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The Downside of Obsession

Monday, 11. July 2016 0:11

There have been a number of posts discussing the fact that many artists are obsessed and probably need to be (for example). There is, however, a downside to that same single-mindedness, and it manifests itself in at least two areas.

The first is tunnel-vision. When an artist, or anyone for that matter, is pursuing some goal obsessively, that person develops tunnel-vision. There is nothing that exists in his/her world except the object of the obsession. This, of course, can be a good thing; no distractions exist. If that artist enters flow, then all the better because his/her whole consciousness is turned to the creative project at hand. The problem comes if the artist is experiencing tunnel-vision and is not in flow. That means that there is a single-minded effort but the whole consciousness is not involved. That means that ideas that should feed into the creative process are kept out. The objective and reaching it becomes far more important than the process.

The second aspect is, for lack of a better term, drive. In this case drive means pushing toward the goal as hard as the artist can go down a single path. And that’s the problem right there: the push. Again, this is a much more serious problem if the artist is not in flow. What happens is that the artist is moving toward the goal so hard and so fast that it doesn’t occur to him/her that there may be other paths to the same goal, easier paths, paths that would lead to greater creativity, paths that would lead to a more complex and interesting result. And if the movement toward the goal is not successful, the artist continues to try harder rather than considering input from other paths or another methodology, both of which would occur to him/her if he/she were in flow. This is akin to the artist beating his/her head on a rock; the harder he/she tries, the less successful he/she is likely to be.

This happened to me recently. I spent four hours on a project that should have taken twenty minutes (I’m thankful that it was not a more complex problem; I might have been at it for days.) It was at the end of the day, and the push to finish the project took on a life of its own; no matter how hard I tried, the goal was still out of reach. What finally stopped me was exhaustion. After I stopped, decided that maybe when I started on the project the next day, I would take a different tack. And that is exactly what I did; after some rest, the project looked a little different. I tried approaching the problem a different way and success came within thirty minutes. The problem had been that I was trying so hard to get to the goal, I missed other approaches that would yield success much more quickly.

So while obsessive behavior is probably necessary to be successful in the arts, improperly directed single-mindedness can be detrimental to the creative process and a huge waster of time and energy. That kind of obsession can be detected easily. Does it feel like you’re beating your head on a rock? If so, it’s time to change your approach. Flow doesn’t feel like that; flow almost removes you from the world, so that you have very little, if any, self-awareness. Our goal should be appropriately-directed and managed obsession. And that will appear when we merge the self and the creative process.

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Get Out of Your Head

Monday, 16. May 2016 2:59

Actors and directors are taught to analyze characters and plays, then to analyze how the character fits into the play. Photographers are taught to analyze the shooting situation in order to come up with the right combination of lens, shutter speed, aperture, and composition then to master the complexities of post-production whether that be the technicalities of mixing chemicals and using them at the right temperatures or understanding the myriad of controls in Photoshop. Other arts require similar combinations analytical and technical. No wonder artists have a tendency to spend so much time in their heads.

This is all well and good, some would say, because when a person is in his/her head, he/she is in the moment which is right where the artist is supposed to be. Except that’s not quite true. When an actor is analyzing a script or consciously constructing a character, he/she may be now but certainly not here; he/she is in the world of the play, which may well be a universe away. The photographer may be in even worse shape with regard to the here and now: he/she may be analyzing light conditions for tomorrow or even next week in some other location, so he/she is neither here nor now.

The problem can be compounded in that once an artist gets into his/her head, he/she may not voluntarily come out. The analysis function may take over. The results are likely to be processes that are technically correct and not very inspired. And there are other dangers.

The first danger is over-thinking whatever is being created—the analysis never stops and so performance/artifact becomes over-intellectualized and not very interesting. In the worst cases, overthinking can lead the artist not only to a cerebral process, but to confusion as well. It is far too easy to become lost in the labyrinth of conscious metaphors, thought-out connections, intellectual allusions and meaning.

