The Creativity Equation

Every artist, writer, actress, has a process. But like any fire, they need fuel. Stimulation in → art out. So what happens to output when there’s no input?

ghost art

The Creativity Equation
Every artist, writer, actress, has a process. Some are inspired by daily life: take the stand-up comic’s observational humour, short stories that spring from anecdotes, canvases inspired by watching the world turn outside a window.

Whatever the specifics, creative people don’t conjure their work ex nihilo; like any fire, they need fuel. Stimulation in → art out. So what happens to output when there’s no input?

Alex Foley, oil on canvas board, 2020

The answers are as diverse as the creatives who give them. ‘The thing that I found fundamentally hardest about lockdown is that usually like everybody who writes I pick things up as I go along,’ explains writer Rebecca Reid. ‘I hear expressions, I see things happen. I see interactions between people, and it all goes in. And suddenly, in the pandemic, all of that disappeared’.

Comedian Rachel South agrees. ‘It is so much harder’, she says, of writing and refining new material in lockdown. ‘One of the things that I love most about stand-up is the immediacy of the feedback, which you don’t always get with other creative processes. I really relied on that.’

In recent months Rachel has pivoted to Instagram, where her persona acerbically dry, gloomily millennial has arguably found a natural habitat. Nonetheless, and while ‘posting on Instagram has helped, before [I started doing that] there was definitely a point where I wasn’t really writing at all’, she explains. 


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A post shared by Rachel South (@ilovemoaning_)

‘I’m starting to write a bit more, but it’s still hard because you might have some likes from a post, but you don’t know in the same way [as with a live audience] how funny it is ’, says Rachel. ‘You don’t know who’s liking the post just out of politeness and who’s liking it because they actually like it’; undeniably, a roomful of laughter vs. crickets provides starker metrics than social media. Only trouble is, the former is currently illegal.

While the immediacy Rachel’s talking about is somewhat unique to performance, Rebecca notes something similar in writing. ‘[In lockdown], you’re not editing your ideas as you go, because you’re not talking to your friends about them, like oh, do you think this is interesting? Have you seen this? Even talking on the phone somehow is different from talking in person. You process things differently, you guard your ideas more carefully, I think, […] than you do when you speak to somebody in real life.’

Social sounding-boards aside, Rebecca has had what can only be described as one of the most productive years in human history: having lost her job in February 2020, ‘I wrote a novel [in the first lockdown], Two Wrongs, which was published in January 2021. […] Also in the first lockdown I was editing my nonfiction The Power of Rude’. In the meantime, she has added ‘two hour long screenplays and one half an hour screenplay’ to her lockdown tally. ‘So it has been a really busy year. But it has never been less fun. And it’s never been harder.’

Hen Night
Rosie Gibbens, 2020, performance, duration: 10 minutes
Photographer: Javier Calderón

Of course, having the time and resources to be creative in the first place is a privilege. Artists around the world, ousted from galleries, theatres and film sets, spent much of 2020 finding weird and wonderful ways to keep the lights on. ‘I am very fortunate because I have all of the resources,’ says Rebecca. ‘I have a spare bedroom which I can set up as a study. I don’t have children currently. I have a quiet, warm, safe place to work. […] I genuinely have all of those reasons that it was possible for me to be creative, and even then it was still incredibly hard.’ 

Maybe tragedy and upheaval aren’t as catalytic for creativity as glamorously tortured poets would have us believe; just as a flower requires water, light and nutrients, people need the basics in place before they can embark on the luxury of generating new-ness.

With the age-old equation of creativity irreparably disrupted by present circumstances, let’s turn to the equal and opposite myth of the ivory tower. Virginia Woolf, for one, dreamt of a room of her own. Writer’s retreats and artist residencies, venues to encounter ourselves without distraction, are still feted as facilitating the sacred solitude required to mine our souls in order to make great art or write the book that will change the world. As you’ll remember with no small amount of trauma, the first naive steps into lockdown were based on just that premise — ah, wonderful! Time at last to write that magnum opus. Finish that sculpture. Set up that collective. Ha.

Carrot and Stick
Rosie Gibbens, 2019, performance, duration: 4 hours

‘At the beginning, because of the circumstances, I was really far from my studio’ says Rosie Gibbens, a performance artist based in London. ‘I didn’t really want to go on the train, so I didn’t get to my studio for months.’ With all her 2020 events cancelled or postponed, ‘I was really struggling to work out what my practice was about, especially because it [had been] so based on live events and performance.’ 

For those forcibly confronted with yawning expanses of ‘free time’ for one reason or another, the pressure to produce was unparalleled. ‘Suddenly I just felt, God, I’ve got to really use this time’, says Rosie, who was on furlough for several months. ‘Like, I’m not working, I’m never going to have this again: I need to really make it happen.’ 

Rebecca agrees. ‘I probably made more stuff in 2020 than I would in an average year. But partially, that was through a desperate need to feel like I was achieving something.’ Certainly, there’s nothing like a global crisis for producing an existential one. ‘[I was] also having these thoughts alongside all the shit going down’, says Rosie. ‘It was like, what even is being an artist? What’s the point, you know?’ 

Pulling myself together and keeping my head up
Rosie Gibbens, 2020, photograph

‘Writing is damn near impossible [in lockdown]’ says Alex Foley, an oil painter and writer based in Brighton: ‘because I have no thoughts’ (wry laughter). ‘With my writing, it was always a bunch of stray ideas that were all circling around a central theme or a central thought […] like seeing a black hole through the light around it, rather than processing it directly. I feel like I’m just not having those interactions anymore to make those associations,’ they say. ‘I’ve even stopped encountering media. I find myself just watching Gilmore Girls over and over again, because it’s comforting, and my brain is dead and I can’t focus on anything new.’ Ay, there’s the rub.

