Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bittersweet: Embracing the End of a Creative Endeavor

One of the most important things that we can do as Creatives is acknowledge endings; both emotionally and analytically.  Learn from them and plan for them, like any phase of a project.  

July is hard.

It is the month that my dad passed away.  Always lurking in the heat and humidity towards the end of the month is an undercurrent of loss. 

This emotion comes on the heels of the close of the summer 1 semester of my Emerson course Creative Thinking and Problem Solving.  It is six exhilarating weeks of teaching my passion, of nurturing creativity and seeing the incredible results, connections and breakthroughs that happen in that short and vivid timeframe. 

The ending of the semester is always bittersweet.  I wrap up the class feeling more-than-ready to return to a less-hectic schedule and to my own ideas; which have been waiting impatiently for me on the proverbial “back burner.” I also know, though, that I will miss the students, their sharing and ideas and the community of the class.  When I teach, I feel lit from within.  I feel purposeful and helpful.  Every semester, I am humbled by where the students take the content of the course lessons, each other’s sharing and my encouragement.  They take risks and they work extremely hard. 

The last evening of the semester, I pack up the remnants of the final class.  I turn off the audio/visual system and lights, and to the hum of the screen automatically rolling up and projector powering down, I leave the semester tired and deeply inspired by the students. In the days that follow, I am astounded by the spaciousness of my schedule and, sometimes, my own mind.  I go for walks and think about my writing, what I want to make for dinner, or sometimes just listen to the sounds around me.  I don’t problem solve or create new class exercises, timing, material or mentally list things that need to be communicated.  There is room for other things in my mind and that space is welcome.

But it comes with a caveat.  After weeks of purpose, I suddenly find myself adrift.  There is a sense of emptiness and of loneliness in the abundance of hours.  I commiserate with poet William Wordsworth when he said, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”   

In a previous post I have called this,“the post-semester funk.”  Another name that I have stumbled across, for what I am usually feeling post-semester, is the “Post-Show Blues.”  While class is a creative endeavor for me, the truth is that it is also a Production.  In the true sense of the theatrical version of the word.  Throughout the course, the students are my creative collaborators, my stage family.

Blogger, actor and director Kerry Hishon, writes about “The Post-Show Blues” and provides some smart suggestions for what to do in the weeks after a play has closed.  These apply to many a creative endeavor, especially ones that require great expenditures of extroverted energy.  Resonating with me is the recommendation to reconnect with family and friends.  As a natural introvert, during the intensity of the summer semester, teaching is about the only social activity I can handle.  In the last week of class, I make sure to reach out to remind friends that I am still alive and would love to see them once the final trappings of grades and comments are truly “in the bag.”  

The end of a passion driven endeavor or a project can be a strange, sometimes energizing or even difficult time for any creative.  Endings exist.  Sometimes they are welcome and sometimes they feel inevitable.  

One of the most important things that we can do as creatives is acknowledge endings; both emotionally and analytically.  Learn from them and plan for them, like any phase of a project.  

I have found the following tactics helpful when coming to the conclusion of a project or creative endeavor:   
  • Create an Ending (or Transition) Ritual: Typically this takes the form of celebration (the importance of which I can’t emphasize enough) but it is important to think beyond the cast party or dinner out with friends.  My end of class ritual takes place in the form of cleaning my office.  I refile all the course material in my Big Binder (shown in the third photo, top pocket. That is Jim Henson on the cover during the making of Time Piece. He is one of my creative heroes), re-shelve my creative thinking books, and place all the remaining class documents and ephemera from the semester in a manila envelope which is labeled and filed in a special storage bin.  This past weekend, in addition to deep cleaning my office (which is the old butler’s pantry in our apartment) I made the compulsive decision to update the paint from pale yellow to a vivid, sophisticated and saturated peacock blue from Behr called Caribe.  Even without the redecorating, a clean office never fails to help me transition and refocus.

