I have a few projects I’m working on right now. One small project is pure graphic design of existing information-heavy content, with precedent and brand standards to work off of. A second larger project includes all new content creation, design of the format and presentation of that information, plus graphic design. Though my main focus was on the latter last week, I was feeling unproductive. I would procrastinate by working on the smaller project or by running errands or by doing dishes. Whenever I sat down to my larger project, I would scroll up and down the outline I had created, tweaking a sentence here or there, without adding much and without much inspiration.
The well-worn fears cropped up: of not being able to perform, of not meeting my deadline, of not being up for the job, of not being up for any job. I was lazy, I was unfocused, I wasn’t cut out for an 8-hour workday. (Basically, this guy.) None of that is true; it’s all in my head.
And I’m beginning to understand how to deal with the discomfort that comes from uncertainty. Nearly all creative work worth doing comes with discomfort* and uncertainty.
I’m reading If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit by Brenda Ueland. (And when she talks of writing, she encourages you to substitute any endeavor or craft or cause which you care deeply about.) It’s revelatory because it’s making me appreciate that service design, interaction design, and program development are just as much creativity problems as visual design problems are. It’s also revelatory because I’m finally making all the connections between all these talks, ideas, and readings I’ve accumulated over the years — and seeing their application in my life in a tangible, doable way. (Which also means this post has lotsa footnotes.)
The basic premise of Brenda Ueland’s chapters are not that earth-shattering in and of themselves. She sets out to prove that everyone is creative, and that we can all open our lives to creativity. She talks about the time and space that creativity need to flourish. This is the opposite of our habitually rushed, productivity-obsessed, goal-driven lives.
Our idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong…that is why these smart, energetic, do-it-now, pushing people so often say: “I am not creative.” They are, but they should be idle, limp and alone for much of the time, as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination: it is letting in ideas. Willing is doing something you know already, something you have been told by someone else; there is no new imaginative understanding in it. And presently your soul gets frighteningly sterile and dry because you are so quick, snappy and efficient about doing one thing after another that you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine.
…you see the imagination needs moodling,–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.
Of course, ideas and creativity take time, sometimes a lot of time. That time of marination, of non-productivity, of seeming idleness always makes me anxious. I start to think something is wrong with me when I am trying (trying ever so hard, mind you) to work an 8-hour day, and nothing productive has come out of it. But of course creating new content and synthesizing new ideas takes moodling, takes time, takes solitude. And I shouldn’t freak out, fear I’ve nothing to offer, and escape into my Google Reader to calm those fears because this destroys the environment in which new ideas flourish. Instead of staying with myself, with my discomfort, with the present, I go off into places (like Facebook or web comics or email) where I am surrounded by chatter and thrown into the future or past and distracted by other’s stories or their needs of me.
Meditation is actually really good practice for staying in the present, with any discomfort, with myself. I have trained myself to multi-task, to distract myself from uncomfortable emotions, and I am actually very good at these things. So I need to unlearn them bit by bit. I need to train myself to be present and quiet and still and okay with the anxious times when nothing is coming but moodling. I need to train myself to not automatically beat up on myself when it’s just part of the creative process. “You learn to make friends with yourself”–that’s what someone once told me about meditation. I only started to get interested in meditation as a practice this past fall during my sabbatical, and I don’t have a current regular practice, and it’s still very hard for me…but the seeds are all there. The awareness, the presentness, the release, the reminder to breathe, and the intention-setting are always there, available to me whenever I need it or want it.**
And again I tell you this because I want to show you that the creative impulse is quiet, quiet. It sees, it feels, it quietly hears; and now, in the present.
When the idleness and the fears arise, I should accept them as part of the creative process. I should quiet the fears (“Shh, I’m working”) and keep working, a verb Ueland distinguishes from grinding. Grinding means to repeat and refine something over and over again, polishing it to death.
I tell you this so that you will stop thinking of the creative power as nervous and effortful; in fact it can be frightened away by nervous straining. So never bother to grind. Just try to understand something for the time. If you don’t, go on to the next. For if you understand the second or third thing, you will suddenly understand the first.
Working means to be really present, in the moment, open to new ideas, not straining, and continually producing new work without judgment—bolder and braver and more free.
Working always means showing up.*** But it may take different forms at different times. Working may mean sitting at the computer and thinking and being okay with a blank screen. Working may mean creating something new to gain understanding on something old. Working may mean letting the problem go for now and going for a long walk (with absolutely no goal in mind).
I learned from [my students] that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten,—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.
I am learning, I am working, I am practicing letting go and staying present.
Of course, I have made more progress this week on that larger project–and it’s because I let myself moodle guilt-free last week.
*John Cleese gave a great lecture about creativity and the 5 factors you need to cultivate creativity in your life: Space, Time, Time, Confidence, and Humor. He also acknowledges that people who are able to tolerate and prolong the discomfort and uncertainty of not knowing the answer yet…they end up with more creative ideas. It’s a funny and insightful speech, so watch it if you’ve got some time, eh? (Hey, look, Brainpicker also links Jonah Lehrer’s ideas about the importance of frustration and disappointment during the creative process.)
**Pema Chodrön or Tara Brach are good starting places if you’re curious about meditation. They offer very human introductions. Listen to one of Pema Chodrön’s talks or interviews if you can. Or jump in and try a guided meditation from Tara Brach’s site.
***Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit offers stories, tips, and exercises for setting up habits that allow creativity to thrive in your life. And Elizabeth Gilbert gave a whole TED talk about showing up.