Creativity: After Completing a Major Project

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My readers may note the dearth of posts regarding creativity from me for the past several weeks. The reason for this is simple: I was composing a rather major musical work that took roughly four months. To meet the deadline, I had to put all other creative projects on hold (including blog posts) for the final month. I am happy with how the project turned out, but after completing it, I am rather exhausted. This fatigue led me to ponder the reason this occurs, and the place of rest in the creative professional’s life.

Why does one require rest after completing such a large project? Why is it not sufficient to simply continue on to the next project without delay? What, precisely, is being refreshed, and how? How much rest is sufficient? Is this sort of creativity even good for the creator? These questions are quite broad, and likely cannot be adequately explored by a single article. However, it may be worthwhile to offer some brief thoughts.

I have read about two types of creative routines. I will call them “Sustained” and “Burst.” The sustained creator engages in smaller acts of creativity that, due to their consistency, add up over time. This person may work on one or multiple projects, and will complete them at different times. The most important aspect of this is the habit itself: the creator must maintain the momentum.

“Burst” creators perform the opposite act: they will be at rest, and then will suddenly begin work on a project (usually a major one). This project will consume all of their creative hours, and perhaps even spill into the rest of their schedule (to the irritation of a gracious spouse). This may continue for weeks, months, or even years. The creator, in a sense, becomes “possessed” by the process. Once it is complete, the creator feels spent. He puts the project away, elated at having completed such a monumental work and excited for the effect it will have on his audience. After a brief time of renewed energy, he is suddenly exhausted. He may attempt to create something else, but this attempt often ends with a result that is merely derivative of the recently-created large work – if it results in anything at all.

Thus, the creator takes a well-earned rest. With the significant amount of advice given to writers on the Internet, one could be forgiven for believing that such a time of rest is harmful. It is not. In fact, it is essential. For a major work, a creator “puts his soul on the page.” It is an extension of himself, and requires intense concentration for a prolonged period of time. Would one begrudge an athlete his repose after a lengthy demonstration of endurance? Would one think ill of a doctor for taking several weeks off after working long shifts for many months? Would one even be able to sustain such an intense pace without rest?

I would suspect not. It seems often assumed that, because creators love their work to such a degree, they should enjoy the act of continued creation regardless of when it occurs. Many see it as more akin to recreation than to work. Of course, it is most enjoyable. There are few thrills in life greater than that of penning the first notes of a symphonic suite, typing the first words of a novel, or putting the first stroke of the paintbrush onto the canvas. There are few things that bring more delight to a creator than seeing their creation travel gradually from formless to form, from nonexistence to existence, from idea to completed work. There are few things more gratifying, rewarding, and joyful for a creator than the praise of an audience member. There are few things that invigorate a composer more than to hear a listener humming the melody he has written after the concert, or an artist to see many people gathered around her painting to admire it, or an author to hear of his readers’ delight in a favorite character. It is completely true that creators love their work!

However, it must be duly noted that it is still work. Like any profession, it must be practiced to proficiency, even if one is terrible at it in the beginning. It must be engaged in every day with consistency, whether one “feels like it” or not. It is enjoyable, but it still possesses challenges that must be overcome.

And like any work, one must, from time to time, rest from it. The most efficient cleaning cloth must still be cleaned, wrung out, and permitted to dry; it cannot simply keep going indefinitely. As I write this, it strikes me that both creative types require this same rest. Therefore, the real question might be, “Which creative process is superior?”

I believe the answer is, “The one that works for you.” Numerous creators have used both processes throughout history. Ultimately, the only questions that matter are:

  1. Does the creator create work of good quality?
  2. Does the creator meet the deadlines?
  3. Does the creator avoid “burnout”?

Of course, Burst Creativity carries an added risk: the loss of the creative routine once a project is complete. This, in turn, can make it more difficult to begin another major project, and can also cause smaller projects to suffer. It may even cause the creator to despise the process!

How does one mitigate this risk? As someone who has “burst-created” many projects, this is a question that I often ask. My solution has actually been to become more of a sustained creator, but with occasional bursts when necessary. After all, it is easier to speed up an object that is already moving than to begin its motion anew. Here is my process:

  1. When finished with a major project, I may take a short period of complete rest. I do nothing of real value during this time. It is a time of relaxation and slowed pace.
  2. After this brief period, I look at my list of current projects. This helps me to regain excitement for new creativity.
  3. I begin working on a simpler project (or continue an old one). This is usually a project that I believe I can complete within a short timeframe. Sometimes, this “project” may only be an exercise that is not intended for an audience.
  4. I complete the project, which makes me feel even more energized and encouraged. Because this project was small, it did not require as much creative energy, and so will not require as much rest afterward. My creative momentum will be maintained.

This process allows me to ease back into the creative flow, rather than forcing it. It gives me the satisfaction of completion without necessitating another significant rest period (and therefore, a disruption to the creative momentum), and it still allows me to “burst” my creativity when necessary. It seems that this “recovery phase” is key. Neglecting Step 1 may “run me ragged,” and make future projects sounds derivative of previous ones. Neglecting Step 2 can cause me to create aimlessly, prolonging the delay in regaining creative momentum (since the project is not completed). Attempting a project that is too difficult in Steps 3 and 4 can cause discouragement, which makes it more difficult to “awaken the muse.” And the muse can only wake up if he has received sufficient sleep to begin with.

It seems that this blog post has served well as a simple, quick creative project. What a delightful way to begin the week! I hope it has encouraged you as well.

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