the dark night of the soul

discovering and rediscovering creative purpose

Being an artist is not easy. Despite the fact that “all you do” is imagine and explore there is good reason that the tormented artist is such a common trope. Many artists feel they do not belong in this world, that they were made “different”. In my observation all independent thinkers—whether they consider themselves artists or not—suffer by indulging the very thing they love.

Processing these emotions is complex, they must often be expressed externally to find any sense of liberation. This isn’t exactly an original claim, one definition of an artist is someone who expresses their innermost emotions through creative output. However, I don’t think it’s quite this simple.

Generally speaking there is a belief that pain is fuel for creative work. I actually won’t push back on this, because it’s true, suffering can lead to great work (see Van Gogh). However, this is only grazing the surface of the matter. I would argue that strong emotion is fuel for art, be it positive or negative.

Of course, if we are suffering then expressing it is only rational. But manufacturing suffering to fuel our creativity is both pathological and self-abusive… And yet many of us do just that, whether we know it or not. I, like many, have struggled to feel understood. My creative “drive” remains as much a mystery to me as it does to those around me, I still can’t explain why I‘m drawn to art. I know that nothing is as electrifying as the feeling of inspiration, and that bringing a flurry of thoughts from my mind on to the proverbial canvas is one of the most intensely rewarding experiences available. 

Unfortunately, this brings with it some frustrating failure modes. There can be a tendency to worship the source of creativity, or to project it on to a muse. This gives way to a fear of never experiencing the inspiration again, which can easily spiral out of control. 

“I’m so uninspired” → “What if I’ve lost it?” → “Oh god I’ll never be inspired again

It’s not hard to see why inspiration might elude someone obsessed with its absence.

Personally, I developed a slightly different pathology. I am an only child and spent my youth completely wrapped up in my imagination. I would create worlds out of LEGO to act out epic stories with dozens of characters, draw fantastical creatures and play make-believe whenever left to my own devices. Over the years this evolved into an obsession with making games, but I feel that these experiences are media-agnostic. I was perfectly happy in my fantasy world for many years, but slowly realised that not everyone seemed to feel this way.

Perhaps the most salient, and painful, example is showing your family and friends a creation you’re proud of, only to be greeted by quizzical expressions and disinterest. Peoples’ tastes vary wildly and it’s actually quite unlikely those around you will share your aesthetic preferences. However, I found this emotionally devastating when I was younger. I immediately felt shame that I had the audacity to share my “stupid” ideas with those around me. 

Over time this created a tendency to just… not talk about it. I found online communities where I could meet other creatives but to some extent the damage was done. The imposter syndrome was overwhelmingly strong and I constantly feared judgement for my art—even from my peers. My imagination became a sanctuary, a safe place where I could retreat from the pain of misunderstanding.

Predictably, hiding in my imagination only worsened the problem. Retreating from the world is a great way to feel like no-one understands you, because they can’t see what you’re seeing. I began to blame my creativity for my misery, which actually culminated in “giving up” on art during my final year of high school. Thankfully, this didn’t stick and I could do little to resist the magnetic pull back towards expression. During my early University days the iOS App Store was just taking off. It occurred to me for the first time that I could be paid for my art. Surely that would prove that my dreams were valid? Everyone would “get it” once people started paying me, right?

In actuality, this turned up my inner-critic to 11. I was constantly feeling like my work did not meet the standard of “commercial” or “professional” products. Never one to back down from a challenge, I pushed harder and harder. This culminated with The Thin Silence, TwoPM’s first commercial PC release taking over 5 years to complete.

The game is a fairly blatant metaphor for the experience of depression and I felt massive pressure to make it a commercial success given how much it meant to me personally. Frustratingly it was also the hardest project for me to open up about, I could barely explain the concept to anyone because I was still so ashamed of being depressed in the first place.

There’s a lengthy post-mortem on TTS if you want to know more: The Thin Silence Post-Mortem - The Silent Treatment.

Long story short, the game didn’t fix all my problems. At the time I felt like we had failed, sure thousands of people had played the game and there are almost 100 YouTube Let’s Plays and commentaries… But it all felt empty, except for one video that stuck with me, though it took time to sink in. The creator had played the game and recorded a tearful account of their own struggle with depression. Two things about this struck me: their vulnerability to put their feelings out there directly and the fact that our game spoke to someone on this level.

In the aftermath it felt like I was rebooting the creative machine from scratch. After years on the same project I had no idea how to create spontaneously anymore. What’s more, I was still attached to the idea of “proving myself” by making a commercial success. This is what precipitated the development of The Song of The Fae in 2019 and throughout this project my motivation has been a constant struggle.

I couldn’t see it at the time but I’d totally lost touch with my reasons for creating in the first place. As a kid I created because it was exhilarating, as a 15-year-old it was an escape from feeling alone, as a 20-year-old it was a path to glory and recognition and by 25 it was a vague and blurry mess. It wasn’t until I stumbled into meditation that things started to change.

Sufficient meditation experience allows one to “see through” many of the narratives and illusions they have created. I could see first hand how ambiguous my motivations had become and immediately the bottom dropped out of everything. I was free-falling, I love making art right? But why do I resent it? Why put myself through this again? Recognition is not enough, the ego cannot ever be appeased. 

The scaffolding I’d built my whole creative worldview around was crumbling and in its place was… the present moment. A single sprout of hope from the ruins of my ego. Living in your imagination is not the only way, in fact, living in the here and now might sound banal by comparison but it’s infinitely more inspiring. 

Even the most breathtaking imagined world cannot compare to the depth and beauty of paying attention to what’s actually happening right now. For a time I feared this was “trite” or “generic” but I have come to see that expressing your personal experience with honesty and sincerity leads to the most emotionally impactful art possible. When you learn to see the beauty in reality itself you have an incredible inspirational wellspring to draw from.

When I think of all the art that I love deeply it is always due to emotional resonance, not because of the “impressiveness” of the author. This essay itself is a demonstration of this; by explaining my very specific experience I may alienate certain people, but I may also show someone else out there that they’re not alone, and that’s worth much more than view statistics or monetary compensation.

So, at 28, I create to move others by sharing my own triumphs and defeats. To offer someone the feeling of connection and understanding that my favourite artists provide for me. To quote Porter Robinson on his album Nurture:

‘Cause that’s your role,
The work that stirred your soul,
You can make for someone else

Musician - Porter Robinson

This entire essay was inspired by Porter Robinson, his latest album is a reflection on the creative process and learning how to be both happy and inspired. The degree to which the lyrics parallel my own experiences brings tears to my eyes, and I earnestly hope to provide that same impact to someone else. I’ll leave you with the chorus from Musician:

Oh, it's calling,
I just can't stop, I'm sorry,
I can feel a new day dawning,
I burn up, burn out,
I shouldn't do this to myself

But sincerely,
Can't you feel what I'm feeling?
I can see my life so clearly,
I burn up, burn out,
I shouldn't do this to myself

✌️ ben