In conversations with creative friends lately, we keep coming back to the notion of our fight instinct. We’re seduced by it as a motivating force which causes us to throw our energies into work, social interaction or creativity, as if creativity could be driven by some threat to our egos. We feel it, we obey its imperative, but I believe we are wrong. Walking in the wood, moving slowly, I came to this.
What is this fight instinct? Is it the impulse to be gregarious, outgoing, challenging, combat, combat, fight, fight, push double-barreled? Run? Run? Is it the grim determination to push through, make perfect what is imperfect, not to let yourself off this hook that you’ve slung yourself up on? These fight impulses hang us by our toes, our necks in a noose we cannot escape from, for our very urge to escape drives the fight impulse on.
We catch ourselves. We run. We run. We go faster, harder, want to push through, but as we push through, we work less fluidly.
What if we can catch this fight impulse, let us off our own hooks? Not into a flight, for we fear a flight – we fear that if we flee we will not return, we will not achieve. But what if we learned not to fear the pause? What if we learned that to halt and to see as is, not as must be, was not a threat? What if, like this rabbit before me, cleaning its foot, we could be aware of this human behind us and yet not see this human as a disappointed other hanging over our shoulders? What if another was only as another being in the wood?
What if we could see the lens which distorts, and not only its own distortion? What if we could see through its masks, and not only see through it? This would indeed in be catching ourselves in the moment of fight.
You can listen to the original thought process, if you like.
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I have this vision of metaphysical ideas as subtle, slippery monsters that emerge from the darkness and wriggle away. You try to catch them by their tails, and sometimes you succeed, and sometimes they leave. You stalk them quietly through the shadows, with your pen in hand. Sometimes you catch them and you bring them back to your menagerie of ideas, where they form their own society and make surprising monstrous idea babies. Every now and again you visit and you come back, if you’re lucky, unscathed. Sometimes the ideas fight with each other, and one kills the other.
Some ideas lurk. Others slither. Some flutter. Some wallow in the darkness. Some ideas blunder. Some ideas don’t exist at all, until you wind them and wind them into being. Some ideas wander half-tame at the edges of the wilderness, already accustomed to the thinker’s hand. They’ll eat from you, even walk with you into the wood, but not too far. The wild ideas scare them.
And so your mind is a jungle or network of caves and you don’t really know the way, all the way, although you may have been down that path before, and know some of the footing, and the ground. Every time you foray into that strange mind of yours, there are surprises and there is wildlife you didn’t know was there, because it’s lurked in the shadows until now.
Sometimes you’ll be privileged to visit another’s strange mind menagerie, visit its monstrous ideas and even get up close to them, perhaps introduce them to your strange monstrous ideas. Sometimes you’ll find that somebody else’s menagerie contains a monster that looks kind of like yours, and you’ll say, “I didn’t know there was more than one of those in the world!”
Then you can talk to the other person about how they gathered their menagerie: where they found the beasts in it, what they saw them eating, how they dwell. Proper care and maintenance of these monstrous ideas, and so on.
But people tend to be protective of the monsters in their menagerie. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll be stolen or killed. I think they’re afraid that these monsters are more vulnerable than they appear. Sometimes we develop a special affection for one of these monstrous ideas. We don’t want it to be scared. After they were so difficult to find, and potentially endangered, we don’t want someone to come blundering through, and poison the water, beat them with sticks, frighten them, and make them run away again. So when you’re lucky enough to introduce one menagerie to another menagerie, which is a great undertaking, it’s a rare and beautiful moment.
For years, I lived by the maxim that inspiration is for amateurs. Professionals show up and do the work. I still see the truth in that, but lately I’m more interested in that amateur space, in making for the joy and the love of making, not because you need to make it work but because you can cause something to happen. Because you can create room for whatever happens to happen. When you focus on that, inspiration comes back into the picture. It can be anything that sets your thoughts and your paintbrush running, your body moving, your words flowing. It can be something outside of your control, and maybe this is an exercise in letting go of control.
For those of us accustomed to tying our value to achievements, letting go of control, taking the risk that we may not achieve, may be a step forward. Maybe, not manufacturing motivation, but opening the door to inspiration is the next right step. Maybe amateur practice is incredibly valuable because you’re not required to make some particular thing happen. You’re required to show up, but you’re not required to do what you expected to do.
