Elvis Has Left the Building

We’re inspired. Paint flies. Ideas run rampant and our only fear is one might escape before we get it on the canvas.  And then…nothing. Black nothingness. A post-apocalyptic wasteland. We’re left alone staring into our brain and see a gaping hole of rubble where yesterday flocks of ideas beckoned. The paintbrush feels like it weighs a hundred pounds and every stroke feels painful and kludgy. Panic starts to set in. Elvis…has left the building.

Stage 1 – Standing in front of a white canvas – paralyzed.

Stage 2 – Raw panic.

Stage 3 – You’re in a ball on the couch stuffing chips in your mouth reaching for the remote to binge watch Netflix.

What is it that inhabits our brain on one day pouring out ideas, energy and inspiration and then just up and leaves the next day? Connection to Spirit? A muse? Does it leave us or do we leave it? Will it ever come back? I stopped in to see an artist/gallery owner one day whose work I admired. She always seemed like an endless fount of inspiration. Year after year, fabulous work would consistently appear on the walls.  I sat down across from her. She looked up at me, said nothing for a few moments and then said slowly, “I’ve…got…nothing. It’s gone. There is absolutely NOTHING there.” There was a tinge of panic. It was a confession and plea. A confession of the secret we all carry that we aren’t the magical beings some people think we are. We aren’t the eternal fount of creativity with never a blip. It was a confession of the fear that the well was dry, that the ideas would never return. Just then, a mini-epiphany exploded in my brain, and though it didn’t diminish my empathy for her, it also made me feel suddenly not so alone.  This happens to all creative people. Perhaps more often for some than others. It may not be comfortable but it’s also not the end.

So, what you can do about it? How do you find your way back to productivity and inspiration? First, chill-ax. Take a breath. Stop begging your muse to come back. Your muse is just not that into you at the moment.  Quit acting like a jilted lover. Put a chip clip on the bag of chips, get off the couch, pick up a brush and just do the work. Be willing to do the work even when you feel….NOTHING! Feelings come. Feelings go. In true Elvis form feelings, “Ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Okay, that sounds dreary but when you understand the nature of inspiration, the nature of your muse, you’ll be able to trim your sails, navigate the seas and actually begin to enjoy the vagaries of the wind and waves.

Think of your muse as a lighthouse. When it completes its circuit and its beam falls on you the world lights up. We then expect it to come to a grinding halt and forever shed its light on us. When it moves on in its never-ending arc, leaving us once again in the dark, we throw a tantrum. We greedily want it to stop doing its job.  We forget it left us with a gift before it continued on its circuit. A new idea. Something to be curious about.

Let the light move on, get comfortable with the twilight. Know that as the light swings once again through its arc, it’s searching the horizon, it’s gathering new ideas to deliver to you when it next visits.  Our psyche, our creativity, our passion needs rest periods. It’s only fear that the beam will never complete its sweep and fall on us again that sends us to the couch with a bag of chips.  When you learn over time that yes, Elvis has left the building, BUT he is scheduled to return, we can relax and use the time for a number of things. Reconnecting with nature. Doing some introspection as to why, exactly, you paint. Practicing some core skills. Doing a focused study – the painter’s version of a musician doing their scales. In other words, spend/use the time productively so that when the beam sweeps around and falls on you again you’ll be prepared!  Half of the secret of life is being prepared so you won’t miss the moments when they present themselves.  When you’re alert and fit you can race that train to somewhere awesome and grab onto the handrail as it’s leaving the station on a new journey. If you’re asleep on the couch you’re going to miss the train.

So how about some pretty pain-free techniques for breaking out of a serious funk:

1. This is counter-intuitive, but try making yourself NOT go in your studio. Limit your painting time to something ridiculously doable like 30 minutes. If even that sounds painful make it 15. Set a timer and stop painting even if the fog is beginning to lift and things are going swimmingly. The magic moment will come when you desperately want to work past when the timer goes off. Stop anyway. Stay hungry my friend. Pretty soon you’ll begin passionately hating the timer. Passion is back…even if it’s in the form of glaring at a timer. You’ll fling the timer aside and paint on into the night. The funk will have been banished like a roach by the light.

2. Set a specific intention. Choose a reason to walk into the studio. ‘I will learn about…’ ‘I’m curious about…’ ‘What would happen if…’ ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to try…’

3. Use your tantrum as energy. Put up a dart board in the studio. Throw darts. Then throw paint…at a canvas. Be physical. Stand up to paint. Paint with energy. Don’t slouch in a chair. Jump up and strike the power pose. (Feet wide and strong, chest up, arms thrust above your head in exclamation and face pointing defiantly upwards.)

4. Figure out what it is that’s intimidating you. Hit it head on. Wrestle it to the ground. Stop staying safe.

5. Demand nothing of yourself except to go through the motions. Mix a little paint. Sit on the floor and put your art books in alphabetical order for no particular reason. Lie on the floor, stare at the studio upside down and imagine what life would be like walking around on the ceiling. Congratulate yourself on whatever small thing you managed.

I’ll leave you with an image: “Havana Nights.” It turned out to be one of my favorite paintings of the year. It was waiting for me on the other side of some impenetrable wall. There was a literal war going on inside me. I had no idea what to paint. My internal tantrum was palpable. Finally, by sheer will, stubbornness or exhaustion from my own mental battle I made myself walk into the studio, pick up a brush and make one mark. Then another. Then another. Then there was no stopping. Paintings want to be painted and we sometimes just need to allow them to manifest themselves by the simple act of picking up a brush no matter how we’re feeling.

No one is exempt from periods of struggle. Don’t worry. Pick up your brush. The magic always comes back. The lighthouse doesn’t stop shining. And remember…sometimes our best work waits for us on the other side of the greatest resistance.

Lyn Boyer - Havana Nights

Lyn Boyer – Havana Nights – Oil on linen – 14×18

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