  • Schedule Things in Advance: Let’s be honest.  When you are in the depths of a project things tend to fall by the wayside.  From unreturned email to unpolished nails, it is important to make sure to plan time to play catch up (and relax).  Unfinished tasks can take up a huge amount of mental energy.  Help free yourself up for your next endeavor by, as author Todd Henry calls it in his book Die Empty, “closing the loop.”
  • Acknowledge the Emotions: If you haven’t figured out by now, I love poetry.  There are two poems in particular that work as mantras for reminding me of the challenges and emotions that come up at the end of a project.  Margaret Atwood’s poem “You Come Back” from her book Morning in the Burned House, like Wordsworth’s lonely cloud, sum up the discombobulation of rejoining the world after a creative project is complete.  The lines run through my mind and remind me of the phase I am in: “You come back into the room/ where you’ve been living/ all along.  You say: What’s been going on/ while I was away?…”  Other times, I just walk and say, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” (Or as Louise Rennison’s brilliant character Georgia Nicolson would say, “I wandered lonely as a clud.” Which always cheers me up when I think of it.) 
  • Create a Wish List: During the dark days of a busy project period, I like to create a wish list of all the things I wish I was doing right at that moment, but which I know have to wait.  This gives me something to look forward to as well as serves as a great tool for referencing and inspiring me to have fun when I am “wandering” like said cloud above.
  • Do a Postmortem: Ed Catmull writes of Pixar’s smart postmortem process of mixing data and insights to learn the five things that the film team felt went well and the five things they would do differently.  All throughout the Creative Thinking semester, I have my students list three things they would do again and three things that they would do differently for every project.  I use this same tool myself.  In fact, I have been known to do postmortems during the T ride home after each class.  Most importantly though, I do it for the semester and then tuck it into The Big Binder where I am delighted to find it when I begin prepping for the fall semester. (Thank you Past-Self!)
The most important thing about endings is that they are really beginnings.  Beginnings are tender and messy.  Sometimes uncertain.  Take the time to appreciate what you’ve accomplished and where you are.  Know that the creative process, like life, is a cycle.  Make the most of this phase and you’ll grow outward and upward like the rings of a nautilus shell.  That’s my vision of true creative progress.

What are some of your tactics for transitioning after a project has ended?  Please share in the comments below.  It is always good to have an arsenal of tools to draw upon.

PS. I think it is worth noting the final stanza here of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” which, like the image of the daffodils in the poet’s imagination, makes me appreciate the splendor of the semester:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Taking Inventory: A First Step to Successfully Reaching Your Goals

The month of January is synonymous with new beginnings, resolutions and goal setting.  While I believe that you should set goals whenever it is right for you, I appreciate the turning of the calendar and every year I am reminded that well-intentioned resolutions are nothing without a good inventory.

Flashback to a younger me at any point in January in the early 2000s:
My nails are unpolished and chipped.  My hands are marked by ink, paper cuts and a chalky dryness that defies the promises of every major brand of handcream.  I live on ladders, quote the codes of SKUs like Deep Blue, and have learned how to stack and sort every known shape of stockroom packaging as though embroiled in a real life game of Tetris.  Scheduled hours are a myth.  Being exhausted is a constant.  Unlike my usual self, I hold a grudge against every inquisitive customer and sales associate who interrupt me from my task.  It is the most disruptive time of year in Retail—it is Inventory.  
Sometimes, I believe that everything I need to know about life has an answer in having worked in retail at the start of my career.  Despite the fact that I believed I was going to graduate from college and go on (as planned) to rewarding work in the non-profit world, I was incredibly fortunate to be serendipitously rerouted into a management position with a luxury stationery company who I worked with for eight years. 

Following the retail calendar is hard habit to break.  This is why, almost a decade later, I still begin thinking about Christmas in August, go into what I call “elf mode” in the late fall, and why January evokes in me the overwhelming desire to do inventory.