Maybe amateur practice opens the door to rooms where the unexpected happens, so that professional practice can learn that that room exists.
I took a long walk last week under a heavy, stormy sky. The air was electric. As night came on, the sky dropped, and this is what fell from it:
Inspiration is seeing a toad on the road and taking it for a stone until it hops and hops again. Inspiration is Leonard Cohen in the dark. It’s walking fast in lamplight.
Inspiration is the frosted lustrous surface on opaque water under rain, covering for the night as it comes in.
Inspiration is gorging yourself on so much strange beauty it overflows out of your mouth like milk. It’s the red of an odd, gentle, tender, sturdy bush against the red of a hard, brick, encroaching building under an ash grey sky.
It’s the sign of the rain coming, and walking faster into it, harder, harder against the wind. It’s the first fat drops on your skin. It’s the face tilted up to receive, mouth open. Inspiration is the wind. Inspiration is coming. Let it come. Find the path of least resistance. Reduce friction. Let that flow through you, in and out. It will come. It will come. Escape your grind of daily motion. Move. Move.
My mother said, “Step away. Step away at the end of the day. Don’t tie yourself to work every hour of waking,” and she’s right. She’s a mother – she’s right.
Inspiration is cupping the flowers of that strange sturdy bush tenderly in your palm, noticing for the first time in months, since it first emerged from the winter, how it’s grown, how it’s come to be what you use to gauge the season as it fades. This bush will fade. This bush will come back to you, in the next winter, in the next spring, forgotten blooms lingering, brown, small, faded. Paint them. Paint them again as you painted them last year.
Lavender, coming forth where you knew not, where your hand runs, scent. Hold it. Hold it in your palm, that scent, between your fingers, to your face. Exhale. Inspiration is the inhale. Let it run through you in your blood, lungs, bloodstream, beat of your feet against the earth, this drum roll. This clink of keys between the hands, this roll. Make yourself this drum of beat. Inspiration is the breath in, reception, sweet, sweet, motion forward.
Let the rain fall down on you. You become cold but not cold, for this heat, this motion moving inside your core will hold you forward.
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I’ve been thinking about the seductive power of “perfect work”, a fantasy which lives just out of sight of the creating mind. That near-future vision will drive you in circles if you let it, spinning round and round like a compass so close to magnetic north that you can’t see north any more. We call it “finished work”, and it’s the enemy of creativity. How on earth are you to work through the muck and the mess of creating, how are you supposed to see the present moment clearly or take the risks you need to, while the fantasy of some perfect finished work hovers over your shoulder? No wonder we often struggle through the middle stages of making: we’ve come down from the giddy, immaculate high of our first flawless lines, and now we wallow in error (or so we perceive). Redemption lies in finishing the work, whatever that means. Correcting artistic transgressions? Erasing our sins?
I think we’ve got it all wrong. Redemption lies in making: making marks, messes, and mistakes. Redemption lies in shitty first drafts.
When writing this and other essays, I lie on the floor and talk through my ideas as they come. I don’t write – I make words out loud, one after the other, and then some more. I rest my phone on my chest and record whatever comes up off the top of my head, then transcribe from spoken word to the screen. Ninety percent of what I say you’ll never see. I will trim, turn, chop, rearrange and murder my darlings. It’s worth the carnage, because the greatest hurdle to doing any of this was to start.
A writer friend of mine once told me, “Writing is like choosing constipation as your vocation.” He’s not wrong.
Sitting in front of the screen with my words facing me down, I stall and stall again. But, when not confronted by those words, my speech can be my friend. It rolls me forward moment by moment. It allows me to respond to the sound of each word just laid down with another new word, an interaction in surprise, in discovery.
Apply this to any creative practice. Painting, make a colour swatch. Sewing, stitch a sampler. Find whatever presents least barrier of fear or hesitation, be it speaking, writing, smearing, dancing. Do what you will, but make. Make. Make.
Make, for twenty minutes or an hour, or if you can, three hours, and if you commit to three hours it’s best not to see what you have made. For if you can see it, what you have just made will reflect to you what you have not accomplished. Put it away. Best not to see clearly what you have made, for it will tempt you to revise and make better, and this is not the time for that.