While 2020 still feels like a gulf, one could argue that the pandemic constitutes an avalanche of stimulation rather than a void. The earth shifted beneath our feet. Every time we picked up a smart phone or turned on the news we heard more about borders closings, death tolls climbing, governments reeling. For a lot of people, the last year has been their life’s most seismic. ‘It’s really hard because everybody’s bored of it’, says Rebecca, ‘but also, it’s all anybody will read about. It’s a complete Catch 22.’

Roses, Alex Foley, oil on canvas, 2020

Quite apart from asking whether one can make new things without digesting any, an opposing line of inquiry emerges: is too much input worse than not enough? ‘I think usually getting from where you are to where you’re creating in fiction is like going up one flight of stairs, and during the pandemic it’s like going up 10. You have to work so much harder to imagine yourself anywhere else’, says Rebecca, ‘because you’re so saturated by every conversation. Everything is about it. […] Our whole world shifted very, very quickly. And it’s no wonder that people felt like they were a bit drowned by that.’

Certainly, the pandemic’s tentacles are reaching into every facet of our creative lives, consciously or otherwise. Rachel’s Instagram persona has started dispensing invaluable advice for staying positive in lockdown (tip #6, exercise! ‘Instead of forcing deliveroo drivers to come upstairs against their will, I actually go all the way down now’), while fellow comedian and podcaster Yiannis Cove notes ‘it’s been tough trying to stay away from making everything about what’s going on, especially when it comes to sketches and satire writing.’ He continues, ‘my comedy writing is taking a weirder, more surreal tone the longer we are in lockdown too because I think it’s the only way my brain can cope!’ 

Bananas and postcard, Alex Foley, oil on linen board, 2021


Last year, Rosie felt that she wasn’t making work about the crisis ‘at all’; rather, ‘escaping into a fantasy world with my own creatures I was building.’ It was only later, in semi-retrospect, that she could identify the crisis’s impact on her work: ‘I made these two photos for Charleston Gallery. One was called Pulling myself together and keeping my head up and the other one was Tied up in knots with a weight on my chest’, says Rosie. ‘In a way, it was the most topical artwork I’d ever made.’  

Over or under-stimulated as the case may be, it seems the pandemic’s white noise isn’t always a bad thing. While writing is proving largely unwranglable, Alex is finding painting ‘actually easier’ during the crisis.  ‘I find the lack of thoughts is actually helping’, they say. ‘Sometimes with my painting, I think it has to be too important, too grand, you know? Whereas with lockdown, I’ve been forced to look at more of the quotidian, the everyday. Now it’s simple objects I want to paint.’

Finch, Alex Foley, oil on linen board, 2021


Over the last year, those ‘simple objects’ have been all many of us could hope for (or cope with). With the population of the UK under ‘stay at home’ orders for months at a time, even chance encounters — with muses, collaborators, antagonists — are off the table. Where should we look for that ‘spark’ if not in the stimulating friction of the world and people in it?  ‘Especially in the first [lockdown], even sitting on a park bench watching people was illegal’, remembers Rebecca. ‘And so it came down to trying to find those sources of inspiration from other places like reading books, and watching television or watching films. But then I think, like a lot of people, I got to the stage where I didn’t even want to watch something new or good. I just wanted to rewatch old episodes of Gossip Girl. I was basically on a starvation diet for inspiration. And that is a really hard thing.’

While artists mourn the absence of all but online audiences like cooking a sumptuous meal only to eat it alone certain aspects of the pandemic’s solitude have proven liberating. ‘I did way more stuff on spec, way more stuff that may never see the light of day’, says Rebecca. ‘The lockdown felt like a really good time to try new things, [even] if they weren’t things that were gonna stick or be good or be worthwhile…  I definitely ‘made’ more in terms of trying different things.’

‘I was kind of grateful in some ways’, says Rosie, ‘because I had really wanted to develop a more sculptural side [to my practice], and to make objects and props that stood up in their own right.’ She continues, ‘most of the things I made in 2020, I don’t really like anymore. I would never really show them to anyone but I think it gave me that time to explore stuff that was going to fail. [That’s something] which maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had been working for the deadlines I had coming up.’

Ghosting, Alex Foley, oil on canvas, 2020

Can you feel it? Something in the air, pushing people to poke their heads above the parapet like snowdrops peeking through the frozen ground? ‘A year [since the first lockdown] is probably a significant turning point’, agrees Rebecca, and that anniversary seems to be prompting us to survey its wreckage with something resembling perspective. The coronavirus crisis is many things but it’s not over: neither is it new anymore. 

‘I remember reading that in the Second World War it got to the point where people would be like, I’m not gonna go to the Air Raid Shelter, it’s really far. I’ll just take my chances.’

Our brains can only accommodate so much emergency until, as she says, you ‘adjust to it and it becomes normal’; artists, along with huge swathes of the population, have adapted to ways of working which would have been unimaginable just a year ago.

We’re nothing if not flexible or perhaps ‘incorrigible’ is a more appropriate term. Here’s hoping for a phoenix or two; god knows there’s no shortage of ashes to rise from.

Auto Erotic Assimilation
Rosie Gibbens
2018, performance, duration: 45min
Photographer: Greg Goodale

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