Seeking the Grail: Creativity, Inspiration, and Obsession

Seeking the Grail: Creativity, Inspiration, and Obsession February 1, 2016

This past fall, I lost my mind again…I dove deep into a big project and got completely obsessed. “Go big or go home” is my motto when I get inspired. Thing is, I know this about myself, but I managed to forget how much sheer fuel there is when I’m lit up for a particular project. Imbolc is a fire festival sacred to Brigid–a goddess of fire–and the mysteries of fire are an apt metaphor for this kind of work. Have you ever struggled to find inspiration? Or have you found yourself struck by an idea, consumed by it?

Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight
Courtesy of Shauna Aura Knight

A lot of my quest to find the inner Grail has been about my search for inspiration, for the magical bolt of lightning to fill me with creative energy. I began that quest consciously over ten years ago because I hadn’t felt that fire in a long time; I remembered feeling heat, feeling life force, but it seemed beyond my grasp. It was during an Imbolc ritual in 2005 that I started to realize what some of my problem was, though I had no idea how to fix it. Years later, I’ve certainly done a lot of creative work, but I have still struggled to feel that creative, consuming fire. It’s rare for me to actually feel excited about a creative project…or to feel at all.

Recently, though, I found myself in an absolute surge of creativity. Inspiration was pouring into me; Imbas, Awen, life force by whatever name you call it…I was overflowing. I was working on a project for days on end…in fact, to the point of my own exhaustion and harm.

I finally understand more of how this creative fire works, why it’s sometimes difficult to manifest…and when it does, that there are often consequences.

A Fairy Tale Wedding

Last fall I did the decorations for my brother’s wedding. Our original plan was simple; I had a lot of ritual decor that I could re-purpose. But then, the bride and I got onto Pinterest, and I began crafting a slightly more ambitious fairy tale design for the reception decorations.

Now–I have to take a quick step back. The events where I have lost my mind the most involved ambitious logistics or decorating, like masquerade balls or when I created Star Wars scenery like Jabba the Hutt or the Carbonite Chamber. Looking back the pattern seems clear, but somehow in the moment I think, “I’ll just do some decor, it’s no big deal.”

But, it does, in fact, become a big deal.

As the wedding drew closer, my plan expanded inch by inch. Partly that’s because my artwork was selling well and I had a little money to sink into some decorations like LED fairy lights, candle holders, and items from thrift stores. I found amazing stuff for a great price…but I definitely spent more money than I should have. I primarily bought items that I could re-use as ritual decor, but I still went overboard.

I also discovered that I would only have two hours to set up the decor between the wedding and the reception and that the pictures would be taken during that time, so that meant the whole bridal party was basically out as far as getting helpers for setup.

Spiraling into Madness

The whole back deck of my mom’s house (and it’s a considerably huge deck) got taken over by my attempts to not only get the decorations set up, but set up in a way that they could be easily unpacked and set up without much decision-making. The problem I knew I’d run into was I lacked people who (1) knew the plan and (2) knew how to setup without me explaining things.

This meant I had to do the problem-solving ahead of time.

The amount of work got overwhelming, but instead of scaling back–which felt like failure–I pushed forward. I’d asked a few folks for help, but almost nobody showed. For context, many of the folks I’d have asked for help–the bride’s friends and family–are very conservative Christian, and my family’s goal was to try and not offend them. I knew that the more time I spent around them, the harder that would be. I asked some other folks for help, but most bailed on me. The bride herself was working three jobs to try and pay for the wedding, though she came over and helped a bit anyways.

I did end up getting some assistance from my two boyfriends, as well as from out-of-town family members once they arrived for the wedding, but by that point we were in the last panicked days. My mom was hosting the rehearsal dinner at the house to save money, which meant that I had to have the decorations cleaned up so that the house and deck could be cleaned. This also meant that a lot of the helpers I might have had with the decor were spending most of their time working to fix up the house.

Making it worse, the weather turned cold making it difficult to work on the decorations outside, but I had no indoor space big enough to work on them. And then I had jury duty on a day that it stormed, and everything on the deck got soaked.

You can probably see how my stress level started rising.

I traveled a lot in August and September, and when I returned from Madison Pagan Pride Day, I basically went offline. I had no time to even check email. I worked on decor all day and into the night, slept for a few hours, and did it again. I painted, I glued, I bent wire until my hands hurt, I invented ways to hang crystals from floral arrangements. I strung LED lights, and finally I packed things into bins in a way that made it easier to set up.

Honestly, if my one boyfriend hadn’t spent the days before the wedding with me helping to do final prep, I’d never have made it work.

The Fire

Here’s the thing. All of that…it might sound like I was miserable, but I wasn’t. I was lit. Energized. Alive. I wish I could explain to you the things I had dancing in my mind, my vision of the event. I wish I could whisper to you all the little tricks I used to make things pretty, the things I invented.

I crafted jeweled fairy tale pumpkins, I found stunning deals on iridescent fabric and LED lights. The cold was miserable, and the ache in my body and especially my hands was miserable, but the creative fire burned with ecstatic joy even as it hollowed me out.

The most exhausting part of this process during any event was feeling alone and not having enough help. When I’m working on a large-scale project like this, helpers, collaborators, and feedback help keep the energy going. If I could have focused on the detail work, I’d have been able to get more done and maybe sleep. Instead, I had to do just about everything–sorting and repairing hundreds of silk flowers, measuring fabric, cleaning out candle holders. There was a lot of grunt work that was fairly simple, but it’s what made the project overwhelming for one person to tackle.

