Saturday, 16 January 2010

Anxiety or play?

Despite so much wanting to produce their play/poem/ painting/melody, a lot of people seem to find it difficult, at least some of the time, to get down to work. Maisel (95) says that anxiety (fear of failure etc) cannot and should not go away - that it needs to be embraced and understood. I think this is one of the reasons that I wasn't comfortable with 'Fearless Creating' when I first picked it up (that, and the suggestion that I might want to paint huge pictures in red, naked...). I didn't need more anxiety in my life. I much preferred the idea that many of the other writers talk about, of creativity as play.

But I also recognised something in the acknowledgement of the anxiety, the difficulties. As you clean your house, do the washing, 'deal with' your emails (never dealt with, of course, in reality), or go to the shops, it's all too easy to beat yourself up about what seems to be avoidance and procrastination.

Perhaps some of the reasons that it's often hard to work are tied up with the distinction I discussed previously between the 'expressing yourself' view of creativity, and the idea of response. In 'expressing yourself' mode you have to face things such as 'Where's the idea going to come from for my  next painting?', 'What am I going to say?', 'What's my big theme?'. You're up against all the questions of the universe in the first five minutes.

The idea of response, on the other hand, makes everything suddenly seem much easier (previous post on Anish Kapoor and not setting out to create beauty...). Response takes the pressure off you to 'come up with something'. It allows for something much more spontaneous - response is natural, and can't be stopped. It's like a plant growing towards the light. Perhaps 'expression' can become associated with effort and strain, with trying - and with ego, strutting about, preening and fearing judgement at the same time.

There seems to be a link here to Maisel's 'hushing', and my friend making better cakes when she makes them in a quiet, mindful state. Perhaps when your mind is busy wanting to produce something, worrying about what that will be, trying to think its form into being - and, of course, ready to criticise and judge any small thing you manage to get out - perhaps it's your mind itself that's getting in the way, blocking you up. By contrast, when, on rare occasions, you're able to just sit quietly, it does seem that often a simple response simply floats into view.

I think Anish Kapoor actually says something like, 'you have to be able to just sit quietly in a room and wait for something to happen....'

Saturday, 9 January 2010


A friend and I were discussing the idea of mindfulness the other day, in relation to making things. Mindfulness is a simple idea which probably goes back to very ancient yoga practices in India (there is evidence for these practices long before 1500 BC...), and which some people may know about in relation to Buddhist thought. More recently, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others have been making it part of contemporary psychology. It consists 'simply' of allowing your mind to rest completely in the present, rather than letting it obsess and ruminate on past action and regrets, or busy itself with planning and scheming about the future.

This friend reckoned that when she was able to stay in a mindful state while doing something like making a cake, the cake turned out differently to how it normally would. Different, and better. I realised that this was the difference between the times that I had been able to paint and draw freely, had been at least partially satisfied with what was happening with my pencil, and the times when paper and pencil seemed like an alien land.

Then I realised that it was probably also why my jazz violin playing always sounded so awful. I was rarely able to rest within the limits of my technique; to accept my limitations and really listen to the sounds that I was producing. Instead my mind and emotions united into a paroxism of frustration at the difference between what I could hear in my head and what my stubby fingers seemed able to produce. Barry Green in 'The Inner Game of Music' (1986, related to the Timothy Gallwey book I mentioned a while ago) talks about this as being what he calls 'self 1' running riot with its commentary and criticism, as opposed to 'self 2':

an unthinking state, one in which we are relaxed yet aware, and our letting our true ability and musicality express itself, without trying to control and manipulate it (33).

My drawing or painting appears upon the page entirely differently when I'm in an attentive, generous and accepting state. The work is different when my mind is different. It's different, in a sense, when some aspects of my mind have switched off. This is not to say that my mind is somehow absent or blank (a common misconception in Anglophone countries about things such as meditation) - quite the opposite. What switches off is the ruminating and planning. What's left, when a mind is no longer running backwards and forwards away from the present, and how does this link to making things?

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The books

McNiff, S. (1998) Trust the Process London, Shambala This is my favourite. I like it so much that I don't want to move on to chapter 3, because I want to make it last. I keep going back and reading chapter 1. It doesn't have any exercises. It's more a reflection on principles.
Cameron, J.1992) The Artist's Way London, Pan This is a very well-known book - hundreds of people have found it helpful. It does invoke god and 'spirituality' but, as an athiest, I actually didn't even notice this the first time. You can cheerfully ignore this aspect if you want to, and still find it very useful.
Nachmanovitch, S. 1990 Free Play Tarcher/Putnam, New York I've only read a little of this. The author is a violinist, but he writes beautifully about creation and improvisation from a much wider perspective than only music.
Maisel, E. (2005) Coaching the Artist Within Novato, New World Library This is a later Maisel, and I find it much easier to deal with that Fearless Creating. It's practical, deals with one principle at a time, and also has a lot of examples/case studies of people he's worked with as a creativity coach.
Maisel, E. (1995) Fearless Creating   This is my least recommended, in the sense that I found some of what he says in the early chapters a bit off-putting (embrace anxiety, paint naked...). But it's full of interesting ideas.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

An artist in the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona said he needed to paint because he had 'all these emotions that needed to come out'. I can't remember if he actually said 'I need to express myself', but you can imagine that he might have. I've become quite wary of this idea over the years. What does 'express yourself' mean? Is it like 'I feel I've got something to say'? What does it mean for a self to express itself? The idea seems a bit vacuous to me, and unhelpful.

The notion that something has to be generated 'inside' before it can be 'sent out' is likely to leave most of us feeling quite inadequate to the task. But what about the idea of response, rather than expression? Couldn't creativity be thought of as a response, to something much bigger than ourselves? I was watching a documentary about the sculptor Anish Kapoor the other day. He said something like, 'Of course no-one sets out to create beauty. But you have to be able to recognise it when it appears'.

Finding a response, or perhaps recognising something, is, of course, not always easy. Maisel suggests, amongst other things, that responding/recognising is impossible if you're 'on the run':

You might be able to do simple things on the run and do them well. You may be able to create on the run and create well, tossing off a drawing or a line of a poem that is richer than anything you labour over. But what you can't do on the run is understand the relationships between person, work and world that this book explores... (1995:xxxi)

He talks about what he calls 'hushing' (he's American....):

Hushing is what we do when we go into a museum and sit in front of one painting for fifteen minutes... Hushing is a quieting and an opening. There is no creative life without this ability to hush. If you hush only infrequently, if you hush when you encounter someone else's work but not in support of your own work, you must learn to hush more... If your mind is full of noise, you must quiet it...

You need a quiet mind so that ideas will have the chance of connecting. You are hushing your mind so you can use your mind. But much too often our mind is on autoscan, darting from one thought, usually a negative one, to another... (1995:4)


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