to an airport four hours early, versus the global apocalypse, couldn’t be starker. 

I’d just opened the doors to a new creative company, then boom. Like the ultimate dirty bomb, a super virus wreaks absolute carnage. Our clients are in a holding pattern. Uncertainty is omnipresent. My visa appointment in Canada is cancelled, and I don’t know when I will get another one. My flights back home have been postponed, and I can’t return to the US without getting a new visa stamped in my passport. I’m thousands of miles away from my parents and mother-in-law who are vulnerable. I’m missing the sanctuary and gallows humour of my family and friends. I’m worried for our hospitals, our NHS workers, our communities and our post Covid-19 economy. 

This anxiety maelstrom is making me do something completely counter-intuitive. I can’t stop creating.

More specifically, I can’t stop writing. 

And that really is odd. Odd, partly because I’m dyslexic. Odd, because I’m an art director by trade, and if anything, I would expect to be burning through canvases right now. But I am more prolific with words and ideas than I’ve been in the last decade or so. I wake, write, eat, write, sleep, write – like a man possessed. I find myself writing streams of consciousness – generating ideas, attempting to solve the world’s problems and penning the first few chapters of a novel. And when I’m not writing, I’m gardening – nobly growing our own vegetables while nurturing new thoughts in my mind-manure. 

Proper bullshit of course is thinking this situation has given me special abilities. The truth is that a hyper-extreme situation has unleashed adrenalin, and perhaps I’m too frightened to worry about my normal inconsequential trivialities. 

But there is a link between extremes in an artist’s environment and spikes in creative output. And the first thing that came to mind was how terrifying events inspired Picasso with his masterpiece, ‘Guernica’ 1937 (top).  

This enveloping three and a half by nearly eight meter canvas was the artist’s response to the barbarity of the bombing by the German air force during the Spanish Civil War, of the town whose name the piece bears. Intensely painted motifs, with only muted grey tones, the work was a ground-breaking painting and a prelude for the horrors of the Second World War to come. 

Art history is full of evidence of how extreme times can reveal extremes in creativity, ambition and inventiveness; The powerful war photography of Don McCullin, Banksy’s cultural commentary on the London riots, and more recently, Hockney’s recent prolific iPad drawings from his isolation in Normandy.

But likewise, extremities can cause us to bottle our artistic instincts, keeping our powder dry for another time.

I came across this piece on Instagram from someone who had visited their therapist recently, and they generously shared these points: 

1. Everyone deals with anxiety differently. Some get manically productive, others become the opposite. Where you fall is not your choice.

2. We are embroiled in chaos, learning terrifying things daily. The idea that you should and can achieve a sense of order in your day, work or well-being is unrealistic. Forgive yourself for feeling scattered and paralysed.

3. Everything has turned upside down and you cannot undo that through hard work. If you delude yourself that you can, you are introducing more pressure into an already stressful situation.

4. You will not fully comprehend this situation until you are distanced from it.

So, however you deal with all this anxiety, have faith. While our world might be providing the ultimate dirty protest now, good will come of it. Yes, you might be facing cruelly uncertain times, with your job on the line today. But tomorrow’s world will see a demand for more artists, not less. And you will eventually win out.

Stay safe.