What I wanted more than anything was for at least one other person (if not several people) to be actively involved with the planning, to be excited for it. When I’m on my last energetic reserves at 4am as I’m twisting pieces of wire together, having someone else to talk to who is also equally lit up for the project gives me that extra fuel. I can’t even tell you how much it would have meant to have someone see the intricate work I put into some of the decorations, to understand the whole vision but also the minutia of the detail work I put in with glue guns, glitter, and wire.

Not really having that–and knowing that I’d never get all the decor set up in the two hours I had–made me feel worse. That became a fuel too–trying to push forward to get it done when people were telling me that it was impossible.

The Day

It all came off, I suppose, even with additional snafus. Everyone told me they were dumbfounded by the decorations. This included the staff who had worked at the venue for a decade. It probably won’t surprise you that I didn’t achieve the vision I was going for.

I didn’t achieve that for my own wedding, either, or for the masquerade ball I ran in Chicago years ago. I have learned a bit over the years about how most people just aren’t lit up to create an event on the scale that I envision. I think all these years I’ve been trying to recreate a masquerade ball on the scale of the ballroom scene in the movie Labyrinth, but I’ve never quite gotten it right.

People were amazed, but I still felt I’d failed.

Inspiration and Depression

A while back I hosted Pagan musician Sharon Knight when she offered a Sonic Alchemy workshop. She summed it up pretty well; if you’re a musician or artist, you’re always looking for that inspiration, and when you can’t find it, that’s the lowest low. I can personally affirm that as a person who depends on being creative, nothing leads me into a depression spiral more than that lack of inspiration.

Over the past years, people have told me they are amazed at how productive I am. I often laugh and say, “Imagine what I could do if I wasn’t struggling with depression!” And that’s partially true. I think what would also be accurate to say is, “Imagine what I could do if I was totally and completely obsessed!”

I write a lot…blogs, articles, books…fiction, nonfiction. But there are times where I stare at the blank screen, where I procrastinate for days, weeks…years. There are times where I have absolutely no juice, no fire. It’s frustrating that I can’t just summon up that fire; it has to come naturally and authentically from the work itself.

If there’s one thing I’ve finally realized, it’s that planning and decorating certain events raises up that kind of obsessive, consuming fire in me. And, it feels like an aching, horrifying absence when I’m not that inspired, when I have to struggle to write, to find the words. When the artwork doesn’t turn out right. Because I know it’s in there, I know what I’ve done in the past, so why can’t I do it on this project or that one?

The Cost

Obsession has a price; the fire of inspiration has a cost. After this event, I was physically worn out. It took me a week just for the physical aches to ease. It took weeks beyond that for my brain to begin to reset because I was emotionally and mentally wrung out; I had no energy for anything else. I had projects that were due, things that required brainpower, and all I had was brain fog.

Laying in bed, after taking another handful of Ibuprofen, I realized why this kind of inspiration was dangerous. Because it’s consuming. Because it’s obsessive. Because it’s addictive. Because it doesn’t die until the fire burns down to embers.

Because it sucks out all the oxygen in the room.

Because I found myself day after day waking up, knowing I had many things to do, but caring only about the obsession, the Project. I prioritized that above all else because it was what was lighting me up (even though it was frustrating me too).

The cost was heavy. In the weeks before the wedding, I got behind on all my communications and dropped the ball on several projects I was obligated to. In the weeks and months after, I had a hard time getting caught up. I had difficulty writing for weeks; months later, I’m still not caught up.

When I’m stuck in anxiety or brain-fog mode, painting is pretty relaxing and helps me to recenter, so I did get a lot of painting done. I don’t switch gears well; when I travel and teach I can’t just come back home and get back to writing. Painting is often a good transition for me because it doesn’t require thought or focus in the way writing does.

Obsession, Leadership, and Events

When I talk about personal work as a leader, one of the reasons I talk a lot about stubborn visionaries is because I am one. I know I get obsessive when I’m planning events. In the past, I’ve tried to pressure others to keep up with the superhuman amounts of work I get done when I’m lit up by the fire….and that never ends well. Yet, the other side–down scaling my visions of events to meet the energy level of my team members–is a direct flight to Depressionland because there’s nothing less enthusing for me than a lackluster event.

I still have big dreams for events I’d like to host. I’d love to do a fairy tale masquerade ball in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Or a Grail-themed conference on myth, art, and personal transformation. Or a Pagan leadership conference.

To do any of those, I must continue working on my own issues around events and obsession, as well as work to find the right team of people to collaborate with.

Fire is unpredictable, and it burns, but it’s a part of the creative process. Will I ever dive into an obsessive project again? Most certainly. Can I do it next time with a bit more self awareness? That’s definitely my hope.

Just Released!

Pagan Leadership Anthology: An Exploration of Leadership and Community in Paganism and Polytheism
Edited by Shauna Aura Knight & Taylor Ellwood

Pagan communities are evolving; we find ourselves in dire need of healthy, ethical leaders. This anthology offers tools, techniques, and hands-on experience from over thirty Pagan authors, exploring topics of communication, conflict, bylaws, predators, personal work, and more to help you become a better leader and enrich your community.  More details available here.

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