Monday, September 10, 2012

Sustainable Creativity

Sustainable Creativity

How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse

The Substance of Art

Many people who say they want to write really mean they want to have written. That is, many people aspire to be writers because they would like to be in the position of receiving the attention paid to someone who has published a book.

You’ve probably heard you should write because you have to: don’t do it for a living if you can do anything else. That sentiment is best understood as shorthand for the fact that writing is hard work—the kind of hard work only a few people find satisfying. If you find writing to be a joyless chore, it’s a good sign you should do something else.

Agent Rachelle Gardner said:

“…  if you decide you really want to go for it, then you’ll be ready to accept and deal with the truth: Writing a novel is hard work. You’ll be able to commit to the work, hoping eventually there’ll be a payoff meaning that you’ll enjoy the results of your labor. That doesn’t necessarily mean being published, but simply enjoying your story on the page, and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment. In that way, it can still be a labor of love even if it’s hard work.
“Let’s keep in mind that the ultimate “labor of love,” giving birth, is not in the least enjoyable and in fact involves great pain. It’s the result that makes it a labor of love. Sorry, I know you’re a guy and all, but this is a good analogy. In fact, one of the things that defines a “labor of love” is the fact that a task can be extremely difficult and unpleasant, but the results are so “worth it” that you do it anyway. I don’t think “labor of love” means something is supposed to be fun.” [1]

Art requires real and sustained dedication—much more than we assume if we only see the end product. The hallmark of mastery is that you make it look easy—as if the work simply flows from your fingertips.

Flow in Writing

You’ve probably heard about people who say the writing just flowed. It’s hard to hear that without taking it to be something mystical or judging yourself to be a lesser writer if you can’t make a similar claim.

Wikipedia defines psychological flow this way:

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.” [2]

There’s nothing mystical about flow. Indeed, it is effectively the opposite of mysticism because when you’re in a state of psychological flow you’re neither awed nor terrified. When you’re fully immersed in the process, you find, to the extent that you’re even aware of your internal state, that you feel a profound calm.

Flow means you’re neither too hot with great ideas, nor too cold bogged down in the details, but just right with ideas and the words to express them coming together at the same time.

Some people argue writing is a purely creative, right-brain activity. There’s truth in that claim, particularly for those who see the action and the setting, and hear the voices of their characters. But encoding those ideas in well-chosen words and ordering those words in compelling, grammatically correct sentences is a left-brain activity.

The hardest thing about writing is being sure your reader will get something from the marks on the page similar to what you had in mind when you made them. Unlike speaking with someone, where their expression helps you gauge how well they understand what you’re saying, a writer must encode ideas and mental images as words on a page in a medium that can be consumed at another time and place.

Much of the substance of art comes down to mastering the techniques and conventions that usually manage to convey your ideas to your audience. Put more simply, figuring out what you want to say is often easier than figuring out how to say it so that your readers come away thinking about roughly the same thing you had in mind.

People who focus on one side of the brain or the other short-change themselves. In my experience, flow is most likely to occur when I’ve mastered the left-brain mechanics (e.g., proficiency at typing, a command of grammar rules, and a rich vocabulary) and energized the right-brain to focus on the story (and not entertain every distraction that comes along). You can think of flow in writing as balancing right and left brains as you produce and encode ideas.

Art and Your Inner Critic

Unfortunately, your inner critic also lives in your left-brain and can stifle the wondrous flights of fancy soaring through your right brain. The people who tell you creativity can only flourish if you stay away from the left side of your brain live in fear of their inner critic. Part of the reason art is so often associated with, “recreational chemistry,” is because intoxicants are a time-honored way of overcoming your inhibitions.

A self-destructive war between the hemispheres of your brain, however, isn’t the only way to produce art. Your inner critic nags at you to keep you safe, not to sabotage your efforts. Jeanette Ingold characterizes our inner critic as, “no-nonsense; it wants to keep you out of trouble; and doesn’t want you to make a fool of yourself.”

The first step toward embracing your inner critic is to enlist it as your editor—the artistic equivalent of a conscience. Just as real editors help us refine and perfect our work, our internal editor can compliment the work by managing all the details that will make it shine.

There is, of course, a time and a place for everything. You don’t, for example, need your internal editor while you’re working on your first draft: everything is still fluid and the things that worry your inner editor may get changed before the story finally settles.

So, how do you work with your internal editor?

Liberating Processes

Remember, your inner editor is all about details. The best way to keep your inner editor happy is to keep it busy with detail-oriented tasks like:

  • Make a map of where the story takes place.
  • Create calendars and time-lines of events critical to the story.
  • Keep notes about character decisions.
  • Study similar books to see what works and what doesn’t.

More generally, having a process helps calm your inner editor. If you work systematically, it’s much easier to convince your inner editor you’ll come back and correct the details that may be amiss in the early drafts. For example:

  • Don’t be a binge writer: try to write every day.
  • Take advantage of forward momentum. Just keep going forward even if you realize something needs a major change.
  • Don’t worry about getting the writing perfect. Worry about getting your story on paper. There will be plenty of time with subsequent drafts to polish the text.
  • First drafts should be written chronologically.

And when you finish, let your first draft season for a month or so. Read it straight through to the end to get a gut feeling for the pacing. After that first read-through, you can unleash your internal editor, who will get busy and cut out everything that doesn’t belong in the story.

If you take a step back, what you’re really doing is setting up a cycle of creation and refinement that you’ll repeat until the work is finished. 

Mindful Writing

Scott Livingston said, “Poetry is intentional brevity.”

You have a responsibility as a writer to produce purposeful prose: narratives crafted with intent that give the reader a well-prepared experience. There’s no place in writing for pool-hall bravado (i.e., claiming you intended the balls to go where ever they went).

Flow is the state where you’re so fully immersed in the process that you stop worrying and simply do. It’s a frictionless balance between right-brain vision and left-brain detail.

The synthesis of flow and purpose is mindful writing. Like the Zen practice of mindfulness, which is to, “pay attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,” when you’re mindful of your writing, you’re both aware and not aware of what you’re doing. [3] You see the story and hear the voices of the characters. At the same time you’re capturing what you see in specific and intentionally chosen words.

While a perfect, Zen-like union of apparent opposites—in this case the two sides of our brains—in a creative synthesis may seem unobtainable, as you practice mindful writing you’ll find the amplitude of the create/refine cycle decreasing as the frequency increases. In other words, you’ll become consistently creative and produce higher quality work.

* * *

In this book we’ll explore creativity and the creative life, using writing to illustrate the broader principles.

We begin, in chapter 2, by clarifying the distinction between an idea and the expression of that idea, and show that creativity is primarily about the latter.

In chapter 3, we expand on the notion that creativity is only meaningful in context.

Ideas provide creative fuel. Chapter 4 explores ways to generate and collect ideas.

Chapter 5 looks as how the raw material of a collection of ideas can be organized into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

We turn to a series of observations, inspired by Austin Kleon, on the creative life in chapter 6.

Sustainable creativity requires discipline. Chapter 7 describes simple and creative ways to improve your discipline.

In chapter 8 we face the uncomfortable truth that creativity is hard work, and look at how you can step up to the challenge.

Chapter 9 suggests a number of techniques for organizing your affairs in order to clear time and space in which to exercise your creativity.

Finally, chapter 10 looks at the subtle problem of staying creative over the long term.

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