Inventory, or “taking stock,” is about awareness, the foundation for both goal setting and achieving results.  It is about taking a moment to determine what you have, where you are, what you’ve achieved—and then understanding how that works to get you to where you want to go next.  I find that not only does it help me to work more successfully towards a goal (purging all sweets and unhealthy snacks from the kitchen) but also lets me take a step back and truly see what has accumulated (How many volunteer commitments do I belong to? How many social media accounts platforms do I check? How much time is that really taking up?)  Taking inventory helps you ask questions which can support goals or help you to clearly define the areas where goal setting or resolutions are most needed.

Like all good things worth doing, inventory is a process.  It is a roll-up-your-sleeves-kind of job, inviting you to dig in, suspend judgement and be curious.  It allows you to clear out the old, account for what you have, and usher in room for the new.  It can be a traditional inventory (how many of X do I have?) or a look at where you are through what has been accomplished or accumulated (reviewing your marketing efforts throughout the year).

Taking inventory allows you to see the big picture

The logical/analytic side of my brain loves that inventory, on a tangible level is about answering a very clear set of questions: 
  1. What do I have right now?
  2. (Only if you are evaluating) What did I start with?
  3. What do I want to do next and what does that require?
Most importantly, once you do inventory you need to ask:
      4.  Do I have what I need to reach my goal?

(A bonus: your subconscious mind loves all the activities of inventory which allow it to wonder and ponder and problem solve while you are working away.)

The trick that I have learned in January is to just dive in.  To do inventory.  Reserve judgment, be aware of but not engaged with judgmental or negative thoughts, and—if needed—pretend like you’ve been hired to do it.     

Like creativity, taking inventory is a process which requires curiosity, dedication and destruction. Through this grounded act, you often discover (or rediscover) purpose and clarity.

Are there areas in your life, work or environment that you want or need to take inventory?
Wondering where to begin?  Think about where you instinctively feel compelled to start.  Frustration can be a great indicator of what to jump into first.

Inventory may end with final counts and reconciliation, but for me, the end point is when open shelves are stocked with new shipment—which in Retail translates to sales—which is the means of reaching the goals of the year ahead.   

Share Your Thoughts

Inventory is about creating awareness and space for success.  
What are your January/New Year or fresh start rituals?  What do you do to set yourself up to achieve a goal? 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Seven Habits to Boost Your Creative Thinking this Fall

It may be the end of the growing season, as a garden article laying open on my porch table proclaims, but for many of us the fall carries with it the natural rhythms of learning, making it a perfect season of intellectual growth.  Fall is a time to refocus, to begin a new endeavor or close the year on a high note.  Where summer gives us freedom to explore, fall calls us back to ourselves.

As the semester gets underway, I see the first tendrils of confidence, and more importantly, permission, to experiment with creativity and risk-taking appear in my Creative Thinking & Problem Solving class.  The student’s earnestness to studying and honing their creativity, and the subtle adjustments and re-calibrations they make in the first few classes never fails to inspire me again and again.    

The tools and techniques we use in my class are not exclusive to the classroom, and are actually ideal for the everyday world beyond.  I thought I would pass on the inspiration and share a few of them that are excellent first steps for embarking on a new creative journey.  And if you are a seasoned creative, it is a great time to refresh and rejuvenate your own “growing season.”   

1. Get a sketchbook

Early on in one of my very early semesters of teaching Creative Thinking & Problem Solving, a student approached me at the end of the first class, the course material list in their hand, and asked, “How are we supposed to use our sketchbooks?  What if I am not good at drawing?”  It was a question that deeply humbled me. 

Sketchbooks have been a part of my life since I was first mark making (the earliest form of expression) thanks to my Mom and Dad.  In my life, they had evolved to become a place that I kept ideas, images torn from magazines, quotes, half-baked poems, mind maps, sketches, watercolors and just about anything that needs a home.  So when I discovered the term Common Place Book a few years ago, a book where ideas, writing, images, influences are all documented, I was elated. 

In my world, sketchbooks are for everyone.  Not just people who can sketch.  They are a vehicle for capturing ideas and living without lines.  Just the act of buying one can be liberating, let alone the power of marking up that first page.  Let go of perfection and embrace the ideas that you put down on paper this fall.  The good, the silly, the outlandish, and the ugly.  Once your ideas know you respect them—that they have a home—they will keep coming.

