How To Slay Your Creative Demons

The Devil is in the detail, but so are the Gods. Learning how to decern one from the other is vital for authentic creative work

image of Jan van Eyck, Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych for article by Larry G. Maguire

Painting by Jan van Eyck, Crucifixion and Last Judgement courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Devil is in the detail, but so are the Gods. Learning how to decern one from the other is vital for authentic creative work

A religious analogy, yes, but the concept holds; the deeper we go into our creative work, the greater the opportunity to come back with something special. But there’s a dark side to deep creative work. We can become so lost in the depths of it, in the minutiae, that we can’t find our way back out. We court the devil.

There’s also the prospect of skimming the surface too long — which is what most people do — trying to find that something that seems to be missing. But we can’t find it there. It’s only if we are willing to go deep, that we can find it.

Devils live on the surface too; these are the devils we know. And becoming accustomed to our helplessness, we endure their persecution for the sake of status and things.

And there lies the catch. Do we go deep and risk losing it all, or do we stay on the shallow surface in the hope that life will get better and our demons will someday leave us in peace?

I believe we have no choice.

Eventually, we’ll need to accept that we are both sides of the coin, both the positive and negative aspects of life. Going straight into it, whatever it is, is the only way to find that for which we are looking. But the irony is there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain, and we can’t know that until we do.

“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.”― Rainer Maria Rilke

The relationship with creative work is dichotomous. We go deep into the work and from beginning to end, there is a movement between flow and lack of flow. It’s unavoidable, and without it, there can be no creative expression. It’s present in writing, art, crafts, the trades, crunching numbers, doing housework, and every form of human activity you can imagine.

You might say, how can housework be creative?

Well, it is.

In the correct state of mind, housework becomes a yoga — a way of becoming. Peeling spuds, washing dishes, sweeping the floor, hanging clothes on the line; they all represent a means to find oneself. It is our inability to form this realisation that makes these everyday things a hassle. We can’t wait to escape the inconvenience of the work, and in this frustrated state of mind, we court our dark side — perpetual frustration, unease, discomfort, and anxiety.

It’s a low-level inescapable discomforting hum.

It’s called living in temporal time, and the unavoidable truth is that most of us exist in this state and call it the normality of life. We endure the boring sameness of every day, every week, month and year, looking forward to only occasional respite in holidays, weekend breaks, and TV.

In contrast, most artists and writers know how to be present. They know how to go deep. Without a presence in the only moment that exists, there can be no creative expression. The artist knows this intimately and seeks solitude.

“The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”― Aldous Huxley

I become lost in that private place and the self that I refer to as I, disappears. I merge with the work. That’s how it feels for me and many others I have read and with whom I have spoken.

Deep inside the thing, it’s detailed and chaotic.

It seems like all the answers are there, but everything looks the same. It’s like a cloud of choices floating in the space in front and around me — a maze of detail and possibility. From this nebulous cloud, I have to find the elements that fit, but I can’t see them. It’s like I’m blind. I know I can find them, but I have to be careful because if time comes into the equation, then I’m fucked. It’s like the real world is reaching in, trying to confine me to its boundaries. I must stay focused.

In the depths of that place, there seems to be a divide. I can’t find the line, and perhaps doing so is impossible, but it exists nonetheless. It’s hazy and grey, it’s always moving and I can’t see it. In the course of the work, I suddenly find myself on the dark side of the divide. I feel stuck, undecided, frustrated and useless. I try desperately to figure it out but I can’t — it’s dying.

“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”― Oscar Wilde

It feels like there’s no release. I think what’s the point; I should just kill this thing. I get up from my desk, walk out the door and up to the house. I pace around the kitchen, make a cup of coffee and let it sit. Then after a while, maybe 20 minutes, I go back and something shifts.

Perhaps what I made isn’t great, but the devil is off my back — for now, and I’ve crossed back over the divide.

That’s how it feels, and that’s what I do to kill the devil. He comes back; he always does. I have to accept that without him, nothing worthwhile will be made. He is a cooperative component in the making of the thing.

Regardless of however deep we decide to go in our daily work, there will be a devil to defeat. So in that, there is little to fear, nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What better reason than to go deeper than anyone else?

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters