The Empty Summit

12 May 2019

Finally, you have reached the top of the mountain. You steady yourself in the thin air. You squint to reduce the powerful light and look across states, nations, and continents. That snow you see on the neighboring peak? It’s twenty miles away as the crow flies. You whip off your oxygen mask to shout out your existence. Maybe you don’t do that, because you could die. So you restrain yourself from whipping off your oxygen mask and instead you just shout inside the mask, a hoarse bellow of celebration. Your mountaineering companions give the thumbs up. You all embrace. Your Sherpas smile, joining in, even through they have been here many times before.

I’d like to have that feeling when I finish a big project. But I don’t. I experience what I call the Empty Summit. Deflation. Oh, sure, I am elated when I get the draft out to the editor or upload the final mix on a podcast. I mean after that, about twelve hours later, I come down with a bad case of now what?

I can trace this back to something my mother told me. She was an artist who was never satisfied with her work. She claimed that her dissatisfaction was good, because it made her want to make the next sculpture. I subscribed to this theory for decades. You make something. You go up. Wait twelve hours. You go down. Then you want to make something else. It doesn’t really work that way, though. Creating from a pissed off kind of lack is not good. Better work comes from joy.

Artists, like anybody else, work best when they feel good. The Tortured Artist is a strangely attractive archetype, but I bet van Gogh would have preferred not to cut off his ear. He probably would have preferred to sell a couple of his paintings while he was alive. He would still be a great artist, just one in a better mood.

He used absinthe, a potent spirit, to medicate his psychotic episodes, and his doctor prescribed a medicine derived from a plant we know as foxglove. There’s a theory that he had seizures and his doctor attempted to medicate them with foxglove. Users of that medication reported a yellow cast over their vision. Have another look at van Gogh’s Sunflowers” and take note of its yellowish vision of the world. His work was not the result of his unhappiness. He had to overcome his unhappiness to work.

I — all of us — would do well to steer away from the Tortured Artist. But how? Here’s my new theory. After reaching the summit, take a moment to rest, maybe a day, maybe a whole week. Write yourself a letter, like the one that I am writing to you now, and take a moment to receive the goodness of what you’ve done. Appreciate that you might not know the return on your creative investment for a good long while. But you did the work. And that’s good.

Thanks for reading,


(c) Lee Schneider 2022. Take care of each other. Subscribe.