2. Cultivate an inner dialogue on paper (Morning Pages)

In The Artist’s Way, a book that I reference frequently here on The Paper Compass, and also use as a text book in my class, author Julia Cameron preaches the practice of getting up an half hour early to write by hand three stream of consciousness pages in a plain notebook.  She calls this ritual Morning Pages and while the idea of getting up a half hour early is painful, the act of writing out my fears, loathings, dreams and longings has been one of the most influential and beneficial habits that I myself took away from taking Creative Thinking when I was a student and reading Cameron’s book.

I have written about Morning Pages before, but there are two things that are important about them: One, that you do them.  No matter the time of day.  And two, that you keep them completely for your eyes only. 

I once had a student who confessed that he was both addicted to Morning Pages and fearful of his wife’s interest in them.  He found that the most private place to write them—and to hide them—was in his car.  I say that if the fear of writing your thoughts prevents you from embracing, what may be at first an awkward dialogue, then write them and shred them.  They are not for posterity or perfection.  The goal is to physically write “out” your thoughts.  To release the small minded things that clog our brains and occupy our mind.  In releasing them, you will find yourself with new mental space to think bigger and in new ways.    

3. Walk everywhere (or as much as possible)

Walking is creativity’s best friend.  As a creative resource walking allows us to do two things simultaneously: observe the world around us (also known as “filling the well”) and creates a physical rhythm, and visual distractions, that allows our subconscious to take over and do some heavy lifting—or, technically, “incubating” of ideas.

Even if your day is dominated by travels in trains, planes and automobiles, find the time to build a walking routine into your week.  Find a route that is safe, interesting and allows your mind to wander.  Amazing things are puzzled out and solved in the mind of an occupied walker. 

4. Take one hour a week for yourself (Artist Date)

Of all the exercises that you may undertake as a creative practitioner, this is one of the most enjoyable and difficult.  The Artist Date, another of Julia Cameron’s powerful “basic tools” from The Artist’s Way, is the weekly activity of doing something exclusively with yourself that you want to do (emphasis on want, doing the dishes and laundry—unless it is an emergency cleaning therapy session, does not count).  The challenge is that this hour (or two or three) of much needed creative restocking time (also known as play) seems to be something that can be so easily overlooked in our busy and demanding lives.  And that is exactly the point.  As I say to my students, “this is a chance to take yourself on a date.  Go to a restaurant that you are curious about.  Take yourself to the movie that you want to see.  Most importantly: don’t stand yourself up.”    

5. Develop a study plan

In last Monday night’s class, I shared with the students Todd Henry’s TEDx talk about developing a creative rhythm which can help you to be “Prolific + Brilliant + Healthy.”  For me, one of the most important recommendations I have taken away from reading Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative is carving out dedicated time every week to indulge yourself in the experience of learning.  The study plan is something that is (for obvious reasons) not as interesting to my students as it is for myself and to my fellow professionals. 

Being able to be a student relieves some of the pressure that rest on our shoulders (and minds) as adults.  When we have the mindset of advancing ourselves through the diligence of studying it humbles us in a good way, allowing us to see that the creative path is exactly that—a path.  It means we must learn along the way and give ourselves permission to not know everything or be perfect.   

A study plan can help you become an expert in your chosen field or it can be focused on something that you have always wanted to do: read all the biographies at the library; learn French; watch COSMOS; learn about String Theory; or even read a book a month on a subject that you want to excel at.

The only rule is to have a plan and to stick to it.  For me, my study time takes place on Sunday mornings where I read one chapter in a new-to-me book on the subject of creativity.  This also helps inspire my class prep, which I do later in the day.   

6. Pick one project

The creative mind draws ideas to it like moths to a porch light.  And just as the sublime beauty of the moths gathering, dancing, fluttering can be mesmerizing, as Creatives we become distracted, restless, and unable to focus when we have too many ideas.  We can become mired in a sense of pecking away at pieces of them but without really making progress. 

