The Artists' "WE"

Embracing Your Dark Inner Dictator


The worst thing about a slump, a bout of writer’s block, a dysthymic interlude–whatever you choose to call it–is that it’s lonesome in there. No light penetrates the Chamber of Self Torture, and the only sound is a drip-drip-drip of wasted time leaking out and the ominous hissing of something very nasty there in the dank chamber that wants you to know, You’re no good. Never were. Everyone thinks you’re a joke. And you’re never going to finish that Thing You’re Working On. Why should you? It sssssuuuuuucckkkkssssssssss….

Yesterday, a friend whose creative accomplishments I respect immensely texted me an invitation to coffee. Apparently I spilled a few wine-fueled revelations about this latest slump and its attendant insecurities all over New Year’s Eve’s nice white dress, and my friend decided an intervention was in order.

The only thing scarier than sharing your self-abnegating artistic dread with someone is sharing it with an Artist Who’s Getting It Done. But somehow, with a dose of macchiato-courage warming my belly, I found myself pouring out all those ugly little uncertainties. You know the ones. They’re always there, but when the black mood comes, they get elected president and prime minister and tsar all at once (although the election results are under investigation) and summarily sentence you to 10 years in Siberia. And you’re sure you’ll never see the West again.

Why do we constantly have to be reminded of things we know? There’s something about being in a long slump—we’ll call it the “Gulag Mood”–that switches off the human brain and turns it into a sniffling five-year old whose mommy is NOT HERE, whose knees are scuffed, and whose ice cream cone has fallen into the sandbox. The Gulag Mood turns intelligent, thoughtful people into a crossbreed of self-obsessed teenager and addict looking for a fix. Suddenly, No One Understands You and you neeeeeed someone to tell you No, Really, You Are Fabulous. (Even though they’re wrong.)

Enter my friend and a perfect macchiato. We reviewed some of the magnificent feats of artistry he’s performed over the past few months, while I stewed in my own absurdity. And then I commenced with the humiliating confessions.

I can’t remember everything he said yesterday afternoon, but what lodged most firmly in my brain was something to the effect of, “Yeah. That’s normal.”

Of course it is, and yet, it’s a revelation every single time.

My eyes (re)opened even wider when he described the bipolar swings of energy and listlessness that seem to accompany the working artist’s life—those addictive manic phases, alive with work and ideas and I Can Do Anything!, followed by the Blank Stare phase, in which you can’t even be bothered to fix a nice breakfast…and then, the Gulag Mood, the guilt, the murky chamber. Good god, him too? I thought.

“I think we need those down times,” he said. Talked about them as a sort of rest period, a re-set, re-charge button. “And we just have to learn how to still get things done while they’re going on.”

Wait a minute, did he say, “We”?

I think I might weep: granted, I’m a little bit melodramatic when I’m in the Gulag Mood, but I think my Uber-Talented friend just invoked a “we,” as in “We artists.” As in you are one of us. As in you are not alone.

My friend, wisely, didn’t indulge my addiction yesterday, didn’t do the “You Are Fabulous” reassurances that we crave but don’t believe. Instead, he gave me an amazing and lasting gift: he asked me to his office and called me “We.”

That’s a measure of respect and friendship that I’m pretty sure is gonna stick with me through the next 700 bipolar energy phase shifts I’m likely to endure. And just knowing that he’ll be a few miles away, fighting through the same feeling, and getting the work shipped despite it, just might keep me glued to the keyboard when I’d really rather be stalking the Facebook pages of friends who, seemingly, never “indulge in” Gulag Moods.

But as my wise friend pointed out yesterday, nobody’s life actually plays out the way it appears from the outside (or especially through the Facebook porthole). And just knowing that “WE” all have to ride out the same surges and depletions of energy and optimism and self-belief? Knowing that? What can I say? I showed up at the computer today, didn’t I?

Do-svidaniya, Gulag Mood. See ya next time.