I’m writing this sooner than my next scheduled post, mainly because it’s relevant to how I’ve been feeling lately and I use writing as a therapeutic tool, but also because I think the subject will resonate with a lot of other people, which makes it worth talking about.
I’m calling it ‘post-creativity comedown’ because that’s how I’ve come to think of it, but I’ve seen it referred to as ‘post-creation depression’, ‘post-project depression’ or ‘post-adrenaline blues’ in various different articles I’ve come across online.
If you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time working on a single project, you’ll know the feeling I mean: you’ve been totally immersed in doing the thing you love most, and suddenly it’s over and you have to come back to Earth with a bump. It sucks. It really does. Life seems completely dull, dreary and meaningless; all you want is to go back to working on that project, but there’s nothing more you can do. It’s done. You’ve finished. It’s like ending a relationship that you’re not ready to let go of, or coming back home after an amazing holiday and wishing you could still be there.
This is something I’ve struggled with on many occasions throughout my creative life – I’ve performed in plays, toured with a band, recorded an EP and worked on several long-term writing projects – and to be honest, no matter how many times I experience it, it never gets any easier. I’m always left with that ache in my belly that won’t go away – that pining feeling that leaves you restless and irritable, and makes you a total pain in the arse to anyone unlucky enough to be around you.
See below for a visual representation of that feeling 😀 (Tip: Joining a heavy-metal band means you can scream in people’s faces and they just cheer louder!)
Personally, I think this is what makes creativity so addictive: after riding the high of self-expression, excitement and imaginative indulgence, you’re left with a big gaping hole in your life that nothing else is able to fill.
Various studies have established links between depression and creativity, and there’s a good reason we’re all familiar with the cliché of the tortured artist. It’s almost a cultural norm to expect creative people to be slightly unhinged, as though depression is just the price that has to be paid for greatness.
That feeling of restlessness is – I believe – the reason so many writers, artists, actors and musicians end up with drink and drug problems, sex addictions and other forms of self-destructive behaviour. They’re chasing that euphoric feeling they get when they’re creating something, but really there is no substitute. Creation is the purest form of self-expression, in my opinion, and you can’t replace that with artificial stimulants, even if they make you feel sated for a while.
As a writer, expressing myself through fiction is the highest high I’ve ever felt. Nothing gets my blood singing like losing myself in a story; I can go without food, without sleep, without seeing or talking to anyone, without washing even, as long as I can keep writing. In fact, all those things become unwelcome distractions – obligations that ‘interrupt my flow’ (pretentious, moi?). But what goes up must come down, and in an effort to avoid becoming a cliché, I’ve learned to manage my post-creativity comedowns a little more… creatively.
Firstly, it’s really important to accept that you will have highs and lows – that’s natural – and there’s evidence to suggest that creative-types experience these things more intensely because we’re often more prone to dwelling on our thoughts and examining our deepest, darkest feelings. Having said that, there are coping mechanisms you can use to take the edge off and deal with your negative thoughts/ feelings in a healthy, productive way, and I’ve developed a few over the course of my writing life, which I want to share with you.
The biggest difference between my strategy now and my strategy of a few years ago is that now I actually have one! I have learned to anticipate, recognise and manage those feelings so that I don’t end up camping out on the sofa for days on end, binge-watching Netflix, surviving on biscuits and letting my house fester around me. (It’s fine if I’m doing that just to have a rest, but there’s a difference between resting and being crippled by negative thoughts.)
I know full well that when I come to the end of a project – or even the end of a section that’s been an emotional rollercoaster – I will need some recovery time and something to keep me occupied. The below suggestions are in no particular order, and for me each one can be more or less useful depending on my mood, but all of them have helped in the past, and sometimes I have to cycle through them until I land on the one that feels the most comforting at the time.
1) Have another project in the pipeline. I’m not talking about an in-depth proposal here, but an idea to daydream over, something to space out on so you’re not left feeling completely adrift. Maybe you’ve already had some ideas for initial research, or for a character you can develop or a plot you want to explore. Whatever it is, have something ready so you can ease yourself down off the creative high without plummeting face-first into the ground.
Having just finished a book I’ve been working on on-and-off for over seven years, I’m slap-bang in the middle of this feeling at the moment. But unlike on other occasions, this time I’ve been more proactive in preparing myself for the slump, and I’ve got a lot coming up this year including a masters degree to start in October (assuming I get accepted). As part of the application process I had to draw up a project proposal for my next book, which is great because now I already know what that’s going to be about, so I have an enormous amount of research to get stuck into whether I end up on the course or not.