This fall, I encourage you to pick one project.  Just one.  (I know it is difficult, but it is worth it.) 
Pick a single project and set a realistic goal of accomplishment that you can check yourself against in January.

Like The Study Plan, the momentum is in the dedication of a repeated time slot in which to work.  Commit yourself (and commit to yourself).  And don’t fear the commitment.  The plan is to build up focus through a few months of diligent work.  This will create a solid habit to build upon as well as the sensation of finally being able to bring your unfinished projects to a point of completion or closure.

7. Give yourself permission

In the very first class of the semester, I ask the students if they can guess: what is the #1 characteristic of creative people?  They give great answers: risk taking, playfulness, rebelliousness…  but it is something that is both very simple and also deeply complex.  It is the self-perception of being creative.

So, I invite you to embrace yourself as a creative thinker this fall.  Give yourself permission to be creative, to take risks, to do something different and you will be taking the first steps toward expanding and rejuvenating your creativity.  Give yourself permission, and see what ideas come to you.  Discover what you have the ability to create.


These are just a few of the many tips, tactics and tools that we explore in my class.  If you have an additional one to share, or a creative experience that resonates from reading the post, please share here on The Paper Compass.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Returning to Summer, Zero State, and Guarding Against Creative Burn Out

As it has every year, my summer officially begins with the conclusion of the Summer 1 Semester of Creative Thinking & Problem Solving which runs for six weeks beginning in late May.  In the final weeks of the intensive schedule, I find myself in a unique state of flow, brimming with solutions, next steps and ideas for my own projects—and, even more important, on the cusp of actually having time to work on them.  It is an exhilarating place.  I will go so far as to call it sublime. 

This is because the one thing that I almost always neglect to take into account every semester is how exhausted I am when I do finally reach the end of six weeks of working full time in addition to teaching twice a week on a subject that is my passion.  In the first weeks of July, I unfortunately, do remember.  It is The Post Semester Funk.  It is not the blues, and not the Mean Reds, but is somewhere in between and filled with a lot of internal dialogue “what should I do now?” “I don’t know” “what should I do next?” “I don’t know.”  Other symptoms include moping, staring off into space, not being tired but being exhausted, misplacing objects around the house, and a sudden lack of productivity that involves opening email and FB about 10 times a day looking for a distraction.  

I have come to be very respectful of the P.S. Funk because I learned the hard way after my first semester of teaching, that it is a sign that I am on the cusp of Burn Out, one of Creativity’s greatest enemies.  The good news is that all of the creative tools that author Julia Cameron teaches, and which I share with my students, become my path out of the Bog of No Energy.  I go for walks, I return to yoga, I diligently do Morning Pages (even if most of the time is spent staring out at the morning sky), I sit on the porch and flip through summer magazines, I watch brainless TV and enjoy it.           

There is an upside to being depleted.  “Just let yourself sink to the bottom,” my yoga instructor said to me in her kind voice as I lay in a flat mess on the floor of the training room, in a posture that could only be called Ready-for-Sleep, “let yourself get back to Zero State.”  I am not very good at Zero State, especially knowing that it is a place that is far away from the energy that I had when I promised myself I would bring All My Ideas To Life! only the week before. 

Zero State is part of the path to getting out of The P.S. Funk.  In it, I am able to see clearly the truths that I need to manage for as a creative.  Creativity is a process.  More importantly, it is a slow process.  From feeling like I am super human, I “come down” from class and realize that I can’t do everything.  Or at least I can’t do everything and sustain it. 

However, at this place, this Zero Point, when there is nowhere to go but up, my energy returns.  I begin to savor it and my personal moments of creativity that are not part of any greater purpose than expression.  I take on small projects like trying a new recipe.  I go on Artist Dates to my favorite haunts.  I gradually “work” my way back through morning pages and walks, from “What is the point?” to “You know, I’ve really missed writing for my blog” to “Today I want to write a blog post.”

