Learning to Live with Lulls in a Creative Career
Photo by Corrinne Theodoru
Those of you who have done restaurant work know that when things are slow, you do prep work: polishing silverware, cutting slices of lemon, cleaning the bar fridge, and other little tasks. That way, when you are slammed with customers at 7 p.m., you’ll be as prepared as possible. The busy time is when you make all your money, but if you only worked during the rush periods and didn’t do these other tasks during quieter moments, the “crunch time” would become very unpleasant and maybe even less profitable. The busy, money-making hours are full of adrenaline, but they are exhausting. The quieter periods on either end help balance them out.
I had a conversation with another artist recently, about the anxiety that self-employed creatives can feel during the lull between jobs. This is something that I have plenty of experience with. In fact, I'm in a lull right now. I think it’s a normal part of having a creative business, and we need to learn to stick it out through these lulls. Unlike at a restaurant, we can’t be sure when (or if) the “crunch time” will hit. It can be scary. It’s hard for us to appreciate the quiet periods, and yet we could never maintain our “crunch time” activity levels 24/7/365, either.
In my art career, I have seasons of lull, and seasons of creation. These don't always correspond with income, so there are lulls between revenue seasons, too. Essentially, I have the potential to experience two types of lull. Doubt can start to creep in if it’s been too long since I’ve created, or too long since a lucrative revenue season. My in-person workshops take place during the warmer months, and wrap up in the Fall, and it’s easy for me to get an uneasy feeling financially as that season comes to a close.
Sharpen Your Tools
My husband Peter builds houses, and when he has downtime, he sharpens his tools. How can you “sharpen your tools” during your downtime? Maybe you can update your skills. This might be a good time to make some new work, or improve a skill. Or, get out there - Is there an opportunity to make a connection with someone in your field?
For me, sharpening my tools—and putting my mind at ease—means cleaning out my studio. My productive times of painting and workshops and open studios are busy. Cleaning my studio makes me feel ready for the next thing. I believe that every time I physically clean and clear out the space, new work comes my way. Recently I was feeling high anxiety at the lull in work. I took half of the furniture out of my studio into the hallway (my neighbors thought I was moving!) and thoroughly cleaned and organized the space. I ended up taking a whole carload of donations to Goodwill. The studio felt completely transformed, and I felt mentally prepared. And then boom—In came a few commissions! Online class sign-ups! Painting sales! Knowing from experience, right before a period of growth, I get a panicky feeling—and all I need to do is settle down, clean my studio, and make sure everything is in order.
Get Ready for the Next Wave of Inspiration
During a studio cleaning a year ago, I gathered all the large canvases I had. I gessoed over ten that weren’t going in a direction that was interesting. These evolved into my full tropical series, which were a special series of paintings that really moved my career forward at the time.
I was able to gesso them over because I knew that inevitably and dependably, inspiration is coming. That’s the most important thing to surviving these lulls in a creative career: absolutely trust that the next wave of inspiration is coming, the next body of work is coming, the next freelance clients are coming. The universe has your back.
If I look back on my life, I see that the universe has always had my back. Sometimes, the universe is called my Mom, and I call her for help and we problem-solve together. (PS I love you mom!) But most of the time it’s pretty cosmic and divine and more mysterious than that.
I’m also reminded of surfing, which I enjoy. The waves come in sets; and sometimes you have a period when you have no waves approaching. You are resting or stretching on your board. But you know that there will always be another wave coming—you just need to be patient. The flow of creativity is as endless as the waves! We just need to relax and wait for the next set to come.
This has served as a good reminder for me as the winter approaches—the time of year when I need to keep my head when the days get dark and lulls strike!