Writing From the Yin: how to make art when you have no energy

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The pressure to create in 2018 can be daunting. Art is more accessible than ever–and every creator’s skills must be diversified to match. We maintain websites, social media accounts, and blogs. Behind the scenes, we submit, query, and apply to industry gate-keepers. If we’re freelancers, we attract clients and strive to keep them. Creators not only need to build and polish a body of work, but also a public platform, network, and brand. 

Assert. Connect. Convince. Perfect. Compete. Achieve. Your productivity and gravitas, as much as your skill, can feel like your value as a creator. The story is this: you must exert a massive amount of passion and drive if you wish to succeed.

In Daoist philosophy, these facets might be called the Yang of making art in 2018. Yang is the active principle of the universe. It’s powerful, vital, and creative–and in this particular case, central to succeeding in creative fields. But when the Yang is not shared equally with the Yin, the passive principle, it’s imbalanced at best and nonfunctional at worst.

At the beginning of this year, I found myself with absolutely no energy. Call it burnout, or whatever you wish, but the bottom line was this: I couldn’t do the things I normally would advance myself as an artist. What’s more, my linear thinking was demolished–as well as any belief that there was a grand plan for me or that I was meant to be anything special.

Linearity is not only the key to communicating effectively online (and for crafting blog posts such as this one), but it’s also key for envisioning and completing the steps necessary to pursue a career. Most artists believe, on some level, that they can make it–that they have something to say that means something to the world. That they can attain a level of fame or success, whatever the definition. The belief in, and desire for, my own achievement has guided me through many challenges on my path. 

None of these drives are wrong. They can be incredibly healthy, in fact. They are the hope that lights the darkest nights in every creator’s life, allowing them to continue on when they otherwise would not. But these drives didn’t guide me anymore. I found them obliterated–by trauma, by exhaustion, by a deep and personal experience with death, disease, madness, and destruction. Without these drives, I couldn’t harness the energy I used to to get my work done. The Yang of art was out of my grasp, as though it had left me completely. 

Here’s the thing, though: I still felt, and feel, like an artist. It doesn’t mean quite the same thing to me as it did before, and I’m not motivated by quite the same drives. But it’s not gone. Instead, I had to find a new framework that would allow me to keep going, even as much of my perceptions and constructs about myself, my art, and the world had fallen apart.

I discovered the art of creating from the Yin. 

I don’t expect anyone to have had quite the same experiences as me, but I know I’m not the only person to feel what I feel, and that is the point of connection I’m looking to share. In an ideal world, every artist is able to balance their own personal Yin and Yang and reap the benefits of both in their creative practice (not that ideals can ever truly be achieved). But if you’ve ever felt tired, demotivated, burnt out, or completely brought down in your life and found it affecting your art, then this post shares some wisdom for you. 

Phase One: Integrate Rest and Creativity 

Yin is symbolized traditionally by darkness, shadow, coldness, mystery, and the moon–but its most defining element, and the most practical for this purpose, is passivity. Rest. Nondoing. When I found myself struggling to even get out of bed, passivity felt antithetical to making art. Action and nonaction, by nature of this very paradigm, are opposite forces, after all.

What I had to do was recontextualize activity and passivity. I had to, as best I could, obliterate the line between the two. Before then, self-care was something I most often did when I wasn’t working–something I would accomplish when I had time for it, or my important tasks were done. However, that delineation didn’t necessarily make me more productive. Instead, it often froze me. When your spirit demands rest but your mind desires work, what do you do but become stuck?

Now that rest has become a vital component of my life, it has also become vital for my art. It’s been the kind of change that can only be born out of necessity. 

Instead of self-care and creative work being like two opposite river banks, with a rush of deep water between, they have become more like a water cycle. Each state gives way to the other, as though on a circle instead of a line. I rest, so I make art. I make art, so I rest. More and more, they are one and the same activity. When I am at the most peace, my creative work calms and rejuvenates me much as sleep, reading, or yoga does. Ater all, both resting and making art are vital to my wellbeing, why should they be separate in my mind? 

It has taken me time to meld self-care and creative work, and I do not always do it perfectly. Perhaps you aren’t needing quite as much rest I do, or perhaps you are–either way, if you are just starting out, I suggest finding the most fundamental aspects of your self-care and try viewing them as keystones to your creative practice.

