Steps on the Path

Journey | Steps on the Path, part 6

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

journey

photo credit: Christian Haugen

We have now moved out of the realm of the individual creative act (project, painting, piece, invention, business idea, etc.) and into the larger sphere of the Creative Life. I should clarify that this is not necessarily about choosing to make a living as an artist, though that’s certainly one path, and the one I’ve taken. However, I’ve known amazingly creative people, in the arts and other fields, who have deliberately chosen not to make their living at it.

But of course many of us do, and there are upsides and downsides to not having to make do with whatever time and energy you have left over, after your ‘day job’ (or night job, as the case may be), to devote to your creative work.

In my view for most people this is more of a lifestyle choice than anything; if you’re in it for the money or the fame, there’s a more-than-reasonable chance that you’ll be disappointed and frustrated. Not because it’s not possible to make a decent living and build a great reputation if you are ready to work hard, but it’s a good deal harder and takes rather longer than most people imagine – unless you happen to be one of the tiny minority whose extreme talent or, more usually, good luck (in terms of connections or ‘being in the right place at the right time’ as the saying goes) has afforded them a shortcut.

Pass the pipe!

No, the dangling carrot of riches and celebrity are not generally a very good reason to devote your whole time and energy to art or music (or poetry or pottery, if you want to go up against even longer odds). You might be able to make a living, although even that can take more work and dedication than most people realize, but fame and fortune are little more than a pipe dream for most of us, and not really worth spending much of your mental energy on – it’s rather like buying lottery tickets with your last ten dollars with a week left until payday.

So yes, generally speaking and certainly (as far as I can tell) for most of the ‘professional creatives’ I know, it’s a lifestyle choice. In my case, I do it for the hours, the freedom and more than anything the personal and spiritual fulfillment it offers (I’ll have more to say on this topic a bit further on).

Regardless of whether you choose it as your vocation or your avocation, what the ‘creative journey’ is really all about for me is cultivating a creative mind and a habit of active, creative, inquisitive interaction with the world. The reason to choose the creative journey is that it is simply more interesting, more fun, more challenging and rewarding on a deeper level. That’s a big claim, but I’m prepared to back it up…

Choices, Beginnings, Rewards…

Here’s the crux of the matter: we get to choose, within the limits of our circumstances, how we go through life and interact with the world. How will you choose to be? Personally, I want to be engaged, curious, active, and especially fascinated by life. When I am fascinated, I am at my best – inspired, full of wonder, amazement; why would I not want to try to be in that zone as much of the time as possible?

So how do we stay in that zone, keep that flame alive, retain that spark? Creativity is the surest path I know. And choosing to travel that path, to undertake that journey, will radically affect your life whether you make your living with your work or not. The journey is its own reward.

And as with any journey, the best way to start is to start. The great mountaineer and explorer H. W. Tilman once said, in response to a young person wondering about the steps he might take towards getting on an expedition, “Put on your boots and go”… I’ve tried to make that a kind of mantra for my creative life, and I think it’s a good one. Don’t over-prepare. Act.

Hopefully the steps outlined so far in this manifesto will give you a roadmap through the initial stages, as much as is possible. They work for me, and I’ve come to rely on them. It may prove more helpful still, as it has for me, to take a much closer, harder look at some of the negative habits of thought that can clog up the creative process; I’ve offered my own laundry list of these in Part 1.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Like any journey, it is really not about the destination (in fact, it’s not even clear that there IS a destination…) It’s about the experiences and the challenges and the personal growth that happen along the way… and about the work itself… and where it takes us.

In more practical terms, the Journey is about establishing a rhythm, a daily creative habit. The Creative Coach and blogger Mark McGuinness breaks creativity down into three core processes: Routines, Systems and Spontaneity. Rather than paraphrasing, I’ll just direct you to Mark’s superb article on this subject over at the 99%… (I will also take this moment to wholeheartedly recommend pretty much anything and everything Mark has ever written – notably on his own blog/site Lateral Action, and in various books and essays over the years).

Spontaneity is the ‘glamorous’ side of creativity, and is about taking yourself out of your familiar, easy comfort zone, responding to and experiencing the new and unexpected… but you can’t do that unless you have a comfort zone to begin with. That’s what the Routine and the Systems are about. How do you build them up? By committing to them, practicing them and refining them over time. The Creative Journey is all about commitment.