The second phase of overthinking is second-guessing. Was path A the right choice, or should we have taken path B? We have no way to know, and we begin to worry about it. And then we begin to wonder about other choices we have made, and that leads to worry which leads directly to second-guessing every decision we have made during the entire creative process. Doubt reigns; creative progress is stopped.

And a third danger is that in the head of an artist is where the Monitor lives. You know, that voice that keeps telling us that we are not good enough, that our work is somehow lacking, not up to the mark, and certainly not excellent. This is the voice that keeps suggesting that we just might be frauds and because of that will be caught out and called out which will then lead to public or at least semi-public humiliation and why don’t we just quit now and save ourselves all the embarrassment. When we spend too much time in our heads, the voice speaks louder and louder; after all, we are living in his/her domain.

The fact is that art does not depend solely on logical choices. Rather it depends on instinctive, intuitive choices. These are choices that we make with our whole being, not just the rational mind. Not only do such choices have to seem correct intellectually, but they must feel right as well.

So, yes, we must do the analysis and the calculation and make the proper technical choices. But then we need to trust that those choices are the correct ones, set our logic aside, and allow ourselves to operate in flow. We need to stop thinking about our art and just do it. We need to get out of our own heads.

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Seizing Serendipity

Sunday, 5. October 2014 23:52

Photographer/writer Kayla Chobotiuk begins her brief Juxtapozarticle, “’Salt’ by Emma Phillips” with the statement, “Sometimes the best subjects aren’t planned or scouted, but simply happen by chance.” Certainly some of the most fortuitous turns that a creative process can take happen mysteriously, seemingly “by chance.” But I rather think something else is happening.

A number of artists have commented on the idea that at least a part of their art comes from a god, or a muse, or inspiration, or a daemon, or some other supernatural being or higher power. Julia Cameron has said, “Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control.” It is a theme that comes up repeatedly in her writing: “I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me. I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard.”

Regardless of what you think of Cameron, or of supernatural beings for that matter, there does seem to be, at least in the minds of many artists, a recognition of ideas appearing spontaneously and mysteriously from somewhere outside themselves. Many artists will talk about tapping into the universe when they are working.

The idea then becomes to develop a process that creates conditions that allow for the arrival of those new and sometimes surprising ideas. This arrival event is called serendipity. Defined as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for,”serendipity is sort of a “happy accident,” and is recognized in scientific discovery and business as well as art.

The accidental aspect of this theory troubles me a bit. It is difficult for a rational person to believe that many of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries, business advances, or works of art were the result of happy accidents. But if not some sort of accident or supernatural intervention, then what? My answer is the subconscious, and the ultimate process by which we get there is called flow (discussed previously here, here, here, and here).

Flow theory says that artists who are in flow are not even aware of themselves, resulting in ideas seeming to come from some mysterious otherwhere. Essentially, what happens is that in flow consciousness all but disappears, allowing the subconscious to take control in a way that it usually does not. In flow we can see relationships that elude us in an unaltered state. Possibilities emerge that in a normal, waking state would remain hidden. In other words, flow, or a flow-like state creates a state of mind that enhances creativity, that invites serendipity. The characteristics of flow are much the same as meditation, which also is said to aid in creativity.

Other methods seem to me to be rebranded expressions of flow, or methods of inducing flow. Indeed, Cameron’s exercises are designed to generate the conditions of flow so that creativity will “come.” And there are other ways to invite serendipity into our creative process: James Lawley and Penny Tompkins suggest in “Maximising Serendipity: The art of recognising and fostering unexpected potential – A Systematic Approach to Change” that through preparation one can “invite” serendipity and systematically take advantage of it. Whatever method we choose to prepare, the next steps are always the same, clearly diagrammed and explained by Lawley and Tompkins: recognize the potential of the unexpected and seize it!

