In the Flow: Fame, Zeitgeist, and the Creative Spirit
It has been said that becoming famous is the quickest way to kill your creative spirit. Based on my own personal experience as an artist and from talking with other artists, I believe that in order to come from a true creative essence, you can’t be thinking about how the public will receive your work. If you do, then it becomes very difficult to reach that place inside you where the ideas and inspiration flow. Once you try to play to the public’s taste, you lose your ability to know what is true inside. You begin to act in order to please people, and this comes from the outside, going in. Instead, in order to truly follow your creative spirit, you must come from the inside and go out.
The late, well-known actor and acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski, in his book My Life in Art, called the creative spirit the “creative mood” and spoke of this experience many times in his writing:
"All men of the stage, from the genius to the mediocrity, are able to receive the creative mood, but it is not given them to control it with their own will. They receive it together with inspiration in the form of a heavenly gift….The creative mood on the stage is exceptionally pleasant, especially when it is compared with the state of strain to which the actor is subject when the creative mood is absent. It can be compared to the feelings of a prisoner when the chains that had interfered with all his movements for years have at last been removed."1
What Stanislavski calls “the creative mood” is what Don Juan Matus calls following “the path of heart” in Carlos Castaneda’s books. 2 It is what Process Workers call being in the “dream stream” or following “path awareness.” Dr. Arnold Mindell, the founder of Process Work, speaks of this experience when he discusses sentient awareness as a mystical experience that is ineffable (nonverbal and difficult to describe), noetic (filled with a kind of knowingness), passive (it happens to us; we don’t create it), transient (it comes and goes and is difficult to sustain), and is nonlocal (a feeling of interconnectedness with all things).3 This sentient or path awareness is an experience “in which path is a sense of inner direction and purpose, as well as the measure of the outer, literal meaning of direction.”4
Others refer to this experience as being in the flow. For me, being in the flow is probably the most satisfying of all my experiences as an artist, as a maker. It is far more gratifying and nourishing than getting outer recognition for my work, which is very exciting but lasts only a few hours. There is a momentary, intense thrill and then, poof, it’s gone with the blink of an eye!
I’ve also noticed that when I focus a significant amount of my artistic energy on the promotion of my work, there is a consequence of a long period of creative drought. This certainly may not be true of all artists. Some may thrive from this; I can’t speak to that. Promoting my work, which is not yet even experiencing the benefits of fame, already begins to sap my feelings of inspiration and path awareness. I begin to lose my sense of direction and purpose. I no longer feel inspired or get new ideas. Instead, my focus gravitates towards what others will think of the work, how to pitch it to them best, and I lose my connection to the work and my love of making it. It therefore seems like the only logical conclusion I can make for myself is that achieving certain levels of fame would only bring more of the same.
Certainly there are benefits that can come from outer recognition of one’s art or creations, including building one’s resume, reaping financial rewards, earning respect, or garnering praise. Likewise, it can help to build one’s self-confidence in their work and their talent or reassure the artist that they are headed in the “right” direction, which are always good things. However, outer recognition, although I long for it, rarely delivers anything as deeply beneficial and nourishing to my soul as the doing of the work, the being in the moment of the creative flow. Feeling inspired and following my creative whims and impulses in the moment not only is a highly pleasurable feeling but also feeds my soul long after that moment is over. I suppose it’s similar to the idea of eating a candy bar (outer recognition that tastes really good when you’re eating it but may leave you with a headache and virtually zero sustaining nourishment) versus eating a bowl of hearty vegetables and brown rice (being in the flow of creativity that also tastes good but leaves you feeling satisfied and gives you lasting fuel for your body). Of course, sometimes you really crave the candy bar and you gotta have it! No shame in that. I love candy bars and outer recognition! But neither is a diet I want to feed myself regularly, let alone live off of entirely. I do think there is a sweet spot that could be achieved between regular doses of outer recognition that help feed one’s confidence in their work and sense of direction, and regular experiences of diving deep into the flow of creation to continue to feed one’s soul. This balance I speak of is not yet within my grasp!