So here we are.  It is summer.  The days are long and perfect for creativity.  They are good for daydreaming and doing.  I have decided to write spontaneously this year, so while there will not be any set Summer Challenges, there will be musings and new inspiration. 

Michael Boodro, Editor in Chief of Elle Décor opens the summer issue with a beautiful little essay called “Summer Isn't What It Used to Be.”  He ends with a sentiment that called me back to the blog and to myself in my wonderful recovery from The P.S. Funk:
The season is never predictable, and no summer will probably ever seem as glorious as those we remember from our childhood, when it seemed as though it hardly rained and every night was full of fireflies.  But if sunny days and soft, lingering twilights seem more rare than ever, then we need to treasure them all the more when they do come along.
In creativity there are highs and lows.  Moments of exhilaration, moments of inspiration, moments of doubt, and moments of burn out and blockage.  Recognizing your own patterns of work and energy are important to nurturing yourself as a creative.  Learning your own symptoms of the beginning of what could be burn out before it sets in can help make you a smarter creative, allowing you to consciously choose to integrate the patterns and habits that allow you to rejuvenate your energy and creativity.

How do you nurture yourself and your energy after a big project?  If you have experienced burn out, what tools or tactics did you use to bring yourself back to a healthy state of creativity?  I would love to hear your own experiences or even your ways of rejuvenating yourself this summer here on The Paper Compass.            

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Thinking of You

The problem—or maybe the essence—of loving something is that it is always on your mind.  This has been one of the busiest summers that I can remember and through all the moments big and small, excellent and stressful, I have been thinking about The Paper Compass. 

I have carried with me ideas for unpublished blog posts like an ever increasing bunch of balloons.  But the time, and maybe more importantly, the routine that I usually have in the second half of the summer is different this year due to some really happy reasons and a different kind of love (the big “I do” kind!).  So rather than these ideas transforming into the promised Summer Creativity Challenge posts, many have drifted away or, if they were strong enough, have gotten “anchored” to my sketchbook and will be return to for future writing and posts. 

Letting an idea or project “be tabled” is not easy!  I look at my neglected writing (both blog and otherwise), my barely crossed off Summer Adventure list, my towering reading list and I have to remind myself that these are not the signs of someone who is “behind on her work” but rather the signs of a life being well lived.  This is an extra-ordinary year and I recognize that this is its own adventure.

That said, I have decided to lay to rest this summer’s Creativity Challenges and resume them again next year.  Time permitting, I will focus on some other posts in the next few months.

With things on the blog being a little more quiet than usual this year, I want to say thank you so much for being a reader of The Paper Compass.  I am so glad to be able to take the time to focus on something that is a very special moment in my life and bring all my creativity to that endeavor--and the beginning of the fall semester of Creative Thinking--in the next few weeks.

Is a personal creative endeavor taking a back seat? There are a few tools that you can use in the meantime:
•   Create an idea bank: An idea bank is a journal, jar or location where you write down ideas that you can’t begin work on immediately or that you want to explore later.  The advantage of an idea bank is that you always have a selection of ideas to choose from when you complete on project and are not sure about what to do next.  An idea bank is like having a whole batch of ready-bake cookies in your refrigerator!  The best part is an idea from the idea bank can sometimes be a better fit—or “come of age”—at a later time or applied to different circumstances than when first thought up.  I mark my ideas in my pocket journal with a little light bulb in the corner of the page, this reminds me to pull them into my master list when I have a moment.
•   Do a little every day:  If you are working on a bigger project, such as a novel, try and write even one paragraph a day.  If the project truly needs to be temporarily tabled, then make sure to write down any of the character or plot ideas that come to you during the hiatus.  Sometimes a little distance from a story can be where the brain does its best thinking.
•   Think big(ger): A little time away can be a great chance to check in on a long term project.  Where did you start from? Where do you want to go with it?  Is the project going the way that you imagined?  Does it feel like fun or work?  If it feels like work, what can you do to make it feel fun again?
As always, thoughts and comments are welcome—as well as any insight on what you do when you have to juggle priorities and creative endeavors. 
I'm not complaining a "wish you were here" postcard circa 1915

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Summer Creativity Challenge No.2: (The Necessity of ) Taking on an Unnecessary Project

The desk was a gift.  Found in a basement boiler room of a building scheduled to be demolished, it was cleverly disguised beneath multiple layers of paint applied with a heavy hand.  The original silhouette had been altered by the addition of a haphazard plywood shelf, which it wore like a fake mustache.  It was battle-scarred and appeared to have lived a life of many purposes beyond the school room for which it was originally intended.