2) Write a short story or a piece of flash fiction, or do some free-writing . Short fiction is great for using up that last bit of creative energy, with the added benefit that you now have another title to add to your body of work 🙂 Look at it as novel after-birth. You have this residual writing energy that needs to go somewhere, so why not use it to explore an idea or a feeling, or play with a character or a situation that takes your fancy?
Short-story form didn’t come naturally to me, but two years of creative writing study with the OU helped me develop my skills in that medium, and now I can even crack out a bit of flash fiction when the mood takes me. The more tools you have at your disposal the more options you have when you want to be creative, so if you’re like me and you prefer writing long, involved pieces, it’s still worth practising other forms for situations such as these.
3) Music, either playing or listening. I love to sing and I’m OK at guitar, so being able to get away from my laptop screen and fiddle around with songs is a great form of stress-relief for me. Having said that, sometimes I’m too exhausted to do anything more than listen – or sometimes I’d just rather be passive than active – and I find that cranking out my favourite heart-soaring, spine-tingling music, full blast through headphones, lying on the floor/ sofa with my eyes closed can be amazingly therapeutic.
Thirty Seconds To Mars is my main go-to band, but sometimes I’ll stick on Wildwood Kin, Florence and the Machine, Pink, James Bay, or something really heavy or grungy like Disturbed, Seether or Tool. As long as I can howl/ cry/ scream along to it, it does the trick: it gets those angsty visceral feelings out!
4) Next, kind of obvious but still really effective – read! Read something by one of your favourite authors, something with characters you know and love or at least characters you can invest in. Let a fellow-writer transport you somewhere outside your own head for a while, and remember why you fell in love with writing in the first place. A bit of escapism can do you the world of good, and if you find your thoughts drifting back to your own work, just remember that the book in your hand started out that way as well – let the positive thoughts have a turn.
5) There’s always the good ol’ TV option, but in my experience it has to be a film/ show you really, really love, something with a brilliant story that you find really absorbing. If it doesn’t grab you, you’ll just end up spacing out and brooding on your work, which puts you right back at square one.
Comedy works best for me because it jolts me out of feeling sorry for myself, and natural endorphins are the best way to beat the blues. I tend to go for comedy when I’m the least in the mood for it, because that’s when I know I need it the most. Black Books is great for that, or Cats Does Countdown, The IT Crowd or some Russell Howard, although I tend to avoid political satire when I’m a bit ‘on the edge’ because it can have the opposite effect to the one I’m going for. Save the doom and gloom (even if it’s conveyed in a funny way) for when you’re feeling more stable, and stick with the light-hearted nonsensical stuff when you’re low.
6) Go and see people. This one can be a bit hit-and-miss for me because if I’m feeling down I don’t always want to be around people, and other hoomans can be notoriously unpredictable! I have a few friends who are also creative, so they understand when I explain why I’m feeling poo, but if I’m really having a strop then seeing people doesn’t always help, and sometimes the feeling comes back as soon as I get home and I’m right back where I started.
This solution usually works best for me after I’ve done one or more of the others, when I’m already feeling a bit better and I want to engage with the world again. We’re all different though, so maybe for you it’s better to begin with this one. See how you feel about it and pay attention to the effect it has – at least you’ll know for next time.
I think that’s all of my top ones. Of course there are lots of other things you can do – go for a walk or a drive, call someone, do some gaming, cook something yum, binge-clean the house, go to the gym or the cinema, go out dancing with your friends, whatever gets you out of your own head and makes you engage with something other than the project you were working on.
In my experience, being able to channel my negative feelings into a new piece of work is the most positive way to avoid spiralling into depression, because I’m focusing that energy on being productive, which instantly makes me feel better about myself.
That’s another reason this blog is a good idea for me. When I first sat down to write this post, I was filled with that intense restlessness that makes it impossible to relax. I’d had a busy day – working on the blog, doing some freelance pieces, editing a short story and drawing up a rough outline for my next book – but I still felt too hyped-up to stop. That belly-ache was making itself felt.
Now, I’ve got 30STM on Spotify, a dog snuggling either side of me and a blanket over my lap, and as I come to the end of writing this I finally feel like I’ve got everything out of my system for the day.
I never thought I’d become the kind of person who gets agitated by inactivity, but I think once you start progressing your tolerance for work goes up, and when you stop it’s like peddling downhill – you have all that energy but nowhere for it to go. I’m counting that as a positive because it means I can use it to do more things, including writing this blog, but it’s taken me a while to learn how to channel it.
I hope this has helped – it’s certainly helped me as I’ve written it. Let me know what your coping strategies are or if any of these suggestions have helped, and don’t forget to check out my next official post on Monday on the first steps of beginning a new novel.
Feel free to tweet me @RoseJamesAuthor and take care of yourselves 🙂