For you, it might be sleeping on a regular schedule. Or drinking enough water. Or eating three square meals every day. It might be meditating, or going for a walk, or just sitting outside for while. It might be seeing a therapist. Choose one or two to start and be as dedicated to them as you are pursuing your craft and career. Observe how your relationship to your art changes when rest becomes an integrated part of its practice. 

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Phase Two: Exchange Productivity with Experimentation

As you attempt to recontextualize rest, I suggest you also try to recontextualizing creativity. It’s easy to get pulled into the pressure of perfecting and advancing our main art forms. After all, our creative practices are the foundations we build our careers upon, and often our identities as well. That pressure can be a powerful motivator. It can push us to deepen our mastery, put ourselves out there, pursue new opportunities, and achieve our dreams.

But, when focusing on productivity becomes one-sided, or when the pressure from life or work becomes too high, the constant striving can lead to stagnation, repetition, exhaustion, and burnout. 

Instead of trying to change the way you feel about your main work, I suggest gently and open-heartedly experimenting with different forms of art, even for as little as 15 minutes or an hour each night. For me, this meant stepping away from my novel, short stories, and cultural criticism for a time. Instead, I allowed myself to be a novice and to explore. 

I gravitated toward oil pastel drawings, lyrical writing, and tabletop gaming. 

The art got me off the computer. It let me work with my hands, express myself, and allowed me to give up trying to fit everything into a structured, cohesive narrative. Poetry and lyrical writing allowed me to write, but without the pressure of polishing pieces to publish or impress. And, tabletop gaming allowed to me to tell a narrative story, but without doing it alone, without doing it perfectly, and without worrying about pleasing anyone but myself and my friends. This was perhaps the best of all, because it allowed me to laugh. 

They became my Yin artforms. All of them got me off the Internet. All of them got me to stop thinking linearly. All of them are restful and rejuvenating. And none of them directly advance my career. But you know what? They loosened up the tension and pressure around my professional artforms, and now that I’ve returned to novel and essay writing, I’m a better, freer, happier writer because of it. 

What your Yang art is and what your Yin art is might be different for you than it was for me. But the key is this: if it gets you out of your normal state of mind, relaxes you, helps you express yourself, abandons achievement, and encourages experimentation, it might be your Yin art. Practice it, and you may find yourself incorporating those principals into your professional work as well. 

Phase Three: Seek Community over the Individual 

The myth of the of the individual artist still reigns. And, in many ways, it’s true. No one will sit down and do your work but you. No one can share your wisdom but you. And no one will see what you make for the world if you don’t share it with them. In many ways, being an artist is a solitary and personal path.

The egoism of that path can be a wonderful tool, and we often harness it to pursue our dreams. Ego is how artists have an identity. Empowerment. Direction. But when individuality reigns alone, the pressure to assert yourself can become daunting, draining, and isolating. How can I conquer my dreams? How can I achieve perfection? How do I win the game of art? The answer to these questions is impossible, but if you find yourself asking them anyway, you may find peace in your Yin. 

The Yin of the artist is not individual. It does not assert. It does not strive. It’s passive. But that does not mean it does not act.

The Yin of art can look like so many things, but the simplest perhaps is reading. Reading allows you to connect with art in the most passive way possible: you must give in, rest, listen, think, and be silent for a moment, to read. It has long been heralded as the chief practice for a writer–save for writing, of course. The standard wisdom is that both equally important for writing craft. Equally vital. 

There’s no question as to why. If writing is the Yang, reading is its Yin. You must practice them in unison to grow. 

But writing from the Yin doesn’t only have to be reading. Try seeing yourself in a support role. As a listener. An observer. A sharer of wisdom. A part of a creative collective. Offer to provide constructive criticism on a friend’s work. Or, better yet, listen and empathize with their pain, worries, and joys. They are likely struggling as much as you are, and in need of as much care as you. Consider taking on a collective project, be it a team painting, a co-authored story, or a D&D game. Decenter your own ego from your creative identity, and watch how it frees you, connects you, and inspires you in all of your work. 

Yin is like water, it flows and supports. In practicing it, you may find yourself supported in turn. You still need your Yang to thrive, but if you find yourself tired, imbalanced, or lost, sit down. Close the computer. Put down your pen. Open a window, and open a book. Breathe. This is a part of your craft, too. 

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