How to Not Go Insane When Your Artistic Well Is Dry
by Erin Bagwell
Founder of Feminist Wednesday & Co-host of BeaverTalk
I’m a doer. A workhorse. A creator. I️ feel empty when I’m not immersed in the work. I️ feel an instinctual urge in my bones to build, make, and pour my heart into something. I’m not one of those people who overthinks the process, my safe space is in the madness.
However this past year my well was dry. Having poured all my creative energy the past three years into making Dream, Girl I️ felt physically depleted and emotionally drained. I remember viscerally being in the thick of editing last year. I would come home every night creatively exhausted in a way I’ve never felt before, fall onto the couch for an hour of “The Good Wife” and drop myself into bed. I didn’t go out on the weekends, see my friends during that time, or go to any events. I barely saw my husband the first year of our marriage, and I blacked out my whole calendar (no calls, meetings, or press) for months just to focus on the film.
By the end I just wanted so desperately to finish it, and every hour I wasn’t working on Dream, Girl was filled with guilt. The last mile of a marathon is the hardest, and I felt that fully. Knowing we had the endorsement of Oprah and that we were premiering at the White House just added to the intensity of the heightened expectations I had for this film.
So by the time Dream, Girl was completed, I was a shell of myself, creatively. The week we premiered at the White House I had both the flu and a sinus infection and was ready to go into retirement. Yet despite being so over it, I remember declaring on our car ride home from the premiere I was ready to make another movie. That creative call to fulfill your destiny is never silenced for long, no matter how tired you are.
However the first few weeks after the film was released I felt the exhaustion in a palpable way. The emptiness I was experiencing emotionally, that the creative work was done, was so painful. I felt lost and disconnected with my identity. If I couldn’t create or make- who was I?
To make matters worse instead of letting myself “be” where I was at, I️ felt external pressure to move on and concur the next mountaintop.
But I️ wasn’t ready.
My creative energy wasn’t replenished enough to do anything. Taking the advice of Liz Gilbert in “Big Magic” I focused on other artistic endeavors. I wrote. I painted. I watched more “The Good Wife” and slowly started to refill the well.
But there were definitely days and weeks where this lack of artistic ambition drove me insane.
I️ felt lazy, guilty, and ashamed of myself for not being able to tap into my creative energy and dive head first into production on another film. Although I was (and still am) working full time on our distribution company and traveling extensively with the film (we facilitated over 250 community screening events in our first year of release) it didn’t feel like enough. I’d wake up every morning, stare at the empty abyss of the blank page and a familiar fear would wash over me.
However, just recently I’ve started being more kind to myself about this process. I’d journal and reflect and ask the myself questions like: Where am I️ at? Where do I️ want to be? What do I️ want to work on?
And honestly the time I’ve spent working day to day on Dream, Girl has influenced these answers greatly and I️ find myself less distressed at the cosmic timing of the creative process. When a mother gives birth we don’t expect her to be healed the next day. Time is a necessary (yet often frustrating) part of the creative process.
Not only do we need to give ourselves the space to do nothing, instead of being angry at ourselves or mourn this time we need to celebrate it. We need to live in it, and we need to honor it.
How many times in our lives do we get the privilege of being still? To have our only job be to reflect and process and explore.
So next time you feel lost or empty or discouraged that you haven’t locked into your next big break take a moment to pause and see where you are really at.
Maybe your heart just wants to rest. And that’s okay.