Is The Pressure To Perform Busy, Killing Your Creative Core?

This is a guest post by Elena Thomas. After a recent conversation, I invited Elena to share her experiences as an artist and songwriter dealing with external expectations on her workflow. It relates to so many areas of life, where the pressure to perform busy can alienate us from ourselves and our work.

I love observing twigs. I’ve been drawing a lot of them lately. After a year or more of doing abstract pieces, it is nice to feed the abstraction with lines, forms and textures. These are slow and quiet moments for me.

Just like calm mornings in bed, when my mind is fresh and hasn’t started filling with thoughts about mundane chores. I can see connections when I’m relaxed, and I’m usually able to pick the right words to express them.

I have a dedicated bag for the twigs. They get picked on trips to my local park; a mindful and care filled practice.

After six months of creative recovery, this process has helped stem the worry I started to feel about my lack of inspiration. And as so often happens, a couple of small ideas eventually emerged – song lyrics.

Is The Pressure To Perform Busy, Killing Your Creative Core?

Performing Busy as an Artist

In September 2020, I started work on ‘Drawing Songs’, a funded project that brought together my songwriting and drawing. During two years of planning, I figured out how I wanted to approach and structure it and what I needed to write for the funding bid.

When the money came, I’d made most of the creative decisions, researched, and collected the raw materials. I just needed to trust my processes and bring it all together.

But I noticed something that happens when a project is funded by public money. There is a pressure to LOOK like a professional. To perform busy in my role. I had to be visible, holding events, showing evidence of the work so far and proving I was delivering on time. I felt the presence of an external gaze observing me.

It was great fun to collaborate and create art in this way. I learned so much and got a lot from the progress I made in producing and presenting my work. Technical and practical development was a significant part of the experience. But these times are neither slow nor quiet. And I am always conscious of other people’s opinions.

Navigating The In-Between

The anticipated slump arrives after a project. I know it’s coming. So I arrange soul-feeding activities and open myself to explore the world beyond my own. I meet other artists, visit studios, and attend galleries and exhibitions. This helps me re-stock and re-energise my depleted reserves.

And this is why I can now start writing again. My brain has been a fallow field without crops for the past six months. Observational drawing is a great way to replenish my creative nutrients. My brain doesn’t need to be involved. It’s a line between my eyes and my fingers. After decades of drawing, this automatic process takes the line I see straight to the end of the pencil.

This patient and practical rhythm brings me back to myself. Back to my creative core.

Busy Rarely Creates Magic

The busyness is not where the real work happens. It is a surface activity for logistical pen and clipboard stuff. It might LOOK busy, but it’s not where the creative magic occurs. The leaps of faith, experiments, synapse firing, goosebumpy, seat-of-the-pants risky creativity. This happens long after the final payment is made and the dust has finally settled.

Oh the relief. I can dive deep again. This is where (I hope) I find myself now. I am on the edge. Ready to jump and let myself fall into the lake of creative possibility.

The deep dive doesn’t appear with any haste or busyness. It’s the part where an onlooker might describe the artist as lazy and flaky. But it’s not. This is when it happens. The undefinable magic.

My studio days are calm again. There’s no pressure to justify my time. No need to perform busy. I can be myself in my space. The kettle goes on, and I’m alone with my materials again. Safe from interruptions behind the DO NOT DISTURB sign that hangs on my door.

It Doesn’t Look Like Much But It’s Everything

I might put on some music. Maybe a podcast. Or it might be a morning for silence. I pour the tea and get to work.

Usually, I start with some twig drawing. It helps me settle in as I get my eyes and hands working. I might read an essay or two. It stimulates thinking while I draw. And I can allow my brain to make the connections. Thoughts about current events, personal news, and the view out of my window gently inspire me as I work.

The expansive south-facing window provides a view of rooftops, trees and the sky. It is augmented by the sounds of children playing, birdsong, and the cars passing by.

It doesn’t look like I’m doing much when I’m at my most creative. My thoughts are loaded with richness and possibility.

I can feel a spider diagram coming. Maybe a cloud. A mind-map.

Letting Come

I spread a large piece of paper across the tables and got to work with coloured pens. Everything that wants to journey out of my head and onto the paper. I write and I draw. This is where the connections begin to appear. Everything begins to emerge in the same space. I begin to see how it all relates.

These things need time. They come through the fog. This is what creativity looks like. On the outside, it appears to be nothing. My feet are on the table. My eyes glazed over. The mug of tea rests on my studio cardigan as I stare out the window.

But from the inside, the calmness gives way to a gentle sensation of popping and fizzing. My fingers start to twitch, and I notice that I’m ready for the act of making to begin. I enter the flow. The making changes my thoughts, and the thinking alters the making. It’s a dance that leaves me unaware of time. Maybe I’m thirsty.

Oh, it’s 6pm. Perhaps I should go home and make some dinner.