Overcoming creation guilt in the arts

Should being busy really be a badge of honour? The mounting pressure for artists to create more, more, more may prove detrimental to creative output.

If you’re an artist active in the 21st century, chances are you’re familiar with the phenomenon of creation guilt. 

There is an increasing pressure to produce more work, cram more into each day, dive into new projects, build our skills, network and share work-in-progress on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. But when we fall short of our creative expectations, we wind up feeling guilty and not good enough.

As one participant at the recent Independent Convergence forum in Melbourne poignantly put it, ‘If you create an artwork, but don’t share it on social media, does that artwork really exist?’

Creation guilt often leads to setting unrealistic expectations for the amount of work we can achieve in a given period, which inevitably throws us into a perpetual loop of failure, leading to disappointment, leading to beating yourself up, leading to harsher expectations, leading to failure, and so it continues. 

As creative thinkers, it’s all too easy for our ideas and aspirations to become grandiose quickly. But as Bill Gates famously said, most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

Performer Scott Wings said setting achievable, realistic goals is one way to keep creation guilt in check. ‘We are really good at setting large scale goals such as produce a big show by the end of the year, but it’s important to instead make goals like having a chat to nine people by April about said big show. That’s achievable.’

‘The big show is a nice dream, a nice goal to have, and if you do it great but take care of yourself,’ he added.

Escaping creative guilt to favour quality over quantity

Jade Lillie, Director and CEO, Footscray Community Arts Centre told ArtsHub there is a constant pressure to showcase projects and be out in the world, but ultimately our work is ‘richer if we do take that time to dive deeply.

‘I always encourage our organisation and everybody else to take a step back because the output is generally going to be better for that time taken. And in fact you might love that project for longer if you give yourself the chance to do that rather than follow that quick rapid delivery all the time,’ said Lillie. 

‘It’s hard to remember because you get in that pattern, but I think it is good to set those standards for ourselves and try and encourage our colleagues to do that, as well as the rest of the sector more broadly,’ she said. 

Visual artist Tai Snaith is familiar with this sense of creation fury. ‘When you are starting out, you have this fury where you have to be productive 24/7 – this sense that you have to be in different projects just to feel valid, or feel alive or that you are part of the community.'

Now Snaith can see how slowing down changes your ideas. ‘I see it is beneficial to take a little bit of time and sometimes say no in order to create some space to resettle and grow properly, rather than just be thrown in this crazy frenzy of activity all the time. 

‘For me slowing down a little bit has really benefitted my work,’ she adds.

Instead of beating yourself up for not creating, reframe the idea of “wasting time” as investing time – without adequate investment, we cannot be creatively productive.

Similarly to how our best ideas come to us in the shower, when we take the focus away from constant creation and slow down, we can approach things with fresh perspectives and have time to invest in new ideas. 

Australian based director Ian Pidd notes that it is often the things that occur on the periphery that are the most interesting, but often we are too busy to notice. 

‘If you are trying to write the next great novel, you simply have to find time to reflect. It is a cliché, but it is no less true – you will have some great ideas in the shower and when walking the dog and that is something true of a creative person. 

‘You are never not working. Your mind is always seeing through that creative lens,’ he explained.

We are more than just our creative output

While recognised as a significant and inventive director of theatre and festivals, Pidd prefers to introduce himself as a father, husband, gardener and tea drinker.

‘It might feel like a small thing but for me it is quite an important thing to do,’ explained Pidd. ‘It’s so easy for people to get caught up in the professionalism of life and for people to define themselves purely and simply by what it is that they do for a living.’ 

Such attachments to what we do infiltrates society at large. When the answer to ‘How are you?’ is almost always ‘busy’, it would be refreshing to see the focus shifted from what we do to who we are. 

Artists are the people most fit to examine the language we use to describe ourselves, said Pidd. We need to allow ourselves space to create, but this can be easier said than done when creation guilt is at the helm. 

Wings recognised how easy it is for the creation guilt voice to take over as he was just settling into a new city. ‘I’d been in Melbourne for a week, and I was berating myself for not doing anything. But another part of my brain was saying "dude, give yourself time".’

What if instead of bragging about our busyness, we place doing nothing on a pedestal? What we do in our downtime can be just as enriching and nourishing for the creative soul. 

‘For me gardening is really good because you are tending to a garden – it’s physical and feels productive, yet during that time your mind has the freedom to relax and think,’ said Snaith. 

‘I’ve been really creative my whole life and have always been making stuff, so for me it’s been a big lesson to just stop a little bit. I still make, but just give it a little bit of space and not so much expectation.'

Downtime can be also enjoyable as creation. ‘For me that space has recently been about play – I don’t think I’ve ever properly allowed myself that time.’

While busyness can feel inescapable at times, sometimes we have more say than we think. 

Snaith explained: ‘I think as creatives it’s really important to take a bit of the power back sometimes and just say, no I don’t want to do that or sorry I can’t do that and refer people on to someone who might be better.’

‘It’s not always possible but sometimes it’s important to explain that the creative process is important and needs space. Flexibility is really worth fighting for in those relationships.’

‘Ultimately the whole point of being independent is that you are the boss,’ she added.

When ost in the depths of creation guilt, the reminder that we are the bosses of our own creative output can be a timely one. While a fury to create can be exciting, we needn’t beat ourselves up for allowing ourselves space and time. You are good enough, even when you’re not creating all the time.

Read the article in full on ArtsHub