Stop Sabotaging Your Creativity
Your muse has a natural cycle. When you fight it, you lose.
In The Creative Fire: Myths and Stories on the Cycles of Creativity, Jungian psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes offers two versions of the Greek myth of Persephone’s descent into the underworld.
Cast of characters (both versions):
Demeter is the Earth Mother Goddess, the bountiful source of all life.
Persephone is her daughter, the innocent, playful spirit of natural joy, freedom, inspiration, and creativity.
Hades is the god of the underworld, the realm of the dead, a gloomy character who drew the short straw when his brother Zeus took command of the sky, and Poseidon of the sea.
In the more ancient, pre-Hellenic version of the story, Persephone was one day playing in the meadow when she heard a chorus of sorrowful cries. She searched for their source, and found the voices were rising from a cleft in the soil. She opened the ground to find a group of souls of the dead who had become lost and could not find their way back to the light.
Filled with compassion, Persephone was moved to descend into the underworld to help. In the course of her descent, her clothes were torn away and her flesh was bloodied. At the center of the earth, she arrived at the World Tree. Naked, wounded, and exhausted, she got tangled in its limbs, hung upside down, and died. She remained dead for three days and nights.
A good king who made his home in the underworld, with the help of a wise crone, brought her back to life and sent her journeying toward the surface to be reunited with her mother.
All the time Persephone was gone, Demeter had mourned and refused to let anything on earth grow. The world had frozen over (winter). The joyful reunion of mother and daughter brought spring.
Because Persephone had swallowed six pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, it was decreed she would have to return there six months out of each year. She was good with that because her death and resurrection had transformed her into a mature and compassionate guide for the dead, and she willingly embraced her new role as their queen.
If you studied mythology in school, that version of the story probably sounds strange. The better known, post-Hellenic version goes like this (from Wikipedia):
The story of her abduction by Hades against her will is traditionally referred to as the Rape of Persephone.
Zeus… permitted Hades, who was in love with the beautiful Persephone, to abduct her… Persephone was gathering flowers… when Hades came bursting through a cleft in the earth. Demeter, when she found her daughter had disappeared, searched for her all over the earth… she neglects the earth and in the depth of her despair she causes nothing to grow. Helios, the sun, who sees everything, eventually told Demeter what had happened… Finally, Zeus, pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the other deities who also heard their anguish, forced Hades to return Persephone.
Hades indeed complied with the request, but first he tricked her, giving her some pomegranate seeds to eat. Persephone was released… but because she had tasted food in the underworld, she was obliged to spend … the winter months there.
If, in the difference between these two versions of the story you see the historical impact of Patriarchy and the subjugation of women, I think pretty obviously you would be right. That’s inarguable.
But that’s not where Estes takes the discussion. Her reason for relating both versions of the myth is to show two very different relationships we all have, women and men alike, with our own creativity.
The archaic myth of Persephone’s voluntary descent into the underworld, and her transformation there, reveals the natural rhythm of our human creative cycle.
There are seasons when the muse rises, and plays freely in our lives. Words come easily, inspiration abounds, our art flowers. And there are seasons when our creative powers retreat naturally to the underworld, to the unconscious, there to be renewed for the next rising.
Like Demeter, we feel bereft and abandoned in the absence of inspiration. But the lesson of the myth, Estes tell us, lies in learning to embrace the beauty and the inevitable ebb and flow of our natural creative cycle. To balance our mourning with faithful anticipation of our muse’s certain return.
The later myth, the Rape of Persephone, reveals what happens when dark forces in our psyche abduct our muse and drag her off against her will, outside the natural creative cycle.
If, when we were children, a parent or teacher mocked our creative efforts — “Nobody wants to read that! What makes you think you can write?” “You colored outside the lines! And you’re using the wrong colors!” “You’re not creating stories, you’re telling lies!” — we can carry their criticism within us long after those actual people are gone from our lives.
Or maybe we loved our childhood stories, and poems, and drawings so dearly that we protected them from the critical eyes and expectations of adults. We preserved our creativity by keeping it secret, reserved only for ourselves. So as adults, when the world demands that, to be taken seriously as artists, we must share our work in public, here comes Hades. Our inner protector whose motto is Trust No One.
Or maybe some long-rejected part of ourselves (read here how our Shadows are formed), some aspect of who we are that we’ve been taught to despise and deny, is lonely and raging in our unconscious, starved for love, beauty, joy, companionship. It abducts our muse less to injure us, than simply to possess her magical vivifying qualities for itself. That’s an exact description of Hades motivation in the later version of the myth. It’s the basis of Beauty and the Beast, and many similar fairy tales.
Estes speaks of “negative complexes.” The voices of our critics, and the doubts and fears they implanted in us, can literally take on a life of their own in the underworld of our unconscious minds. Denied aspects of our personalities can have their own existence and agendas, bursting forth from the unconscious like gloomy, chthonic gods to steal our creative energy.
As artists, as creators, we make two common mistakes that sabotage our creativity.
First, we may rail against the limitations inherent in our natural creative cycle. We want to hold ourselves accountable for continuous creation, 24–7/365. Especially once we start earning money from our art, we begin to treat creativity like a job. We tell ourselves we must create, full throttle, Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, no excuses. Nose to the grindstone. We owe it to the business. The more art we create, the more money we can earn, or the more followers we’ll accrue, or the more famous we’ll become. But a “no excuses” attitude won’t change the natural cycle, which is universally human, innate, and beyond our individual control. Our resistance only sets us up to experience our muse’s natural, rhythmic descent as tragedy, betrayal, agony, loss. We torture ourselves unnecessarily.
The other common mistake we make is granting our negative complexes the force of reality. Instead of recognizing our inner critic, our protector, or our shadowy abductor Beast/Hades when they appear, we simply accept as true that nobody wants to read our words or view our art, that people would crush us if we made ourselves vulnerable, that our inspiration is gone and it’s never coming back. Again, we suffer unnecessarily.
There’s no five minute cure for either of these creative dilemmas, no morning routine guaranteed to awaken our inner billionaire super-artist. Rather, what’s required is commitment to a long process of self-awareness and self-observation.
We must first observe in order to recognize the natural human creative cycle, the ebb and flow of inspiration, as it manifests for us personally, in our own lives. We have to live with ourselves, eyes open and watching, for at least a few seasons before we can begin to see and embrace our own rhythm, before we can can honestly face our muse’s winter with real confidence in her return.
Once we come to know and respect our own natural creative cycle, eruptions from the underworld become obvious for what they are — chthonic attacks we may not immediately be able to stop, but which we are at least no longer confusing with reality. By observing our negative complexes in action, by exposing them over time to the light of consciousness, we can begin to disarm them. We begin to have a say in how our own story goes.
Awareness of these factors grants us the power to choose which version of Persephone’s story we will live. By investing the time and effort to better know ourselves, we can stop sabotaging our creativity.
Thanks for reading!