To be clear: if you already know every step of the way forward, that’s another story and we can talk about that another day. But in this quest for creation, perfection with its glaring mask of judgement is the enemy. It has no place here.
When first making, make messily. Make marks you can retrieve but need not face at the outset. There is no disgrace in making what you did not intend to, no shame in mistakes. Seek perfection later, when you know the steps. For now, a shitty first draft is exactly what you need.
You can listen to the shitty first draft of this essay, if you like. I recorded it on my walk, in the elevator, in the entrance to my apartment and while lying on the floor with my cat beside me.
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between time and creativity on the micro scale, the intense focus that goes into a single brush stroke, and the macro scale: what is one’s creative practice, as an overarching theme? I’m intrigued by the way time bends, stretches, compresses and bounds in the interstices between now and the next moment, and then out to the other end of this arching line which is a life.
I’ve been thinking of the way creativity lives in the present moment. Creativity, true expression, state of flow – call it what you will, it’s a phenomenon of being attuned to the work we do at the very moment of doing it. It’s an experience driven by an intimate sensory feedback loop, between hands or eyes or voice and the marks, movements or sounds that we make. It’s making love to our own minds, and it requires security to thrive.
In being present, we can focus fully on the current moment because we trust that when we look up our destinations will be there in front of us. Secure of our destinations, we’re free to wander and explore. We know we can always reorient toward a fixed mark. Secure of our destinations, we are free to fully inhabit our present moments. In this way, creativity is the essence of trusting both the immediate moment and the faraway outcome: both the breath and the eulogy. It is escape from the tyranny of the near future.
Yet we cannot inhabit this state as long as we’re seduced and bullied by fears and fantasies of the middle distance. When bounded by the near future – tomorrow, this week, this month – we shy away from mistakes and toward short-term gains. We fear failures which cannot be amended in such short spans so we turn and turn about, re-writing our goals to align with our latest small successes.
Think of this: a city on an island, with a mountain at its heart. You wish to reach the mountain. Wherever you walk in this city, that hill remains in sight and is your constant guide. One may wander safely in this city, up intriguing alleyways and down, following some alluring scent or a flash of inspiration. Even when you walk into dead ends, you can always find a way back to a desired path, and there are many desirable paths. Many paths will take you where you wish to go, because where you wish to go is a mountain both sure and clear in your sight. Affluent in choice, you can afford to pursue delight.
Another city sits in rolling hills and humps of land, each with a hope at the top. Which one to aim for? You ask one person and then another, and each points out a different hummock as the best. You choose one and set out toward it, and soon you are lost in the gorges between these hills. Since all hills look more or less the same, you ask again for directions. Only, the person you ask points toward a different hill, and so you turn to that one. Again, you lose your bearing, again, ask for directions, and again, you’re turned toward a different mound. The best you can do in the end is to pick the nearest small hump and settle, or scrupulously follow a careful course to one just a little farther off.
That second, lumpy city is what happens to our creative practises when we don’t know where we’re aiming in the end. Fearing failure, we settle for the nearest sure thing and don’t dare wander spontaneously. Why take the risk? we’ve tried that before and been lost every time, and worse, our desires have been muddied by another and another and another stranger’s influence. Best to settle for what’s safe.
What if, at the heart of that lumpy city, there was a mountain? What then?
Stepping out of the metaphor: the mountain is, of course, our overarching practises, our visions of a life well lived. No one else can see our mountains because it’s not their life, their vision. The little hills they point us toward may well be mountains in their eyes; but they’re not our mountains.
I want you to find your mountain. Heck, I want to find my mountain. Yes, that’s still a work in progress. I’ve been wondering about it a lot lately, so I asked my circle for advice. Here’s what came up:
• Daydream, then reflect. Look outward with abandon, and then go deep inside. Rinse and repeat. What comes up again and again?
• Take a walk.
• Stop surfing for inspiration. Skimming over the top of other people’s hills will not help you find your mountain.
• Take a break from what you’re doing, and look at role models who inspire you. What is it about their work that you admire? Distill that. Go deep.
It takes patience, and along the way we make many errors, and that’s all right. I’m going to follow my friends’ advice and take a walk now, maybe do some daydreaming. See you later, gators.
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