My friend Laura Goodin has a saying: Maslow the fuck out of it.
Actually, that could be a lie. She has something similar to this, but I can’t remember if I’m inserting the profanity or the profanity was there when she deployed it in our most recent conversations. If I’m wrong, the intent was definitely something close, and I will owe Laura a beer and an apology.
Life would be much easier if I actually copied down the interesting things my friends said, exactly, on the basis that I will one day want to write a blog post around their adages.
But for our purposes, lets go with this. Laura Goodin has this saying: Maslow the fuck out of it.
Near as I can gather, the saying come from her years working with emergency services, where she would train new recruits in the best way to respond to a crisis. When in doubt, work your way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Take care of the biological needs, then the safety needs, then the social needs.
Much as those of us on the internet would disagree, providing a populace with food and a safe place to sleep and ablute trumps getting them access to good quality wifi when working with limited resources.
In terms of art, the same applies.
TWO: ART, UNHAPPINESS, AND THE BITS WHERE LIFE KICKS YOU IN THE BALLS
This is a story about misery and writing.
The most productive time I’ve ever had as a writer came in the months immediately after I separated from the woman I once thought I was going to marry. Details don’t matter much, but the year that followed was a complete shipwreck, culminating with losing my job at the end of twelve months and going into three years of unemployment.
My second most productive time, in terms of raw word count, came in the twelve months prior to my sleep apnea diagnosis, which is a basically twelve months in which I was consistently falling asleep at the keyboard and convinced I was going mad.
Neither of these were happy times, but they were productive when looked at from a certain perspective.
I’m not alone in this. Several times I’ve noticed people coming out of relationship and basically working like a motherfucker on their art (especially when they’re dudes, whose coping mechanism for break-ups are generally…well, not good). Or times when things go wrong in friends lives and they generally respond by doubling down on their art and career.
I don’t wish to perpetuate any of the myths about misery and being an artist. What I’m talking about here is a given, nor a thing you should be doing. There are times when things go wrong and you do not want to create art at all. That’s a perfectly valid response. It was much easier to create regularly in the early days of unemployment, much harder at the end of it when things were…worse.
But for the most part, creating art is an easy response to misery. There is a cleanness to your motivation that is easier to understand. When I was unemployed, writing was important because words paid phone bills and grocery bills and internet bills.
When I was broken up and miserable, writing became a means of reclaiming a part of my life that had laid fallow while I was in a relationship. I ceased being the guy who had just been rejected, and became the guy who wrote.
When I was exhausted, writing was a lifeline. As long as I produced, it meant that none of the things that were physiologically wrong with me were that big a deal.
And when those needs were met, in various ways – when I was employed and my self esteem was improved; when I was getting the apnea treated and actually sleeping more than two hours at a time – when those need were met, I lost that productivity.
I lost the ambition and the drive and the need to write.
I faltered. And I panicked. I made decisions that I kinda wish I hadn’t, in hindsight. I assumed there was something wrong with me, ’cause art no longer consumed me the way that it had before.
THREE: SO WHAT’CHA WHAT’CHA WHAT’CHA WANT
I was talking to a friend who had recently stopped writing and wanted to tackle that sudden lack of ambition to get things done. And my advice largely come down to this: your relationship with art changes when you’re happy.
I am a big proponent of understanding what you want from writing. Within the context of a blog post, it’s easy to make that sound like a simple thing, but it’s not. We are complicated creatures trying to reconcile multiple needs, many of them shifting and coming into conflict.
What you want, more than anything, at one stage of your life may be very different when your circumstances change. In the depths of misery and biological failure, your art can be a lifeline. In the midst of pain, it’s a means of redefining who you are.
Get too far down the pyramid, and the creation of art probably doesn’t even rate. And that’s okay.
But when you’re happy? When things have been resolved and you’re no longer consumed by absences and pain? When your self-esteem is no longer dependent on the thing that you’re holding on to with your fingernails? You relationship to your art changes. When you’re heading upwards, it gets difficult to come back to art with the same need. The same hunger.
That’s a good thing, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
It’s usually not that the desire to create is gone. It’s just that what you want from your creating may have shifted. Your needs are different and the thing that excites you about your art is probably not what it was at your low point.
Five years ago, when I was fresh from a break-up, I could think of nothing better than being prolific. Twelve months ago, I was falling apart, I could think of nothing better than getting things done.
Today, I still want both those things, but I find myself aiming higher. Wanting to better, rather than do more. I have the bandwidth to devote to aspects of craft and career that just weren’t on my radar back then.
Figuring out what you want from writing or art is an ongoing process. Even if you’re life has been free from major pain and tragedy, your ambitions change as you get things publish and master certain skills.
The things that will get you to the page will shift, and refusing to pay attention to where your ambitions have shifted too can make it harder to get yourself to sit down and start working.
Maslow’s pyramid isn’t the be all and end all of psychology – it’s generally acknowledged that we’re a lot more complicated than that – but it’s a useful tool. If you find yourself no longer writing or creating, take a moment to orient yourself on the pyramid and ask yourself what you really need from your art right now.
Basically, take Laura’s advice and Maslow the fuck out of it. Once you’ve met your basic needs as a creator, you’re going to want more. When you’re sick, when you’re unhappy, or, hell, even when you’re starting out, your needs are down the bottom half of the pyramid.
Once those needs have been met, you’re going to want more.
Spending some quality time with that pyramid may show you what you need to do to reignite the passion for your art.