What we find is that such events can lead our art to places that we would not have consciously thought to go, and will invariable make it better. It’s a little scary, so some would rather stay on their comfortable, preplanned course. Others, however, would say, “When the universe presents a gift, it would be very bad form not to accept.” I must agree.

Whatever path we take to get there, we must, as Lawley and Tompkins advise, learn to prepare, then to seize those opportunities when they present themselves—if our work is to be the best it can be.

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Acting and Flow

Monday, 18. November 2013 0:56

Almost every acting coach I know teaches that to really do the work of acting properly, the actor must be in the moment. We watch young actors struggle first with the concept and then the practice. We watch them inch toward that goal, and if we are lucky we get to see flashes of it in the occasional performance. It is a difficult thing to do, since to do it, the actor has to undo years of training and practice in avoiding the present.

Actors are not the only artists who do their best work in the moment. A number of artists, when they are working, drift into the “eternal present,” which is normally called flow and which I have discussed before (here, here, and here). They begin work, and often without their knowledge, the world drifts away to be replaced by a moment-to-moment existence wherein the very best of creation happens. This is the way it usually happens to actors as well. They start a scene and get caught up in it and then they are creating in a way that they never have before.

During the last rehearsal of the week, I was privileged to witness an actor leap fully into the present moment and stay there, sustained for an entire scene—repeatedly.  That doesn’t sound like so much when you say it in words, but it was amazing to watch.

Run-through after run-through, the actor leapt into the present and stayed there until a stop was called. Anyone who has attended even two rehearsals can testify to the rarity of such an event.

The show that we are rehearsing is Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol by Tom Mula. For an actor it presents an unusual challenge, at least the way we are doing the show. This actor’s problem was to portray a character named Actor 2, who, in turn, portrays at least one other character, so he has to present at least two distinct characters to the audience, sometimes in the same speech. The transitions are nearly instantaneous and problematic to say the least, and adding depth to the second-level character is a further difficulty.

When this actor made the jump, those problems disappeared. He was alternately Marley and Actor 2 and Marley. Each distinct, with different postures, accents, attitudes. Although he stayed close to what had been rehearsed, he modified his blocking as necessary to achieve his objective in the scene. And he adapted his tone and approach to counter whatever the actor playing Scrooge invented as a response.

Suddenly we were not watching the actor that we knew; we were instead watching a persona named Actor 2 and a ghost named Marley alternate in the same body. The level of concentration, characterization, and intensity rivaled that of any seasoned professional at the top of his/her game. The whole room was completely silent. We (the stage manager, assistant stage manager, assistant director, and I) had seen that scene perhaps 10 to 12 times before, but we were all watching as though it were the first time. And we watched the first time—three times. Such is the power of the present moment. It was theatre as it is supposed to be. It was powerful enough that the stage manager cried, I discovered later.

The actor, since he was fully in the moment, remembered very little of what happened. As we talked after the rehearsal and he came back to himself, he began to remember more. My hope is that he will recall most of it over time, but that is not important. What is important is that he made the jump and discovered the value of flow and the immense boost to creativity that you can get only by working in the moment.

I could wish no more for any artist, be he/she sculptor, painter, photographer, dancer, writer.

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Daydreaming and Mindfulness

Monday, 28. October 2013 0:28

For all its faults, what struck me about the book I recently finished was how accurately it depicted the goings-on in the mind of the artist. The main character, a painter, would sometimes completely lose track of what was going on around her because she was so involved in daydreaming. She spent a lot of time planning, foreseeing the paintings that she wanted to create.

We all daydream, and many would argue that it is from daydreams that inspiration comes. It is certainly in daydreams that we imagine our creations or discover an insight or recognize a new idea. Many artists find daydreaming useful, perhaps even necessary to doing their work. How else would the image of the new piece of work come if you could not let your mind drift from the here-and-now to other times and places?

The other side of the coin is what is called mindfulness, staying in the present moment. Everywhere you turn in blogosphere, you run into articles about the value of mindfulness to the artist. It’s a topic I have spent some time on myself here and here, and actually work at myself on a daily basis.