Take a Hike…

Experienced hikers will approach an unfamiliar trail very differently than a novice out for a day trip. Experience prepares them for the unforeseen, gives them the knowledge and self-knowledge to cope with it. With creative work it is the same: the routines and systems we build up over the course of our Journey allow us to be spontaneous in a deeper and freer sense. We have a perspective that the dabbler lacks; we bring to bear the subtlety and nuance that only experience can bring.

Accepting and embodying the Creative Journey quite simply makes life more interesting, because it makes your knowledge of yourself deeper, more complete. It is about choosing to live in a bigger world (more on this later), and engaging more fully with it. And yes, it is about leaving that world a little better and a little more beautiful than you found it – or at least having a go at it…

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!


* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

Impulse | Steps on the Path, part 3

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

impulse

PHOTO CREDIT: KAIPULLAI *

Once you are Clear, and have arrived at that state of non-attached Listening, what’s next? How do you know when to take an idea and run with it? You act on Impulse. And that is basically an act of trust.

I have a theory that trust, and more precisely self-trust, is perhaps the single most important component of creativity. You can have all the creative ideas you want, and all the technical wherewithal in the world to realize those ideas, but if you don’t trust yourself and your subconscious judgment about which ideas to follow through on, you’ll get nowhere. You’ll just spin your wheels second-guessing every possibility your creative brain provides you with, until it gets frustrated and stops trying.

Let’s get physical…

Creativity is only partially a conscious, mental process. In many ways most of what’s valuable about it, and certainly most of what’s interesting to me, is physical and emotional, beyond conscious choice. (In fact, this is substantially true of our mental processes across the board, from the way we perceive the world around us to the choices we make. A number of books have been published recently detailing research into this notion.)

Creative choices are often unexpected, sometimes illogical; they are frequently not what you would choose to do after carefully weighing all possible options, pros and cons…

More often than not, in my experience, creativity is spontaneously choosing the unexpected, going with the hidden third option when only two were presented… A creative impulse or instinct is not rehearsed or prepared. It is sudden, fresh and new.

OK, so how do we ‘know’ if a new idea is a valid creative choice or just a random and possibly not-very-good notion? Simple answer: we don’t. We have to take chances. We have to learn to trust the impulse – the first idea that jumps up and says, “pick me!”. We do get better over time at learning the subtle cues that indicate that it’s time to make the jump, take the leap of faith. But mostly it’s about trusting the impulse, the intuition that this is the moment.

The first cut is the deepest…

As a musician I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the recording studio, and I’ve done some sound-engineering work in that context as well. There is a phenomenon which I’ve observed and discussed with countless colleagues over the years. Here’s the gist of it: the first take is always the best.

When recording. whichever side of the glass you’re on, you really hope that the first take is usable on a technical level, that the tape was rolling and there are not too many obvious mistakes; because more ‘polished’ later takes with less ‘mistakes’ are almost invariably boring, lifeless in comparison. They lack the energy and intensity of a focused, present, committed ‘first take’. The first one is almost always the best, clearest, most honest performance, even if it’s ‘flawed’.

Of course, this tends to favour players with solid, reliable technique and the musicianship to realize those great ideas immediately. The more at home you are on the instrument (substitute your creative medium here), the more relaxed and confident you’ll be and the greater the chances that the first take will be complete and usable. That’s one of the things that makes experienced, relaxed players valuable in the studio. (That’s the positive side of control; the negative, as we’ve seen, is a tendency towards rote playing, falling too easily into established habits or patterns of muscle memory; finding the sweet spot between these two is what makes a really ‘special’ player…)

Regardless, it is the inherent energy of a fresh idea, before the editing and evaluating brain gets involved and takes over, that makes this possible. Learning to recognize and trust the Impulse, the instinct that tells you when it is time to act, is the opposite of the second-guessing ‘monkey-mind’ / ‘lizard brain’ voice that tells you to wait, play it safe, don’t take the risk.

