I am going to write about my understanding of the creative cycle, how I define it and how I think it works. This is based on my own experience as an artist. The reason I think this idea is important is that grasping the undulating and repeating nature of this cycle could help any artist sustain their energy as a creative person for this most demanding of work patterns.
What is the creative cycle?
I think creative work happens in an undulating cycle – as shown in the diagram above. Sometimes ideas just seem to flow, at other times things slow down, stop or even seem to go into reverse. I think this is natural and possibly universal. I believe it happens in all creative endeavors. I think it’s innate to being human. I am talking here about energy, the supply of ideas, hope and purpose in your creative work. It’s what happens when you work on your own ideas probably because your own work is bound up with your idea of your self.
You might have noticed this in your work. I know I do a lot of cleaning up in my precious studio time that on the face of it seems like time-wasting or messing about. I reckon I do this putting-off-till-later activity when I could/should be producing things in order to get back into sync with my own creative cycle.
Here is a diagram showing the structure of the creative cycle as I experience it.
As I hope you can see it is a sequence that revolves in a tumble and can repeat ad infinitum (or as long as you carry on). Note that the main axis is not time in this case but progress and that for part of the cycle (it feels like) it goes into reverse.
In my view there are four phases in the creative cycle, I identify them as follows:
Aka: Inspiration, Excitement, Ideas, Flow, In the Zone, Progression, Germination, Invention.
The high phase is also probably everyone’s favourite part of the cycle, it’s fun, it’s exciting, it makes you feel vital and full of energy, ideas flow fast and effortlessly. This stage is marked by optimism and flaws in your plan can easily be ignored in favour of speed. This is likely to be the ideas stage and possibly the start of a production phase of creative work. At this stage your idea is likely to seem AWESOME and in need of rapid realisation.
Aka: Loss, Fall, Decline, Slowing, Barriers, Roadblocks, Second thoughts, Problems, Diversions.
All good things come to an end, this is also the case with a creative high. In my view this is a natural waning of energy not unlike being out of breath after a run. This state can also be induced by a problem or a diversion of some kind that interrupts the flow of energy and requires a review, a re-think or a pause to take stock. This stage feels like someone rained on your parade, just when things were really motoring, along come these doubts and problems that are only going to get in the way. At this stage your enterprise is going to seem unsound to some degree which is likely to feel disappointing.
Aka: Confusion, Disintegration, Depression, Sadness, Disappointment, Stuck, Becalmed, Standstill, Struggle, Review, Re-assessment, Rest.
This part of the cycle is the most difficult and has the most painful feelings attached to it. This is the point at which it is most important to remember it’s an integral part of the whole, that this is a phase you need to go through. At this point any problems will tend to be in the foreground so they are most likely to come to your attention and seem larger than life. You are likely to feel confused, indecisive and dissatisfied, so it’s important to be patient and not beat yourself up for being here. Waiting, resting, may be the most important things to do at this stage. Behind the scenes your mind has to process all the problems and questions and your feelings about them. It’s easy to feel things are falling apart at this stage and that the endeavour at hand is fatally flawed. This could of course be true, it does happen, but the states of mind associated with this chapter in the story mean this may not be the best moment to make that decision. At this stage your plan is likely to seem hopelessly ill conceived or wide of the mark
Patience and self-belief are the qualities you need to profit from this phase. The difficulties of this stage mask it’s purpose and usefulness. Your feelings about your project will probably have changed a lot and this may help you get a new perspective on it. You are also likely to loosen your attachment to and (ego) identification with your original concept and this may help free up your approach to it which could get things moving. This stage is difficult but it’s also rich in ideas, this is the shadow aspect of the creative cycle, here be dragons as they used to say, going through this unmapped territory means you have a story to tell, could you use it in the work? This part of the process is most likely to make you wiser, and remember, everyone goes through something like this.
Aka: Recovery, Gathering, Gain, Growth, Organisation, Building, Thinking, Relaxation, Problem Solving, Re-charge, Re-design, Restart.
This is the stage where your ideas are consolidated or revised, where you gather the intentions, materials and resources that will allow you to move on. This is also the moment at which you solidify your ideas to the point they are ready to produce. From here your scheme is likely to look redeemable, with problems that can be solved.
This is a cycle so at this point it all goes round again …
Why is the creative cycle important?
The only reason this is important is so you can remind yourself at any point in the cycle that each phase will come round, there is nothing unexpected about these stages, however much you might like to linger in the high, knowing it will recur can be helpful in not only surviving the other parts of the cycle but getting value from them rather than thinking of them as a waste of time.
The improvised nature of a lot of creative work means it can be exciting but it can also use a lot of energy trying things that don’t work out, those failures are going to generate difficult feelings, understanding the creative cycle could help you see that there is a pattern to this work, that there is progression but it’s not obvious at every stage.
The 4 stages of creativity (skip to the video)
Getting lost in the woods, creative work is non-linear.
This idea is an integral part of The Artists Space talks, individual sessions and workshops. This article © copyright Simon Fell 2017, all rights reserved