As an artist I frequently find myself more stimulated when there is something happening in the background – the chatter of a nearby couple at a coffee shop, favorite reruns on Netflix, that perfect playlist streaming from my headphones. I seek out or create these spaces for my creative work as I’ve known them to facilitate positive ideas and directions.
I live in a society that largely demands that productive and successful individuals be on the go, energetic, extroverted, and “on” at all times. As a result, the need to normalize my behavioral responses (which can vary due to general anxiety disorder) this can sometimes force me into adopting behaviors that are not always beneficial to my well being.
As a tenure-track professor I was always working on something – always seeking to improve project outcomes, polish the next lecture, create new ways to keep students accountable and present, contribute to my department, and support my colleagues. I take a lot of pride in this type of work and the value that can be found in all of these actions makes me feel like I’m doing something positive in the world. But, this type of pacing isn’t sustainable 100% of the time – at least it wasn’t always for me.
Even several months after resigning my tenure-track position and taking on the role of an online part-time instructor role (a result of the necessary move for my husbands job), I don’t feel that I’ve fully “come down” from the last five years at break-neck speed. I look back on what I accomplished in such a short time and I’m both proud of my hard work and pretty impressed that I managed to keep it all together. However, this success is largely due to the fact that I sacrificed any creative and artistic energy I might have had in service to these academic career goals.
I became aware of the toll that this type of reallocation was taking in my second year and with each passing semester was more and more anxious and saddened by the diminished motivation I felt when it came to creating my own work. It was such a strange dichotomy to at once feel engaged and inspired by my students and my work in the classroom and deflated and empty in my own artists practice.
This became my new normal and my desire to find solutions lessened over time. I simply accepted that this was just the way it was going to be. When there is fulfillment in some aspects of life – as there is for me with teaching – it is easier to justify letting go of other dreams.
I implemented strategies offered to me here and there (some of which did seem to help for a time and opened small windows of creative output) but ultimately, the emotional and physical debt had added up too high – I was merely throwing everything I had away in interest payments. It’s not easy to dig yourself out sometimes, even when you are provided with the tools to do so.
After moving to Alabama I’ve come to appreciate the gift of quietness in a way I don’t think I ever have.
Quiet has a way of changing a person from within.
Most early mornings I wake with the sun to a house filled with light and bird song. I get dressed, make a cup of coffee, and shuffle around the house picking up a few things here and there, making the bed, putting in a load of laundry, etc. I sip my warm tonic while watching the birds. There is always a cat nearby.
However, in quiet stillness we are left alone with our inner dialogue and this discussion isn’t always one we are prepared to have.
While coffee shops and playlists provide the necessary distraction to focus my attention toward specific tasks, that internal voice never goes away. Like a ghost, it haunts my periphery and waits for my acknowledgement.
By providing myself with the time to listen I’m learning what I need to say, both as an artist and as a human being. My sense of self is renewed in simple and meaningful choices that are made without the outward pressure to be a version of what is expected. It is a new way of defining myself.
I am not always accustomed to this experience, however. At times I feel a sense of panic and restlessness envelop what peace I’ve found. I have overwhelming moments of self-doubt and fear (more often than I’d like to admit). This too, is present in the quiet.
In my experience, there has been a notable shift in society (US) in the last 20 years – while the demand for gratification and success seems to remain the same, the timeline in which that result is expected has lessened. It is far too common to feel as though the result we desire must be instantaneous. I see this in my students, peers, and self, on a daily basis.
The compulsive need for immediate resolution made long periods of contemplation and quietude unbearable for me at first – after all, shouldn’t I be doing something, working on something… it felt like a waste of time. I couldn’t break the hold my former schedule had on me.
Quiet time for reflection can be easily mistaken for laziness.
And yet, I was too tired to do anything else. Born from overwhelming emotional exhaustion, quietude forced its way on me like a rainstorm I wasn’t prepared for. Once I started to enjoy the freshness of everything and opened enough to let it all wash over me I acknowledged this time as another type of opportunity.
Productivity comes in many forms.
When the morning light shifts I feel more prepared to step into the studio or office and continue my work. It’s an odd kind of strategy – slowing down in order to be more successful.
I’m reminded of the children’s story “The Tortoise and the Hare” from childhood. In the tale, a rabbit (or hare) thinks he’s so fast he can out run any creature alive. The tortoise bets the rabbit that he could beat him in a race. The rabbit is so confident in his ability that he wastes time along the way and falls asleep as the tortoise treks on and eventually wins the race.
On the surface, what stuck with me as a kid was that you don’t have to be the best and most logical choice to win and that too much self-confidence can make you take unnecessary risks.
I take away other aspects from the story, too:
- Slowness can create quieter moments in which it is easier to be more self-aware.
- When we rush too quickly through a path we may not see the bigger picture or recognize important lessons along the way.
- Moving more slowly than others may be mocked and seen as a weakness but you have to learn to process all the criticism (and even the suggestions of others as to what you should be doing in order to win) and keep moving forward anyway.
- When we think that we should be able to achieve a result without much effort we are more likely to put off the work until the very end – leaving little time to develop the work and complete it as desired/required. That rushed outcome is something we’re rarely proud of (and sometimes it may cause us to fail entirely).
- You can’t give up or stop when things get tough or your journey is taking longer than you’d like (or think it should).
- You’ll never reach your goal if you lose sight of it to begin with.
So I’ll end with this charming video of the fable that was created 70 years ago: