How Your Creativity Can Save You in a Crisis

Torch with beam shining in darkness

Image by nikkytok via BigStock

As Gregory Sampson awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found his bed transformed into a gigantic slab of stone.

He couldn’t see the change – the room was pitch-black, so opening his eyes or closing them made no difference at all. But he could feel it. The bed was rock-hard. And cold. There were no sheets. His pillow had vanished.

Lying there on the cold stone in darkness, he could hear nothing but the sound of his own breathing and his heart thumping in his chest. Reaching out on one side and then the other, he felt nothing but stone. Rolling over, at full stretch, he felt the edge of the slab dropping away on his right. And the same on his left.

Gregory had the uncomfortable thought he was lying on a stone altar. The kind used for sacrifices.

Crawling to the edge of the altar, he reached down, but could not touch the floor. The blackness dropped away beneath him… how far?

Slowly he worked his way along all four sides of the bed, reaching down at full stretch, without touching the floor at any point. He felt a stab of terror. How high was the altar? Was he lying atop some vast pillar, where one false step could plunge him screaming to his death?

Eventually, with no other way of testing, he started to ease his legs over the lip of the slab. His feet swung in the darkness, with no floor, nor even the narrowest of ledges for his toes to grip.

Further and further he lowered himself, until he was almost at full stretch, shaking, with only his fingertips hooked over the ledge above him. Still nothing: just his feet swinging in emptiness.

Another inch… and he panicked, unsure whether he had the strength to pull himself back up by his fingertips.

His left big toe brushed against something solid.

Taking a deep breath, Gregory let go of the rock with his left hand, holding on by his right fingertips alone… and felt light-headed with relief as his left foot touched down on firm ground.

Moments later he was kneeling on the ground and kissing it, before collapsing against the stone slab, shaking all over with relief, then laughter, as he realised the absurdity of his fear of the bottomless drop.

But where was he? How did he get here? And how was he going to escape?

He soon sobered up when he realised he was just as stuck as before: for all he knew, he was on a ledge above a precipice… or in a dungeon with no exit… or lost in a maze like a rat … or his captor was about to return and eat him… or…

He started to panic all over again, as the phantasmagoria of horrible scenarios filled his mind. Eventually he slumped down in despair – and found himself sitting on something hard and uncomfortable.

Reaching behind him, he discovered the object was in his pocket. With another rush of excitement and relief, he found himself holding a torch!

Quick as a flash he pressed the switch and filled the cave with light. For indeed it was a cave, its surfaces covered in drawings. He took in bison, horses, and a rhinoceros, before his survival instinct took over and he started scanning the walls for a way out.

It didn’t take him long to circle the chamber, and spot – a doorway! Scrambling towards it, he found a staircase winding slowly upwards.

He clambered up eagerly, oblivious of the effort. It wasn’t long before he felt a breath of fresh air wafting downwards. Pausing, he switched the torch off – and saw light glimmering above him, revealing his path to freedom…

You may not have experienced the exact same situation as Gregory, but from time to time we all find ourselves in a dark place.

Things go wrong at work. A relationship ends. Business dries up. You lose your job. You get ill. Etcetera.

At times like this, it’s natural to focus on survival. So we forget about the luxuries of life, and focus on the essentials – the things that we believe will make a difference and solve the problem.

Often, creativity is one of the first ‘luxuries’ we throw out. We have more pressing, practical concerns, so it’s time to put away the paints and paper. We’ll come back to them later, we tell ourselves, when the storm has passed.

This is understandable, but it can be fatal for your chances of solving the problem.

Because your creativity is your light.

It’s like the torch in Gregory’s back pocket. Right there at your fingertips. Fully charged, as if by magic.

Take out the light and switch it on, and things will look very different.

But instead of doing this, most of us, like Gregory, waste time scrabbling around in the darkness, conjuring up imaginary demons, and cowering in the corner. All the while, the solution is within our reach.

No, the torch didn’t magically transport Gregory out of the cave. But as soon as he switched it on, he saw things more clearly and felt more courageous. He could look around him, see the situation for what it was, and find a way out.

I’ve experienced this myself plenty of times, when I was going through a tough period: after all, what could be more trivial and impractical than writing poetry?

So I left my poetry notebook in the drawer and soldiered on bravely. Joylessly. Uncreatively. “Once I get through this”, I told myself, “I’ll reward myself by with some writing time”.

These days I’m a little more (ahem) enlightened. I’ve come to realise that taking some time out for an hour a day, or a few hours a week, won’t make the situation any worse.

And if I spend that time writing poetry, it makes a world of difference to me. It lights me up. It makes me calmer, more focused, more confident, and more creative. And since I’m the one who has to deal with the challenge, it makes sense to do whatever it takes to ensure I’m at my best. Even if that means poetry.

Over and over, I’ve seen the same pattern when coaching clients who are going through a difficult time. The challenges they face are hard enough, and rarely solved overnight. But what makes everything ten times harder, is that I can see they’ve lost their creative spark.

When I ask about this, it turns out that when the crisis struck, they stopped creating (apart from their paid work). It felt like an indulgence they couldn’t afford. Fiddling while Rome burns.

Which makes perfectly logical sense. But human beings, especially creative ones, are not logical creatures.

Because although drawing a few sketches, or scribbling a few lines of verse, or playing a few notes on a guitar won’t solve that roadblock in your career, or fall-out with your partner, or snarl-up with your nightmare client, it will make a difference to the one person who can make a big difference to the situation: you.

It will bring the light back.

It will bring your smile back.

It will bring your energy back.

It will bring your confidence back.

And it will bring your creativity back. Which tends to be pretty darn handy when solving problems. 😉

Deep down, we all know this. But in the middle of a crisis, it’s easy to forget.

Sometimes it takes someone else – like a coach, a teacher or boss, or a friend – to give you permission to ‘go create’.

So if you’re struggling right now, and neglecting your creativity, take this as your permission:

Go create.

Switch on the light.

Over to you

How do you treat your creativity when things get tough in your life? As a luxury to be jettisoned? As a refuge? As a resource that can help you?

Has your creativity ever helped you through a crisis? If so, how?

Mark McGuinness is a poet and a coach who helps creative professionals achieve life-changing goals. For a free 26-week creative career guide sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. That’s a marvelous vignette.

    I’ve reached the point the past few weeks that although I want to do something creative, I feel too empty to go make it happen.

    Creativity is vital. During the times I’ve struggled, if I have to choose between the practical next step to get somewhere versus doing the thing that keeps me centered, grounded, alive, I do the art. Impractical? I’d say that doing what works, every single time, is practical, whether it looks that way to the accountant who lives in my head or not.

    My best buddy, when I told him how I was feeling, commiserated, then asked “Wanna write a song together?”

    He knows, that Pegleg guy. Gimme art and I’ll find my way up to the sun.

    Perfect thing for me to read today, Mark. Thanks.

    • My best buddy, when I told him how I was feeling, commiserated, then asked “Wanna write a song together?”

      He sounds like a wise man. And more fun than that accountant guy.

  2. A lot of people press upon me, they “need” me, they sap my energy. I know to keep my energy, sanity and soul I must commit at least one day per week to studio time. This is non-negotiable. No interruptions. But recently I became sick for two weeks. When I thought my energy was returning I went to the studio, put on some music, loaded my paint brush… but it felt like effort. Nothing worked. I went back to bed. Now that I am better I am back in the studio and filling my cup. Great post – thanks.

    • I must commit at least one day per week to studio time. This is non-negotiable. No interruptions.

      Amen to this. I find it helps if you don’t tell people “I can’t do it because I’m painting/writing”, but “Sorry I’m not available then.”

  3. Through times i developed a habit of escaping in creative work when stacked in everyday struggle for making money income , doing my daily family obligations or having a dry periods of client commissions and carrier development offers etc. It probably helps me to go through hard time period but in the same time, I am afraid that it could have an exactly opposite effect. By escaping in creative work you actually closing your eyes in front of every-day (we artist like to call it rather banal) problem that actually become a big ones for us because we don’t want to face it because they usually do not look nice even they are in fact quite harmless ones.

    • That’s a good point Aleksandar – it’s possible to go the opposite way and use creative work as a form of escapism, avoiding your real problems. Which is clearly not a good idea.

      Maybe that’s a post for another day…

  4. John Plain says:

    Gregory Sampson? , you could at least acknowledge Kafka

  5. When my husband confessed to a 4 year affair with a co-worker one of his excuses was that I hadn’t made any money on my paintings and he had lost respect for me. This devastated me to my soul. I was not able to even look at my easel. I walked past it for 3 years feeling nothing but shame for sitting in front of it and creating my master pieces and how my joy had taken the love away from me that I thought I had with my husband.

    It’s been years hearing him begging me to paint again, but not until he left, taking a job as a truck driver away for a year, that I was able to sit in front of that easel. It’s not like riding a bike. The self-esteem doesn’t miraculously return and flow through the brush to the canvas. What used to be the most natural thing for me to do turned into work. But the daily work of regaining my confidence is starting to take hold. The habit of not painting is turning back into the habit of painting again. I stopped putting so much stress on myself to make something beautiful. I am putting paint on canvas. I don’t care if it is a total mess, it’s still me putting paint onto a canvas. I’m doing it and I will keep doing it because that is where my soul lives. That’s where my joy resides. I’m an artist. Take me for who I am or leave me. I’m always going to be an artist.

    • I am putting paint on canvas. I don’t care if it is a total mess, it’s still me putting paint onto a canvas.

      This is great. I had a similar experience when resuming work on my new book recently, after a break. It was so slow and painful at first, but I just concentrated on putting words on the screen for the first few days. I ended up scrapping most of what I wrote then, but it got me back into the flow of writing again.

      Keep at it!

  6. This is so true. The difficult part is balancing creative exercises with everyday job tasks. Go create and switch on the light!

    • What works for me is having very clear times for writing vs doing other things in my life. As long as I stick to the plan, there’s time for writing and the other essentials in my life.

  7. Creativity keeps me grounded during the tough times, whatever they may be. It reminds me that I’m still human and that life is still a joy.

  8. Thea Clarke says:

    Thank You!

  9. Debra Cochran says:

    I can’t believe I read this today of all days. I have had a lot of stress for a few years and was doing this- putting my art and creativity last. So last, that I stopped completely. I have an art studio in my carriage barn. I was thinking just today, I need to go to my studio and try to get my life going again. And then I just opened this email. I realized what I have been doing- putting my art last on the list, if I have time. You confirmed to me what I have been doing. Thank you.

    • Glad it was well-timed for you.

      I realized what I have been doing- putting my art last on the list, if I have time.

      I’ve done that so many times… now you see it, you can change it.

  10. My inclination would be to apply creativity TO the problem at hand. Creativity includes visualizing ways out, around, or through.

    I think of creativity as a continuous life practice rather than a discrete, separable activity one chooses to engage or ignore.

    I think there is also a role for routine rather than truly creative “making” as a stabilizer much in the way meditation is for some people. For example, making a batch of cookies or copying a pen and ink drawing might not be creative in a normal sense but might help moderate negative emotions.

    • My inclination would be to apply creativity TO the problem at hand. Creativity includes visualizing ways out, around, or through.

      Yep, that’s the next step. Once you’ve switched the torch on, you can do all kinds of useful stuff with it…

  11. Jasmine says:

    That’s awesome, I love this post.

  12. I was in-between jobs, vaguely depressed, and continuing to pursue a career that deep down I didn’t really want. It was sapping me of joy and all of my strength. One day I stopped half-heartedly job-hunting and started sketching for fun using the nearest ball-point pen. A buried passion. That led to making invitation cards and t-shirt prints for friends, and doing crafty projects for my apartment – not practical at all, but it kept me occupied and my kitchen looked cute! I found my way out of the hole and eventually left my profession and took the plunge into art, as a career. I don’t recommend going cold turkey (job wise) but if you’re gonna struggle, at least let it be for something you really love.. you’ll be much a happier person for it.