Not only can aspirations for fame (or fame itself) sap our creative juices, but also achieving any level of fame is not typically within our control. We can certainly do various things to make it more likely, but it nevertheless is ultimately up to the universe. This is where the term “zeitgeist” comes in. The German term “zeitgeist,” which is literally translated into English as “timespirit,” is the experience of a dominant cultural climate that defines an era in the dialectical progression of a people or the world at large. Zeitgeist is what the culture is ready for, what the culture is momentarily grappling with, and the tension between these two sides. In other words, the culture decides what is popular.
All cultures have more central aspects and more marginal aspects. This is also true inside of us — there are aspects of ourselves that are more central and more marginal. What makes one “good” at making art is not necessarily what makes one famous. And on the other hand, being popular does not necessarily mean the person is any “good” at what they do.
This can be a struggle for those of us who have a strong desire to create art and/or express ourselves authentically and who also have dreams of becoming famous one day. One can certainly follow their impulses to create, but they cannot control whether or not they get their work in a gallery or if they are offered the part in the play. And even if they do get their work in the gallery or get the role in the play, they cannot control whether or not they become popular or famous as a result.
Some artists are central in American culture and are almost universally loved, admired, or at least enjoy widespread attention and popularity. For example, many actors and celebrities such as George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, or Kim Kardashian are household names and enjoy vast popularity whether one thinks they are remarkably talented or not. They all somehow capture an essence of something that is central to our culture. Aspects of their beauty, talent, or genius “flirt” with us, touching upon deep, unconscious dreaming in us, the audience.
Not all artists’ work is central to the culture in a given time and place, however. Some artists or their creations are more marginal, perhaps in their appearance, expression, or style. Additionally, American culture is painfully slow and resistant to recognizing artists of color. It’s important to note that one’s racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds may, in and of themselves, fall enough outside a culture’s central notions of popularity and acceptance that they have an even steeper hill to climb in terms of gaining the fame, respect, and recognition that they rightfully deserve.
In general, many lesser known artists may appear to us as more talented or gifted than those who become famous, but for some reason they are never recognized or lauded by the public at large. Many artists who are household names today died well before their work was discovered or revered. Poets Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe, painter Paul Gauguin, and more recently, street photographer Vivian Maier were mostly or entirely undiscovered until after their respective deaths. Perhaps most famous in this regard was Vincent Van Gogh, who sold only one or two paintings in his lifetime. His paintings are now highly collectable worldwide and sell for tens of millions of dollars. Thus, it goes without saying that whether or not you become a famous or popular artist in your lifetime depends upon what is central in a particular culture at a given time.
My advice? Most important, follow your path of heart in all things, especially when it comes to your creative life. If you are energized or motivated by promoting your work, by reaching for fame, then I say go for it! If you are thoroughly enjoying the privileges of fame, then certainly, keep enjoying them. But if you find your creative inspiration hampered by the promoting, by the reaching, or by fame itself, or if your nature simply demands that you return to that creative river inside, then I encourage you to go back to yourself and dig in that soil. Give yourself plenty of time and space to dig and sit and wait. Pull your hair out, scream to the heavens, and wait some more, and hopefully the flow will find you sooner than later. Yes, it can be dark there. It’s not always easy, nor is it particularly glamorous. In truth, it’s often one of the most challenging endeavors there is for an artist or any person wishing to live an authentic life. But the payoff of connecting with your soul and its most pure expression is like no other, and the benefits can last a lifetime.
1. Cole, Toby and Helen Krich Chinoy. Actors on Acting: The Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the World’s Great Actors, Told in Their Own Words. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1995: 492-493.
2. Mindell, Arnold. Earth-Based Psychology: Path Awareness from the Teachings of Don Juan, Richard Feynman, and Lao Tse. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press, 2007: 79.
3. Ibid, 22-23.
4. Ibid, 23.