Opening the drawer on the front revealed a warm stained wood interior with an inkwell, still holding the ancient residue of black ink.  Its potential hidden history and true purpose discovered, it came home with my fiancé where it was deemed to be an excellent find and a great restoration project—for when there was time.

Months passed.  The desk was stored in the basement and once again became a base on which many other things were stacked.  In moments of purging, and feeling “realistic” about the time needed to restore it, it was placed on the curb—only to be brought in again.  There was something about the desk, something about the neat lettering on the inkwell that read in three curved lines radiating out from the nib dipping area, “American Seating Co., Boston No. 59, Pat Apd For,” that wouldn’t let me relinquish it.

Then, one evening a few weeks ago, I was reviewing and integrating some content from author Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative into my Creative Thinking class lecture “Where Do Ideas Come From?” designed to inspire students to think differently about where they do their best thinking.   Despite having read the book and put into practice many elements of Todd’s wisdom, I realized that I was missing—and longing for—one key element, which he calls “Unnecessary Creating.”

Unnecessary Creating is actually incredibly necessary for busy creatives.  It is a way to empty or disarm the ever watchful Censor, which I wrote about in last week's challenge.  In keeping busy, the subconscious is left alone to do the magic that it does best: incubate.

My own neglect of (resistance) to Unnecessary Creating, is the same as Todd Henry addresses in his book (p.175):
At this point some of us may be thinking, “I barely have the time and energy to do what’s required of me for my job, and now you want me to take up a hobby?”  It’s tempting to resist this technique because we think it will add stress to our lives—yet another thing that we have to cram into our schedule.  But the experience of those who incorporate this practice is quite different.  They find that it actually clarifies their thoughts, makes them more efficient, and reintroduces a level of passion for their on-demand creating.  In addition, our Unnecessary Creating is often the best source of new insights for our on-demand creative work.”    
Deciding, during the actual delivery of the lecture, that nothing is more beneficial than practicing what I preach, the desk soon came out of the basement and into the hot sun of the driveway.  With a hammer, I knocked off the plywood shelf with a few satisfying whacks.  I was educated on paint removal by my fiancé and soon armed with what he called “a glorified hairdryer” and a spackling knife.  

Soon the paint on the desk was bubbling up to reveal a history of ecru, mint green and yellow lifetimes.  Beneath that, the stained wood still had a start of the school year glow to it.  A hot, sweaty, melting-paint-chips hour later, my “project” began to look more like the desk I knew it could be (although there was still far to go.)  I, too, had a new outlook—won over to the knowledge that Unnecessary Creating is very necessary in my life.

With space to spread out and windows to open, summertime invites hands-on projects.  It is also a great chance to experiment with introducing Unnecessary Creating to your weekly routine.  In Summer Creativity Challenge No.3, this week take a look in your basement, attic, yard, or house and see if you have any projects waiting for you.  Ideally, it should be something that you can sink your teeth into and work on consistently for a few weeks.  Whether is it painting a room, building a bookcase or breaking ground and planting a new garden, get started and see what happens.  Note how you feel and what other endeavors may suddenly feel more-doable.  As always, record your experiences in your sketchbook/notebook and also share here (pictures of your project welcome) on The Paper Compass.   

