Aside from the obvious devastation caused, the coronavirus pandemic has done a number on creative folks. I’ve observed struggles, transformations, career challenges, and cycles that would normally span decades condensed into a matter of months. It’s been fascinating to see how people’s creativity has evolved over this testing time, and the new directions that have emerged out of crisis, changes, and a renewed perspective.
Everything in life moves in cycles, whether in work, our relationships, a project, or ourselves. Cycles typically go through the phases of inception, birth, growth, decline, release, death, and rebirth. It’s rebirth that I find most fascinating: the dawning of a new age and beginning of a new cycle is always exciting to see.
In ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology, the legend of the phoenix is often referenced as the ultimate motivational idiom of forging a new path in life. As the story goes, the phoenix was a magnificent bird with red and gold plumage. Singing songs for the sun alone in the desert, the phoenix grew old and weak after living for 500 years. The phoenix then built a funeral pyre for itself before laying down and bursting into flames. Instantly, from the ashes the phoenix emerged even more beautiful and renewed, and would live for another 500 years, repeating the cycle again in perpetuity.
Trying something new
Whether rebirth is borne out of crisis or experimentation, a common artistic method for overcoming a creative block is to ‘try something new’. It’s a topic that never fails to crop up in conversation, because so often we feel stagnant and like we need to widen our net, even during ‘ordinary’ times. In welcoming in the new – whether that be a new sound, a new instrument, technique, or area of industry, we metaphorically channel our personal Sgt. Pepper, like our inner Dylan plugging in his guitar for the first time. We can push the boundaries of what is comfortable or expected as often as we like – every life chapter, career move, and creative offering can be as fresh and unpredictable as each new album from Radiohead or Bowie, embracing a direction that is ever-evolving.
Paradoxically, another theme that consistently appears alongside trying something new, is the drive to reconnect with what we loved about our art as a child or when we first became inspired. When your art is your career, this one can be more challenging to figure out. With an unexpected hiatus such as the pandemic, taking time and space to let the ideas flow again has helped some to reconnect with this initial spark.
But what of the times when our lives and careers crumble, when re-emerging from the ashes is more dramatic? Sometimes a new cycle is more akin to Dave Grohl forming the Foo Fighters after the end of Nirvana when an entirely new start is necessary in order to move on.
In the same vein, my favourite Rock and Roll life story has to be that of Stevie Van Zandt, who started his career as the guitarist of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. After leaving the group at a high point in their popularity, Van Zandt faced struggles financially, emotionally, and spent a period of time without music in his life. However, his autobiography explains:
“Van Zandt left the band and transformed into a new identity, the first of many, and Little Steven became a political songwriter and performer, helping to mastermind the recording of ‘Sun City, an anti-apartheid anthem that helped get Nelson Mandela out of prison. By the 90s, Van Zandt had lived at least two lives – one as a rocker, one as a hardcore activist. It was time for a third – as Silvio Dante, the unconditionally loyal consigliere who sat at the right hand of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. Underlying all of Van Zandt’s various incarnations was a devotion to preserving the centrality of the arts, especially the endangered species of Rock.”
Van Zandt is the epitome of the legend of the phoenix, changing direction, and making comeback after comeback from the ashes of his previous lives. While his first cycle came to an end with the band, he went on to use his skills and make an impact in a new way that wouldn’t have been possible without its ending. By modifying his creative mediums, Van Zandt affected one of the most notable political events in recent history and went on to be a part of the most renowned television show in the world. Even more, interestingly, he reconnected with Bruce and the band years later, and has been a staple of the group once again.
When cycles end as they inevitably do, embracing the situation and looking to art and stories like Van Zandt’s can give us hope that incredible things are possible, and when one chapter in our lives burns to the ground, it doesn’t necessarily mark the end of us. We might take a break, reinvent ourselves, or try something completely new, but every ending is a new beginning. Whether good or bad, the cycle will roll on, and rebirth always comes at the end of the sequence.