How to Get Through Creative Dry Spells

A woman painting creative living

I read recently that Yo-Yo Ma took up the cello at age four. At seven, he played a concert for JFK. I’m a writer, not a cellist, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. I bet Yo Yo Ma never spent three days under a blanket watching 27 back-to-back episodes of Law & Order: SVU. For those of us attempting to piece together creative careers while still paying off student loans, puttering through life in staccato bursts of creation interspersed with Netflix binges, babysitting gigs, Instagram envy, quarterly taxes and endless arid seasons in which work fails to come and we wonder if it’s too late to apply to law school, the realities of a creative life are both terrifying and banal.

Six months ago, I moved to a new country for my partner’s job, a move that meant giving up my part-time gig, taking on the role of homemaker, and putting my freelance writing career on hold while we navigated work permits. While I’ve been lucky to be able to count on the financial support of my partner and our combined savings, this move has left me completely adrift. The unique struggle of a creative career means keeping a stranglehold on schedules, productivity and self-motivation, and if you face an illness, change of circumstance, or if you’re simply not getting the jobs you’ve longed and worked for, it can be fatal to your sense of self and the life you are working so hard to build. It can also leave you behind on rent.

I was recently bemoaning what I had started referring to as my “fallow season” to a good friend and she said something that kind of blew my mind: “Well, that’s exactly right. It’s just a season. And seasons always change.”

This friend of mine, Sarah, is an immensely talented actress. I’ve watched her go through the wringer of auditions, living perilously from paycheck to paycheck. Now, awesomely, I get to watch her kill it on HBO’s Barry. (Just picked up for a second season! So smart and funny! Look at her slay this white suit!) In short, she’s “made it” but we spent years together on the floor of her Brooklyn apartment drinking the dregs of open wine bottles while bemoaning the lives we could have had. While it is truly awesome to watch her succeed, it’s also thrown my current situation into a discomforting new light. Sarah amazes me because she’s managed to make friends with the quiet seasons, rather than adopting my approach: Stare into that abyss with paralytic horror. She’s navigated the ups and downs of a creative career with a mastery that feels more necessary to me than ever. And so I asked her: What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Find your seeds  

“I have always found consuming other people’s art the big key to keeping motivated during droughts,” says Sarah. “I think it is really important to keep inspired when it feels like your own train car is derailing slightly. I try to change the narrative: You’re not going off the rails, you’re just taking the scenic route for a bit and having a look around! This reminds me that there is an enormous community of creatives out there, and that I am a part of that world, regardless of my current situation.”

“Others have struggled like you, had to scrimp and save like you, felt the weight of expectation like you. They made art out of it. You can, too.”

In other words, when you’re blindly whacking through the weeds of the day-to-day or struggling to make ends meet, it’s vital to have a well from which to draw the sweet nectar of inspiration. When Sarah told me this, I was reminded of The Artist’s Way, in which author Julia Cameron talks about the importance of “Artist Dates” short field trips in which you give yourself permission to just be interested in the world around you. I find switching mediums to be extra helpful in this regard: Rather than picking up a novel (EVERYONE HAS WRITTEN A NOVEL EXCEPT MEEEEEEE), I’ll stare at some confounding sculpture or listen mindfully to new music. This exercise also does the work of reminding you that you are not alone: Others have struggled like you, had to scrimp and save like you, felt the weight of expectation like you. They made art out of it. You can, too.

Tend your garden

When your chosen career has nebulous goal posts and no fixed schedule, it can feel both like you’re doing everything and nothing all at once. Days and nights bleed into each other with reckless abandon. Much to my despair, it turns out there is no one habit that will transform you into a productive person (not even kombucha!). I’ve noticed a consistent theme, however, among people who have found success in nontraditional careers and shared their learnings: It’s vital to stay on your toes. Hobbies, volunteer work or even part time jobs that are outside your chosen field provide not only necessary structure but community and challenge, two qualities that are often in short supply when you are doing the slow work of pitching personal essays into the void or wandering through cattle call auditions. I was recently gifted some singing lessons; Sarah is learning guitar.

Says Sarah: “There is so much time spent alone in a freelance creative life, so accountability and community become very important. I took a playwriting class for years in my off-time and I have found having some kind of class where you actually have someone holding you accountable to achieve a weekly task very helpful.” Can’t pull the trigger? “Get a good friend to steal your credit card and push you into it,” suggests Sarah. “That’s what a friend did for me in a particularly low time. She said, ‘You will never regret spending this money… even if you can’t finish the course.’ She was right. (Except for ceramics. I do regret the ceramics.)”

If you can’t find inexpensive classes, check out organizations like MeetUp to find free groups or collaborate with friends who are in a similar boat. Start a workshop group, a knitting circle, a book club anything that reminds you of the world beyond your bubble.

I also took up spinning and I blame Sarah entirely for this bizarrely out-of-character decision. “Much to my shock and horror, exercise has been a huge help in terms of structuring the day and giving me a bit of energy,” she says. “In my 20s, I got all that energy for free, but now when I feel that particular brand of ‘unemployment lethargy’ kick in, exercise gets me through.”

“To everything, there is a season

Something that no one tells you when you are starting out on a creative path is that you will have days when there is LITERALLY NOTHING TO DO, and that each one of these days will feel like a small loss. When every hour of every day is at your discretion, one “wasted” hour can be the difference between feeling like a success and a trash heap. “I used to put an oppressive amount of pressure on myself to ‘accomplish’ something with the day in periods of unemployment,” says Sarah. “I felt if I wasn’t writing a novel and a play while volunteering at my local hospice, I was somehow failing at life. I did this to such a debilitating degree that I would end up doing nothing, finishing the day with a glass of red wine and a bout of self-loathing, only to wake up and do it all over again.”

The absence of that disappointment left space and freedom for the next day to be a chance to start over and try something else. I feel more focused and am much kinder to myself.

This is when she hit on the (truly life-saving!) idea of seasons: “After nearly a decade of this intermittent pattern, I finally realized the pressure I was putting on myself was yielding no results.” These windows of time will always exist in a freelance career, so why not accept them? “I worked on giving the time between jobs a kind of overarching theme. It could be something really simple, like self-care, or care for others, or education, or letting go. Then those few months would be dedicated to the theme in a loose way and all activity could kind of fall into that category.” This subtle shift in her thinking opened up a world of possibility. “This framework allowed me to let myself off the hook. A ‘wasted day’ didn’t seem so disappointing when I allowed it to be a small part of a bigger chapter. The absence of that disappointment left space and freedom for the next day to be a chance to start over and try something else. I feel more focused and am much kinder to myself and that has yielded a lot more productivity. These chunks of time don’t feel like voids anymore. They feel like their own projects.”  

Maybe this was a simple case of hearing the right words at the right time but Sarah’s outlook overhauled the way I approach my career. Embracing my fallow season has let me see this as a time of rejuvenation, a time for germination, a time to see what will grow. It’s heartening to remember that we are all playing the long game here. If you, too, are struggling with the very particular tensions of a creative career, I’d encourage you to try this attitude on for size. What season are you living in right now? To run this metaphor into the ground: What can you nurture today that you can reap later?

As Sarah points out, “If you have chosen a crazy path, it is probably because somewhere, deep down, you have the confidence to know you can do it. Things may seem unfair at times, but don’t let that take any of your energy. You may watch your friends buy houses while you are still waiting tables but if that voice is calling you, it will only get louder if you turn your back on it. You have to yield to it and feed it and be gentle with it and let it guide you.”

Sarah Goldberg is currently starring as Sally Reed in HBO’s Barry, Sundays at 10:30pm.

Photo by Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour by Getty Images.

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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