‘I Lost My Creative Spark’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

Hello, Papi!

These past few years have been difficult, but in the last six months or so, I’ve gone downhill fast. I don’t see the point in trying anything. I used to write and create things, but that stopped after my mom died in 2018.

Since then, the state of the world has gotten worse and worse. I’m going to be 35 soon, and I’m feeling like I’ve wasted all my time. What’s the point in creating anything now? I lack all drive or motivation. I want to create, but it seems pointless. I can’t make myself start, and if I do, I don’t continue for more than a few days or weeks if I’m lucky.

I saw your tweets about some panels you’re drawing. I’m impressed that you do so much. You really put in the time and effort. I wanted to write to you to ask your opinion on finding motivation when all your creativity, drive, and hope seem to have disappeared. It feels gone, but maybe it’s just buried. I don’t know how to get it back.

Signed,

Burnt Out

Hey there, Burnt!

Social media can distort the reality of things. If I look productive online, then I assure you it’s all smoke and mirrors. I’m in my flop era, I’ll have you know.

Indeed, I think we might be in similar ruts. Lately, whenever I start something, I’m confronted with a massive wall of “Why?” Sure, I’ve had writer’s block before, but it feels different these days. It’s starting to feel like less of a block and more of a condition. Maybe we can brainstorm together on why that is.

It seems a malaise has settled over multiple disciplines and industries. There’s a gray film over everything — or at least it feels like that to me. Sensation has been dulled, passions muted. I’m lazier, clumsier, less driven. Effort feels… more effortful. Chores, maintenance, hygiene all cost more energy than they did before. I keep being told to allow myself some grace, to be patient and kind with myself, to acknowledge that a lot of people feel this way right now.

But truthfully, I’m over that. I just want to be able to do things again. And, to be blunt, I don’t live in a society that rewards “grace.” I live in a society where rent is due and I have certain obligations I have to meet if I want to keep things moving along.

So, yes, I “do.” I push and push and push — writing, drawing, invoicing, and so on — even if it feels like walking on a broken leg. It’s true that this is a pretty common sentiment at the moment. These past few years have changed us, and I don’t think we’ve been able to take a collective breath and acknowledge that.

Wounds have gone untreated, loss has gone unmourned, and we have been asked to keep going as we always have, even if the beams and mechanical guts have been exposed and we now know the machine is on the fritz, that it’s not working the way it should. Push, push, push.

How is one supposed to create in this environment? Where it’s hard enough to accomplish the bare minimum. I understand. It’s not fair. I won’t make the case that it is.

But when I think about it, art (painting, writing, poetry) has always been made between the horns of the bucking beast, between wars and plagues and untold sufferings. In fact, art has often been a way to process those hardships, to send a message, to communicate interiority, to make a change, to give meaning. For me, throughout it all, art has been both a refuge and a radio tower. It’s a place I can go. It’s a way for me to connect with others.

I’m not naïve enough, Burnt, to say you can ever truly disentangle your creativity from industry. I make my living by writing and drawing. I can’t really ignore corporate appetites in my work or make art purely for the joy of it. I have to advertise and promote it — two things I’ve gotten better at over time and two things I still don’t like to do.

But I do think that when people measure out their creativity, when they take stock of all the things they aren’t doing, they think of the end product. They think of a finished book or a completed painting. They think of the things they could have finished by now if they’d been working on them all along. They tend not to think of their relationship to their art.

What do you want art to give you? Do you want art to be your full-time job? Do you want people to appreciate your art? Do you want to feel the catharsis of expressing yourself with your art? Don’t think about the book you haven’t written or the drawing you haven’t sketched out. Think about what role you want art to play in your daily life. It will help determine what kind of artist you are.

The answer can be complicated, sure. For me, it’s kind of a mix of everything in varying degrees. I want all of the above. But to those ends, if I can’t enjoy the process, if the process is merely a means to those ends, it will be much harder to get things done. Practice, dedication, consistency — these are what give us the good stuff.

Here’s what I do. I write down some concrete goals — like my graphic novel or a screenplay I want to do. I set aside some time every day for “boring things”: art tutorials, writing that I’ve been putting off, emails, invoices, and so on. Then, as a little treat, I do the fun stuff — drawing whatever I want to draw, the writing I’ve been looking forward to, and things of that nature.

When I feel lost, as I often do, I look at other people’s stuff. I go to an art museum. I read a book. I remind myself that the things I want to do are possible to do. There are techniques I can learn, practices I can implement, colors I can use.

My emphasis, either way, is on my routine, on feeding my craft, not having a finished project. Finishing a project should come, I think, as a by-product.

Thinking of it this way, Burnt. Those projects you started and worked on for days or weeks before abandoning them weren’t a waste of effort. You were engaged in the process. You were figuring things out, experimenting, and moving to make your ideas a reality. That’s what the whole thing is. You should keep doing that — only with goals and intent. With structure.

I can’t lie to you. Things are hard. Finding the time and energy for creativity is difficult. It’s difficult for me, and it’s my job. But if you want art to be a part of your life in some capacity, then you have to give it something. It does, in my experience, give back.

Con mucho amor,
Papi

Originally published on November 16, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase his book, Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.

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