Post-Gig Depression

April 11, 2010

After the Finishing Stroke

Posted by Deborah Atherton

When we are completely absorbed in a creative project, we experience some of the deepest engagement, and through it, happiness, that human beings ever manage to find.  And then, suddenly, it’s over.  The show opens.  We finish editing the film. We place the last delicate stroke on the mural. We end the song on the final, perfect note. Or, as in my case last week, we add the last chapter to a novel we’ve been working on for a few years.  Most likely, we experience one glorious moment of accomplishment and completion. And then?

And then, very likely, we plunge into a very, very dark moment.  We become convinced that we will never have another idea, that our old ideas are all rotten, anyway, and, quite possibly, that critics everywhere, as well as everyone we know, will despise our completed work, if, in fact anyone ever sees or hears it.  I like to call this post-gig depression (and no, you will not find it in the DSM.)  Virginia Woolf suffered terribly in these moments – completing her books sometimes drove her to the verge of suicide.  Most of us experience it in a milder form. But oh, we do experience it.

Perhaps somewhere out there is the artist who completes his or her work with total confidence, and with the assurance that all who ultimately experience it will love it.  I myself do not know such an artist, but surely, among the many on this planet, a few live their lives out this way.  But most of us run into a period of questioning and anxiety after the initial excitement of completion.  (And this is even before all the other people with an opinion weigh in.)

I can’t give you a magical elixir that will help you through this (although some swear by Jack Daniels) but I can assure you that this, too, shall pass.  Some artists we interviewed have told us that they get through it by jumping right into the next project, and not giving themselves time or space to question (and some artists, of course, labor under constant deadlines, so don’t always have the luxury of time under a dark cloud.)  Some require a mourning period.  I myself turned to some very good friends and coaches, who spoke to me about the inner critic and the shadow self, and the necessity of acknowledging the doubting dark side of the creative impulse.  (And I’ll try to talk more about this later on, as I learn  more myself!)

I think what we face, at the moment we finish, is the resistance that has been dogging us all along, surging for one final push to retain the status quo.  And as artists, we have a responsibility to work through it and keep on.  And to remember that, not too far in the future, we’ll be having that lovely, “Is it 3 AM already? I didn’t notice”  feeling again, which is, let me remind you and myself, one of the best feelings in the world.


Why Morning Pages Aren’t for Everyone

February 20, 2010

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Many books for writers, the best known of which may be Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, advocate that you wake up every morning and write. Attack your resistance before it takes hold.  Retrieve the residue of your dreams, and manage a feeling of virtue all day. Write anything, they say – it doesn’t have to be immediately meaningful. Just write.

All well and good, if you are a morning person. But some of us get out of bed with reluctance every day, and do not really become even mildly functional until as late as 4 PM. Some of us are averse by nature to “just writing,” and do not like to set pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, without a larger purpose.  And some of us lead such intensely busy lives that that half hour or hour just isn’t available every morning – be it a demanding boss, hungry children, or a troop of chimpanzees we are studying, we just cannot commit that time.

As Leslie mentioned last week in her post, this advice has generated a lot of guilt in a lot of writers and artists. Leslie and I are both strong believers in rituals for artists, but we also believe that you have to create your own.  There are lots of books that tell you to do other things first thing on rising, with advice ranging from getting on your exercycle to drinking a glass of hot water with lemon – and while I am sure these are all fine things to do, you don’t HAVE to.  Really. Lots of people go to the gym after work, not when they wake up, and they seem to be as healthy as anyone else, if not healthier than most. And you can do this with writing, too.  Write after work. Write before you go to bed.  Write while eating your tuna sandwich at lunch. Write while on hold with the cable company.  (I have done all these things, and can speak to their efficacy.) Or better, do make an appointment with yourself to write regularly. Maybe it will be every Sunday morning, while the rest of the household sleeps. Maybe it will be Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 5 to 6 after everyone else has left the office.

But don’t let anyone tell you that waking up at 6 AM and writing is essential to YOUR life as an artist, whatever kind of artist you may be.  Some do – most don’t.  Quite possibly all you want to do in the morning is drink your coffee and read the newspaper or a blog.

Enjoy your coffee.


June 29, 2009

Posted by Deborah Atherton

I’m guessing most creative people have a number of unfinished projects languishing in their basement, attic, or desk drawer. How many of us have half-written stories, treatments for never-written screenplays, still life paintings featuring a bowl and no fruit, unstrung guitars, unglazed pots, or scratchy renditions of songs that never got transferred from cassette to MP3 lingering somewhere in the background?

Well, dear readers, me too. It’s not that I can’t ever finish things. I’ve finished short stories that got published, opera and music theater pieces that got produced, articles, reviews, etc. etc. But. But. Sometimes it doesn’t happen; sometimes work gets lost or dropped or put aside. And sometimes – as for instance just a few days ago – it suddenly occurs to me that I am more than two-thirds of the way through my new project – in this case my novel – and a wave of – terror is too big a word for it – I suppose anxiety will have to do – a wave, or at least a current, of anxiety hits me. Finishing the novel seems too final, too scary, and not nearly as far off as it was 200 pages ago. And so my writing hours get postponed from morning to evening, and suddenly it is now or a whole day will be lost, and I force myself to sit down at the computer and promise I will let myself get up after a paragraph if I really, really can’t do it.

But if I can make myself do it – if I can force myself to push through the resistance and sit down and focus on doing the thing I love – the rewards are often great. When I finally sat down a few days ago, I didn’t get up after one paragraph. Time disappeared as soon I dove back into the story, and several hours passed quickly. A few more pages made their appearance, bringing me closer to The End. And I once more learned the lesson we all know, really, that nothing happens unless you sit down and allow it to happen. But only another creative person knows how great the distance is between standing and staring down at your desk, and actually sitting down to work. You could drive from New York to Miami, and it would seem short compared to the time it takes to get from the edge of your desk to sitting yourself firmly in that chair.

We all have to make that long-distance journey, every time we commit once more to finishing our creative work. It’s the distance between dreaming and doing, and no one can make it easy for us. But if we’re sure to pack plenty of coffee and water, and check in with friends along the way, we can usually complete our trip. And nothing feels better than arriving at the destination we set when we began.