The benefits of mindfulness are well known to actors, who must stay in the present if they are to do even passable work. This approach to the world: living in and attending to the present comes up again and again in creativity theory. We must be in the present to create; once we let our minds wander to the past or the future, we have left the moment in which we are actually doing the work. If we happen to be in flow, mindfulness descends upon us as a condition of the state, and we really have no choice. Additionally, there are the psychological benefits associated with mindfulness: loss of anxiety and worry.

The question is how each of these disparate activities fits into the creative life of not just painters or actors, but any artist.

The answer is, of course, balance. We must be able to allow our imaginations to take flight, to travel to those places where new ideas reside or the seeds of new images germinate. Then we must bring those ideas and images into the present. If we stay “away,” we will become those dreamers who never produce, the composers who never write a note, the writers who never commit words to paper or screen. We become imaginers and planners instead of doers. We must go into the worlds of imagination, seize the ideas that we find there, and bring them back to the present where we can develop them.

On the other hand, if we stay only in the present, we can miss some of the wonders that our imaginations can produce. Mindfulness practice says that when ideas intrude, we should acknowledge them and return our attention to the present. This sometimes means that an idea may be lost. And some of those ideas may well deserve to be followed and entertained, not because we are helpless to prevent it, but because down that path lies the next painting or play or sculpture. The trick is to not get so lost in that world that we don’t make it back to this one, but we do need to be able to let our imaginations wander and invent and discover.

As artists, I think, we would do well to take a middle path, perhaps not that philosophical middle path that avoids the extremes, but rather a practical one that encompasses, reconciles and balances the opposing activities of mindfulness and daydreaming and allows us to use all of our potential to create.

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On Taking Your Own Advice

Monday, 9. September 2013 0:00

When you are in the teaching/mentoring business, you tailor the advice that you give to each individual because each individual has his/her own wants and needs and desires and goals. What will work for one won’t work for another. But then you lead a workshop or write a blog and suddenly you’re giving advice that by the nature of the delivery has to be general.

Sooner or later, you look at what you have said in that general forum and wonder why you have never taken your own advice—well, all of it. Obviously you believe it if you passed it along to others. Why aren’t you doing it? The answer, of course, it that you didn’t think to. This is advice for others. That’s where your focus is. It’s the same as the old story about the plumber who never fixes his own faucet—he’s too busy fixing others people’s faucets.

So you decide maybe you should try to take your own advice. If it’s the path you advise others to follow, perhaps you should attempt it yourself. And what you discover is a number of thing:

  • Some of your suggestions don’t work. You find that the ideas you have been giving others just don’t accomplish what you thought they did. The only honest response is to drop this line of advice. But had you not tried it, you never would have known.
  • Some of your advice needs tweaking. Your practice might not exactly match your advice for a variety of reasons. This means that what you are saying might require a little tweaking to bring it into alignment with what you are doing, or what you are doing might require a little tweaking to bring it into alignment with what you are teaching. Either way, it’s an easy fix.
  • Some of what you are advocating needs adjustment. When you try to implement it, it doesn’t work quite the way you had thought that it might. And it turns out that what you are advising needs more than tweaking; it needs revising if it is to have any application in the real world.
  • Some of what you are suggesting to others is just difficult. Perhaps you did not know just how difficult it was until you tried it. And that means that you have to temper your advice with warnings about the complications the student is likely to encounter. For example, I have long advised actors, indeed, all artists to live in the moment, but unless you are in the midst of flow, this is a very difficult thing to do. When I tried to do what I had advised, I found it to be one of the most challenging things I had ever attempted; it’s a goal that one has to work on for perhaps years and still may not be able to master all the time and in all instances. But it is certainly worth the attempt. So now this topic always includes difficulty warnings.
  • Sometimes you find that the advice that you are dispensing is solid. It works, and it makes you work or your life better. Once you find out how well this particular piece of advice works, you wonder why you hadn’t tried it before.