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Summer Creativity Challenge No.1: (The Pursuit of) Two Kinds of Happiness

"Ground Swell" Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 1939

Summertime engages our senses.  The world is vibrant with color: the green of grass, the rainbow of fruits and vegetables at a farm stand, the blue of the ocean meeting the sky at the horizon.  The days are filled with the scent of humidity, tomatoes on the vine, the scent of ozone before a flash of lighting.  Birds sing, waves break, the beat of radios and murmur of neighbors talking on the porch comes in the open windows.  We wear less clothing to allow our skin to soak up the sun.  We open ourselves to summer.

This symphony of the senses makes summertime the ideal time to restock the source of our creative juices.  In this season of long light and slow heat, it is a perfect time to play, to explore and to inspire your creativity.

This is the fourth summer of weekly Creativity Challenges on The Paper Compass.  For the next six weeks this summer, there will again be a theme to meditate on, a small task to fulfill, or a memory to be explored.  Some challenges will take you to new places, others to past experiences, and all hopefully to a wealth of ideas to compile in your sketchbook or notebook.  Consider it your season of creative harvest, abundant with ideas to delight your mind or spark an even greater artistic endeavor. 

This summer we begin, inspired by one of the core values celebrated on Independence Day: The Pursuit of Happiness.  Creativity and happiness are an interesting pair.  As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write in the Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, “… [C]reative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.” 

Creatives, as agents of change, big and small, are driven.  With this drive comes what author Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way calls The Critic.  This negative (and untrue) voice can be a huge hurdle for creatives pursuing their happiness.  The Critic is loud and eagerly points a finger at anything less than perfect, often keeping ideas from even arriving at their first destination: the blank page or the blank canvas. 

But summertime, by any definition of perfection, is far from perfect.  Summer is wild.  It is extremes.  It is a profusion of heat, bugs, sun, vegetation, and sand.  It is the boisterous person at the party who sets off fireworks, turns up the radio, and pushes people in the pool.  And this makes it the perfect time to give yourself some space away from The Critic in order to explore more of your creative happiness.

The interesting thing about happiness is that it is both a present state and a memory.  Our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently as documented by Nobel Laureate and founder of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman.  We don’t always experience happiness in the moment, but we often look back on an experience and our brain has categorized it as “happy.”  If something ends on a happy note, we often remember the whole experience through rose colored glasses—even if we were bored silly, disgruntled or exhausted for the majority of the time.  A five day vacation where it rained for four days and ended on one sunny day?  Excellent!  The 90 minute wait in an endlessly snaking line for a joyous ten minute ride at Disney World?  Forgotten!    

While science has proven the two kinds of happiness true, I need only to look to my own experience of being at the gym to see it in action.  I have many happy memories of time spent on the elliptical watching the Food Network (oh, the irony!) or traveling to exotic locations vicariously through the Discovery Channel.  Yet, when I am actually at the gym, in the heat of physical exertion, I promise you that happiness is the last emotion on my mind. 

Exploring the two kinds of happiness in this summer creativity challenge allows us to identify things that make us happy in the moment (like petting a cat or reading on the back porch) and most importantly for creativity, the things that make us feel happy in retrospect (like having written this blog post).  Both are important as one grounds us in time and the other helps us “do the work”; the work that makes our creativity and ideas a reality.  The promise of happiness in the future is a huge motivator, but most importantly it is important to explore our pursuit of happiness.  Being in pursuit of something means you are on a journey.  If you watch carefully and observe the process of working on a creative endeavor, you may suddenly see more moments of happiness than you believed existed.  And suddenly that blank page looks a lot more inviting.   
This week, for Summer Creativity Challenge No.1, spend some time contemplating your own pursuit of happiness.  Make a list of things that make you happy in the moment.  Or observe very carefully the things that bring you happiness.  Also, make a list of the things that you remember as being happy.  Revisit them.  What made you remember it as being a happy experience?  Often you will discover themes rather than things or places or people are at the heart of happiness.  What themes (such as travel, exploring, being outdoors, having long, intimate conversations) do you see in your memories of happiness?  Are any a source for an Artist Date or Adventure?  As always, document your thoughts in your sketchbook/notebook and share any thoughts or questions here on The Paper Compass.