Ever since I was a kid I’ve been interested in the nature of creative thinking. Where does it come from? Can it be learned? Can it be taught? I’ve been curious about my own periods of creative intuition and creative ineptitude. I’ve also been interested in the difference between “wild child” creativity and mature creative self-management.
Most of our creativity takes place in the right back corner of our brains. In addition, many folks are able to toss the creative ball both fore and aft and port and starboard.
While taking a turn in the garden yesterday, I discovered the tiny, pricked egg of a song sparrow in the grass. Too small to have been made by the chick, the pinhole must have come from another, predator bird in search of a smoothie. “Hopefully his siblings had success,” said a friend, when I sent her the image. With all of us in our individual rooms, the now all-day polyphony of happy birds in the garden tells me she’s right.
Some artists report periods of general anxiety that come and go during their careers. The condition may include heart palpitations, sleeplessness, panic attacks, depression and feelings of inadequacy. While some of these are just part of living, they can also be brought on by the insecure and sometimes difficult nature of the artist’s life. There’s that nagging fear that work is not coming up to expectations. There can be fear of change as well as fear of stagnation. Fact is that shadowy fears and tensions can block creativity, interfere with productivity, and drag down quality.
A childhood friend messaged, “How’s your creative process doing at this time?” I replied that I hadn’t heard a single complaint from an artist about self-isolation, myself included. What I’d noticed instead were artists experiencing a collective, organic re-assessment of what their work means and their art’s purpose. I’d been reading about a guru who’d suggested that whoever we were before the pandemic would only be magnified during self-isolation. I thought perhaps the same could be said for our work, or maybe the crisis would instead crack open a global, creative breakthrough. In art, these breakthroughs can be total reinvention or a leap from the springboards we’ve been building. Here are a few ideas:
In art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent dirge for the art world, he welcomes the return of art made at the kitchen table. “For now, there aren’t big studios, dozens of artist assistants working on one artist’s work, whole staffs keeping track of it all,” writes Jerry. Instead, he says, art is retreating to domestic spaces — in the fray with cooking and children and laundry and gardening, and being made by hand by one person at a time. “This is how our species made most things over the last 50,000 years. Creativity was with us in the caves; it’s in every bone in our bodies.”
When I was a teenager I read a book by a hugely successful baseball player. He hadn’t always been successful, though. Early in his career, reporters referred to him as “poky” and “slow off the mark.” While he was talented and capable, he was on his way to the bush leagues when he saw the light. He got the idea that if he just started jumping around and looking active, he might build enthusiasm and proficiency. Reporters started saying he had “ants in his pants,” calling him “Fireball,” etc. Fact is, his game improved when he started jumping around.
Last week, on the same day the Governor of California issued a statewide “stay at home” order, our neighbourhood small-batch ice creamery launched an online payment system and let locals know they could pick up pints, curbside. This small business, which is run by artists, had already begun posting daily flavours on social media. It was a natural evolution made real by a changing-world urgency. Like ice cream, art should be small-batch, experiential and on hand in a crisis.
In his latest book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle discusses how the human mind is almost constantly engaged in private thoughts. These inner rumblings reflect our personal trials, dreams, needs and obligations. To function properly as a creative person, an artist must divorce himself from some of this clutter and begin a process of rebirth into another mode. “Even though people may travel,” says Eckhart Tolle, “they tend to remain where they have always been — in their head.”