The three acts of the Creative Cycle
Act I: Inspired
A period of time filled with promise, a sense that anything is possible, a warm urgency that fills the gut, a mass of energy waiting to get out.
Act II: Acting
Exerting the energy, containing it, managing it, running with it, and playing with it. It feels like progress, like we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing. Time runs fluidly, and things and thoughts connect.
Act III: Lost
The energy built up in the first act feels spent. Time moves slower, questions seem bigger and more impactful and knotty. It feels hard to move, and if we can move it is hard to know where and how. Clarity of thought or vision feels blurry.
How we move between acts
Act I to Act II
The ease of transition between Acts I and II can vary greatly. Inspiration can lead to a clarity of what action should be taken. But inspiration can also be plentiful to the point where it is hard to know when and how we should take action. A difficulty of moving from Act I to II is often rooted in fear. A fear of getting it wrong. A fear of very quickly returning to Act III.
Act II to Act III
Moving between these acts requires little effort. Simply by questioning our actions or acting for too long with too much energy we slip straight into feeling lost. It can happen so quickly that we barely sense it coming. And when we have finally transitioned into Act III we wonder how we got there.
Act III to Act I
The rounding of the cycle. This transition feels like riding a bike uphill, you’re nearing the crest of the hill and all that’s left is to bring the pedal over the 12 o’clock position for a final time. It requires considerable effort to move from feeling lost. It can feel easier to stay in Act III and we often do, because the effort required to get out feels too great. Easier to get off the bike and stay put than push onwards over the crest. But as we know, if we do get over the crest then we’ll reap the rewards as we coast happily down the other side, filled with the adrenaline we built up.
Major and minor cycles
Often there are multiple cycles in motion at any one time. Some feel small, they repeat often and we can feel the acts as we spend time within them. These are minor cycles.
Some cycles are big and occur over years or decades. With major cycles, we don’t feel the presence of the acts all the time, they drift in and out of our attention as we go about our day-to-day. But when an act of a major cycle is present and within our attention, particularly Act III, it can be severe and very difficult.
A major cycle can be best understood through something like a career. To give a personal example:
Act I 2007–2009: I think I want to be a designer
Act II 2010–2019: Train, become, and act as a designer
Act III 2020: Do I see myself being a designer for another ten years?
A minor cycle is much smaller, more easily spotted and many of them can occur within a major cycle. They can range in size, an hour, a day, a week, or a month. They often aren’t big enough to have the massive life impact that we find in a major cycle.
Act I 09:00: Hockney‘s use of colour feels obvious at first glance but when you consider them, the colours are radically different to the reality of his subject matter.
Act II 11:00: Paint with a new palette
Act III 17:00: Why does this feel lacking in depth and energy?
Recognising and moving forward
The Creative Cycle is an inevitable experience that we must endure if we wish to do our work. Take away any of the three acts and we will cease to do good work. Without inspiration, little action will take place. Without feeling lost there’s no need to seek inspiration, the acting continues and grows tired.
The challenge is to manage how much this cycle bleeds beyond the realm of the work and into our being. Our being could mean our ability to be present with our family, to uphold our duties in homelife, to enjoy the company of friends, or to sleep easily.
There’s no one culprit to blame in the cycle. No single act which we can say is evil or causes all the trouble. The Creative Cycle can bleed into our being no matter which act we’re in. When I’m inspired, I wake at 4am ready to seek more and yearning to move into action. When I’m lost, I also wake at 4am in search of an answer.
The creative cycle affects different people in different ways. Sometimes a cycle can feel severe and consuming. Other times, fun and manageable. When severe cycles happen, either a major one or many minor ones, the hardest part is moving to the next act. Dwelling in Act III for too long can cause you to seize up; the longer you spend there, the harder it is to move.
Recognising this cycle and making sense of it, as I feel I have done for myself, can help us move around the cycle to the next act. By noticing which act we’re in and bringing it to our attention we can now seek out a way forward or else we may dwell too long and cease to create.