And of course, you get better at it with time and practice. However, you don’t get better by thinking about it as much as by doing it; this is not really an intellectual process. It has more to do with the body’s intelligence. It’s more about feeling than knowledge, more about the energy of the moment, the decision to stop hesitating and take the plunge, the leap of faith. In a word, it’s about fearlessness

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!

continue with FEARLESSNESS


* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

 

Listen | Steps on the Path, part 2

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

listen

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos *

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic fantasy tale ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ the young hero is given a powerful piece of advice by his early mentor and teacher: “To hear, one must be silent…” And so he cultivates silence, so that he can listen. And that is, in the end, the main reason we have taken the time to get Clear – so that we can Listen, which is the next step in the process. It’s when we start to actually tune back into the flow of ideas, but from our non-attached, quiet state, as opposed to the usual hectic cacophony of judgments and desires.

We should have allowed all the mundane thoughts of what we need to buy for dinner and so on to flow away. Now, with quiet mind, we start to tune into the quieter, subtler thoughts normally hidden behind more ‘important’ things. Or more ‘urgent’, or more ‘pressing’ – in any case, as St-Exupery’s Little Prince so compellingly put it, ‘matters of consequence’.

Strange, yet Familiar

We are listening for something new, something novel, and yet something that ‘feels right’. In my experience, the best ideas always have an unmistakable combination of qualities: they are Strange, yet Familiar. The creative  ideas that stay with me, the ones I can’t get out of my head once I’ve allowed them to form there, and therefore the ones I want to work with and develop, always have this quality. It’s also the essential common element in most art, music or creative work by others that I find lastingly compelling.

It’s essential to try to stay in the listening zone for a while; don’t pounce on the first idea that comes along – but don’t reject it out of hand either. We are looking for an idea that is Insistent, that Wants To Become, that has a certain inevitability about it. And one that is strange, yet familiar. We are trying not to be desperate, hurried, grasping at the first idea of any kind that floats by. We’re looking for something that looks back at us.

Like getting Clear, attaining this highly attuned state takes practice – so my advice is to practice it, without pressure to create, just practice being in the receptive listening state, every day. It gets easier to find it, easier to stay there, the more you do it.

A dime a dozen

Let ideas go. Don’t worry about writing everything down, because: there are Plenty Of Ideas. Having ideas is actually nothing special, and you don’t need to cling to every one. Let them come and go for a while. The really important ones will stick around.

We have to get out of the mindset that good ideas are scarce and difficult to come by. Instead, get used to the idea that there is an endless supply of wonderful ideas that we need only tune into. This substrate of the conscious mind is constantly churning up potentially wonderful ideas – the challenge is only to listen to it, in an attentive, unhurried, non-desperate way. To hear, one must be silent.

What is important is to be in the listening state so that when an idea comes that is Strange, yet Familiar, and that you Can’t Get Out Of Your Head, you’ll recognize it quickly. Like getting clear, this comes with practice. It becomes a familiar feeling of recognition – oh, yes, there it is. That’s the one.

Ideally, we want to learn to be in this state whenever we are at our work. Easier said than done, but the more you practise it, and the more conscious you are of seeking that state, the easier it is to find it. We learn to keep it close at hand. It’s a nice place to be, in fact!

Within and without

We’ve mostly been talking up to now about ‘internal listening’, tuning in to the inner flow of ideas and creative possibilities. The other aspect of Listening is, of course, external – listening to others. This can be in a collaborative sense, or in the sense of influence, taking inspiration and instruction from a mentor or from great work that has gone before. Either way, this means using the ears as much as the hands (to continue with our musical example, but you can adjust the metaphor to your chosen field), perhaps more.

In my experience of collaborative creative work (which is mainly in the context of jazz and other improvisational music) no skill is as important, or as frequently overlooked and undervalued, as listening. We are so often in such a hurry to make our statement, to say our bit or show off our chops, that we forget to listen to what’s really going on around us, and the result is a cacophony.

So what I try to remind myself is, don’t be in too much of a hurry to contribute to the flow. It’s OK to listen without contributing for a while – we have nothing to prove, remember? we’re unattached. We can afford to be silent, and listen, and connect and tune in – and wait for the quieter, subtler, strange-yet-familiar ideas to emerge.

There will be a time for action, for taking that leap of faith into the unknown, and that time is fast approaching…

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!

continue with IMPULSE


* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

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

clear

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, Dictionary.com 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!

continue with LISTEN


* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license:
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0