Creative drought and identity crisis – how to feel slightly less dreadful

Dear free-falling freelancers, the flock in which I find myself; are you frantic, too? Do you feel flightless?

What are we if not what we do, if not what we make? Commissions, projects and productions, a scant living but a joyful art. People! These things are our guide feathers, our winter down. We’re all so plucked.

I got together with fellow poet-theatre-maker-producer Zoe to interrogate these sensations of collapsing identity. What I mean is, we had a much-needed commiseration Zoom. We’re both trying so hard, but we just can’t write the poetry and theatre that we thought made us who we are. Were?

Nor can we scrape together enough success from the constant hustle to pay our bills. Nor can we slice our energy fine enough to feed the housework and exercise and good home cooking and social Skypeing AND survival.

Dear free-falling freelancers, do you feel you’re flailing, failing?

A magazine picture of a sad-looking woman in a glorious evening gown made of overlapping white petals edged with black sequins has been stuck into a scrapbook. Handwriting underneath reads "But will I ever write poetry again?"
A page from my sketchbook-scrapbook diary

Here are some of the most useful or uplifting straws Zoe and I gave each other to laugh and clutch at, perhaps they may help you too.

“Expect less of yourself”. This line and many others from this brilliant article on ‘surge capacity’ might speak to many. It’s difficult to apply patience when creativity is your selfhood and your livelihood, but even without a global pandemic you gotta fill the well sometimes. My fellows, lie fallow. Make like a daffodil and spend winter in a bulb of nurturing inactivity. Trust the art will grow again.

Appreciate what you’ve already made/take a holiday in a different art form. Pin your poems to your walls and read them aloud. Make them a gift of some illustrations. Sing them on your tea break. Imagine what they’d look like on the dance floor (good, I bet). Dance them. Turn to them when Zoom has eaten your brain. Trust the art will grow from unexpected directions.

Find a foul-weather friend. It’s hoying it down out there, psychologically. Is there anyone who would collaborate on something small and joyous with you? My friend Jo and I are posting each other envelopes of scrap papers and postcards every so often, as a collage challenge. She reached out to me, and I’m grateful she did. Could you reach out to someone else who is pretending to have their shit together? Trust the art will grow between you.

A slid-open matchbox. The outer cover has been collaged with a picture of a blackbird on a branch full of red berries, with a berry in his mouth. The inside box is lined with silver foil and has been collaged with the head of a blackbird and a scroll of musical score.
A matchbox collage made and posted to Jo during lockdown

Spend your energy wisely. My mentor told me, you can’t get out of a crisis like this by working harder. Decide – that thing you’re doing for money, is it a temporary life raft, or are you building an ark? Paddle accordingly. Zoe has found a life raft that is enjoyable and does good in the world. Right now, that’s all she needs to do – oh and watch out for any glimmer of creative enjoyment round the edges. I have the resources to gamble on a year of ark-building. I’m trying to focus and not go for every opportunity, because I know I can’t make a quilt out of those few scraps anyway. None of us can. This video of Elizabeth Gilbert may be helpful with anyone struggling with “I am what I do” and “I don’t want to find a life raft”. Trust the art will grow in the corners.

Be kind to your muse. Again with the Gilbert, though she uses the word ‘genius’. Your creativity isn’t down to you, it’s whispered to you by your genius. Your genius is tired and confused and over-stimulated by All The Everything. Reassure it that you will listen out for, and make a note of, any tiny sliver of inspiration they can pass your way. Draw a flattering portrait of your muse and put it on your wall in your peripheral vision. Ask your genius how they’re feeling, and if they might send you something in your dreams. Trust the art will grow again.

For networking and practical support (mostly north east UK) here are some links for you:

Tyne & Wear Cultural Freelancers

Freelance Taskforce

Freelance Lifestylers

Wor Culture

NE Creative Producers Network

Poetry Promotors

Creative Freelancers UK

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