Clear | Steps on the Path, part 1

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: KR1212 *

When I step onstage to begin a solo piano concert, I do not know what I am going to play. At all. The only thing I do know is that, once I sit down at the piano, I will have to start playing something within 20 or 30 seconds, or it’s going to start to get awkward. I need to play something, and ideally it should not be random nonsense either… ideally, it should be something I can work with, use as the germ of a motif, the springboard for all that follows.

A lot of people would probably say that’s a lot of pressure, and in a sense that’s true. Of course with no conditions put on what I will play, it’s also very open and liberating. However, the imperative to come up with something creditable in a hurry is definitely a factor, so I have to be prepared. One way to do this is obviously to know what you will play in advance, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it happens that it’s not the point of these concerts.

Ok, what exactly is the point of them then? The point is to access a kind of raw, unfettered, deliberate creativity… and see where it takes me.

Sounds good, I guess, as far as it goes – meaning, as long as it ‘goes well’, everyone should have a good time. But what if it doesn’t go well at all? What if I commit to the first idea and it turns out to be terrible, a total dud, with no potential for meaningful development? What if there are no ‘ideas’ there at all? Wouldn’t it be safer to just fake it, to know what you’re going to play and make it seem like you don’t? Perhaps, yes, that would be safer, but it would be a lie, and again: it’s not the point of these concerts.

So if preparing what I’m actually going to play is out, maybe the answer is to prepare on other levels. OK, sounds fine, again – but what does it mean? How do you prepare for something when you can’t actually prepare for it? Simple: you get clear.

One word, many meanings

Clarity is a particularly rich and multifaceted concept. When I was in grade four we had a teacher whose preferred form of ‘punishment’ for misbehaviour, rather than forcing us to write out endlessly repetitive ‘lines’ (I will not stand on my head and juggle in class… I will not stand on my head and juggle in class…), was to copy out the full definitions of various words from the dictionary by hand.

I can’t say for sure whether this improved my vocabulary, which was probably the goal, but I kind of like the idea regardless, and it has stuck with me. One of the longest of these definitions, reserved for especially egregious offenses, was ‘clear’ (other good ones were ‘light’, ‘spring’, and ‘time’). Let’s have a look.

As of this writing, lists 74 definitions for ‘clear’; I still wouldn’t want to copy it out by hand. Let’s take a look at a handful that illustrate the kind of clarity I’m talking about:

  • Free from darkness, obscurity, or cloudiness; light…
  • free from confusion, uncertainty, or doubt…
  • free from obstructions or obstacles; open…
  • without limitation or qualification; absolute…
  • entirely comprehensible; completely understood…
  • convinced; certain…
  • serene; calm; untroubled…

Ready and willing…

You may have guessed already that what I’m talking about is something like meditation, though I don’t tend to use that word because it has strong and specific associations for many people. I don’t believe that a meditation practice per se is a prerequisite for creativity, though it’s hard to picture a circumstance in which it would not be beneficial. But it’s probably not the only path to Clarity, and that’s really what we’re after.

Clear, in the sense that I’m interested in, is more a state of mind or of being than a specific practice. It means being ready to allow creativity to occur. It is willingness to create. And it is clarity of purpose – which does not mean a determination to produce a masterpiece or die trying.

Clarity of purpose means being clear on what we want to do – which is to engage our creative energy and make something new. Clear means ‘convinced, certain’ – the confidence of knowing we are where we should be and doing the work we should be doing. Clear means ‘serene; calm; untroubled’ –
a quiet, uncluttered mind.

Take a load off (Annie)

This state, in terms of the method I want to present here, is about creating a respite from the the mental cacophony, giving our thoughts a bit of space to develop in. Eric Maisel has called it ‘the Hush’, which I find a lovely and evocative term. The objective is to get into a Receptive State… turn off the preconceived notion of what you are ‘trying’ to create, and allow that which wants to be created to express itself.

Turn off, too, the attachment: be unattached to what you create – or at least, be unattached to creating something of value. No investment in the Great Cultural Importance of what you are going to make or do; no pressure to ‘do your best work’ or stake your whole reputation on whatever comes of this creative act.

Ideally, there should be no pressure at all – it’s perfectly fine to do nothing whatsoever, and does not diminish our worth or our creativity if nothing is forthcoming today. Doing nothing can feel pretty good, and also it’s not easy, so if that’s what feels right, we can consider it an accomplishment in and of itself and be at peace with that.

Of course, if you have an audience waiting for you to start, this doesn’t work so well, but in principle I think it’s useful to give ourselves permission to not be inspired, as part of an open and unpressured state of mind. Somehow giving yourself this permission often has the resulf of simultaneously giving you the opposite permission, to accept inspiration should it happen to arise… The trick is to practice this state of mind in advance, so that you can attain it even if, really, you know you’re going to have to produce something.

So the goal is to be unattached to the result of this process, but at the same time committed to engaging fully and freely with whatever does come forth. Your job in this stage, then, is just to create a friendly space for yourself and for whatever ideas may float to the surface once we’ve achieved a certain quietness.

Meanwhile, back at the office…

Another meaning for Clear is, of course, clarity of objective… there are obviously times when we are not in the position to work in the unfettered ‘blue sky’ manner that my piano improvisations represent, but rather have to fulfill certain requirements. In this case, defining those requirements, clarifying the purpose of the thing we’re setting out to create, is crucial. Not, perhaps what shape it should take (or color, or whatever) but what it is for.

I would argue, in fact, that the difference between these ‘modes’ of creativity, between completely free improvisation and more purpose-driven work where specific conditions must be met, is not so great as it might appear at first glance. In both cases the goal is to be open, alert, free of doubts and preconceptions, awake to the needs and possibilities of the creative moment.

The first step on the path of ‘fearless creativity’ is to get Clear.

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

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