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The Chaos & Ennui Theory of Creative Life

06 Mar 2023
It's the most frustrating stage of the creative cycle - but Verity Johnson tells you why that restlessness is so important and how to lean into it.
Image: Shutterstock.

You’d think that, as an artist, you’d get used to the feeling of deep, damp, dreary ennui. 

You know what I’m talking about. The furious, pointless, restless, listless, nothingness that hits you periodically - almost always after you’ve met a massive creative milestone.

It’s a weird phenomenon, because every time it happens it feels like the first time. You forget that this feeling periodically drifts over your soul, as surely as light drizzle piddles over a boxing day BBQ. 

And there’s been a lot of this feeling drifting around recently. 

Personally, I just slumped my way through two months of it, feeling as dried up as the abandoned half-onion in the top shelf of my fridge…and I know many other artists are struggling with it too right now. (After all, many of us only just survived the distinctly unglamorous but absolutely enormous milestone of being an artist during COVID.)

And every time you’re in this phase, you think it’ll last forever. From now on, you’ll be marinating in your own unlovely juices like a forgotten egg sandwich at the bottom of a school bag.

Now part of this catastrophising is because, well, we’re artists. Everything in our head is set to a cinematic score. But secondly because I don’t think society has a lot of commonly known models for the creative career. At least, not the types of ones that help explain what slump you’re in, why you’re in it, and what happens next.

See, the problem we have as artists is none of the dinky little management phrases for careers really apply to us. 

Work life balance? Flexible working patterns? Managing burnout? We understand what these all mean, they’re soaked into our culture as universal models for understanding how a career works. But they still don’t really fit the creative mindset. 

Firstly for the very obvious practical reasons that art refuses to be sensible and schedulable (any one else’s best ideas arrive at 3am?) but also because there’s an idea of balance at the heart of a lot of popular career thinking that doesn’t fit well with our lives. 

The dominant cultural idea we have is that your career and your personal world exist in an ever fluctuating equilibrium. But I’d argue that artists don’t - and can’t - work like this. 

What I’ve found more useful is to imagine creatives as having two states - extreme achievement and absolute ennui. And that our ‘career model’ will involve bouncing between them in one long internal ping pong game between inspiration and exhaustion - as my oh-so-professionally constructed diagram illustrates below.

verity cycle.jpg

Now, look - I’m not saying it’s necessarily the greatest career model or even particularly healthy. But I think it’s useful to acknowledge this is very, very common. 

So no, just because you’re currently lying on the couch while the cat licks your face to check you’re still breathing, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. You’re just in the ennui phase. And yes, this is perfectly normal. 

Then I think the next thing we need to do is remember that we actually need this slump. 

It’s excruciating - not to mention so eye-bleedingly boring - but it gives us two things that are absolutely vital to getting back to inspiration. 

One - it gives us space to live. Two - it gives us enough restless energy to get back to inspiration again. 

The ‘space to live’ part of ennui is absolutely vital to do first. 

I don’t know about you, but when I’m in chaos mode I don’t really do a lot of normal life stuff. Birthday parties, calling my Mum, shopping for healthy food…it all goes out the window. And yet it’s these precise rhythms of daily living that give us the inspiration to create. 

As a writer, the best piece of advice I got was not to write all the time. Otherwise, you don’t do enough actual living, and then you have nothing to write about.

So being in the ennui phase, although decidedly less exciting than chaos, gives us the space to go out there and be functional humans who do something (anything!) other than work. And that - ironically - is where inspiration comes from. 

(I’d also say that the longer you’re in the ennui slump, the more time you need to put into getting out there and doing something else. Do a completely different job, move cities, try twerking classes, join a cosplay society…Just get out of your head and into the 'normal' world - trust that the art will come back, when it’s ready.)

The other thing ennui then gives us is the restless energy we need to get back into studio-mode again. The irony of our career cycle is we need the mundanity phase precisely because it’s what drives us nuts. That is what makes us want to say something again, because so much art comes because we have a desire to stretch and shatter the status quo. 

So we actually need to sit in our slump for long enough to start getting pissed off by it. What you want is to get to the point where you’re off the couch, pacing around, asking your cat, “Look, have you ever noticed that…” 

That’s when you know you’re coming back….

So what I’m saying is - if you’re in the slump stage, then just sink into it. 

Don’t submerge yourself in it. Just don’t fight it. Know that you’re doing exactly what you need to do to get back to inspiration again. And yes, soon you’ll be hurling out lightning bolt ideas like Zeus after a Spin class again. 

It’s just hella boring in the meantime.