Taking your own advice is not easy. For some reason we have a blind spot when it comes to applying our own counsel. But once we have seen it, applied it, understood the outcomes, we can learn from it. And because we learn, we can become better not only as teacher/mentors, but perhaps as an artists as well.

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Let the Work Take Over

Sunday, 27. January 2013 23:51

It is very common to hear fiction writers talk about characters taking over the novel, play, or short story. Characters, it seems, sometimes go their own way, taking the plot along with them instead of performing in the way that the author envisioned. The writer becomes almost a spectator. For those who don’t write, this may sound a bit silly. After all, who is the one whose fingers are on the keyboard? What is really happening is that the story is taking on a life of its own. It’s just a convenience to blame it on the characters—since that’s often what starts the story moving in a certain direction—perhaps one unforeseen by the author.

Creations do that—take on a life of their own, and it doesn’t matter what kind of creation it is. The same phenomenon occurs in almost all arts. An actor’s performance can rise above expectations on certain nights, reaching emotions and insights never before (and sometimes never after) touched. Even the actor him/herself has no idea how or why it happened. They just treasure the experience, and, if they try to explain it at all, write it off to “inspiration.”

It involves creating in flow (discussed here and in several other posts), which almost removes consciousness from the creative process. But more than that, it involves letting the work take over. It’s almost as if the painting or the collage or the poem or characters start telling you what to do next and how to do it, guiding the artist in the creation.  In extreme cases, the artist is unconscious of what is going on. He/she becomes a tool by which the creation realizes itself.

This process may not be as mystical as it’s beginning to sound. There are, of course, psychological explanations. If you read flow theory, you find that what I am talking about here is perhaps a subset of that or an enhanced version of that. This state certainly shares many of the characteristics of flow, but the “sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity” is missing. The creator seems not only to not be in control, but seems almost to be missing. And the creator is certainly not directing the work on any kind of conscious level.

Jackson Pollock put it this way:

When I am in a painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

Pollock is not the only artist to have to wait to see what he has been about. An acquaintance, an accomplished sculptor and painter, commented about his own just-finished painting the other day, “Perhaps in a day or two I’ll figure out what I was trying to say.”

This is certainly not to say that all we have to do is sit down at the keyboard, or easel, or wherever we work and art will happen. We all know better than that. Of course we have to learn and practice and investigate and imagine and apply experience. But once we begin a project, we can, with sufficient concentration, move into flow, and then, if conditions are right and we are willing to take a risk and release a little control, we can perhaps move one step beyond to that place where the work takes over. And then we can, like Pollock, achieve that pure harmony that lets the life of the work come through.

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Do Better Work by Staying in the Moment

Sunday, 16. December 2012 23:47

Yoga instructors encourage their students to stay in the present moment during their practice. Actors work constantly to stay in the moment; most know that without the ability to live in the “eternal present,” their work will suffer. Dancers deal with the ongoing present in much the same way. Other artists sometimes experience “being in the moment” when they get into “flow.” The rest of the world simply disappears while the artist’s entire being is engaged in creation.

The post, “Art as Salvation–Creating ‘in Flow’” explored the characteristics of flow provided by the originator of the term, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, but they bear repeating:

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

It is easy to see the benefits of such a practice, whether it is on a yoga mat or on a stage or at an easel or at a computer. You will be more creative; the work will be easier; and you are more likely to produce good work. That should be enough, but there are other benefits as well. If you are living in the present, the past and the future cease to exist. While this is a necessity for actors, it is not the standard state of being for most of us. But just think of being free from anxiety and worry, two conditions that are not only crippling to creativity, but also interfere with simply living.

It works quite logically: if you are existing fully in the present moment, you have no awareness of either the future or the past. Without referencing the past, there can be no worry; you cannot be concerned over what happened yesterday if you are fully concentrating on today. Likewise, your anxiety about what is going to happen tomorrow disappears if you are so involved in now that you do not really register the future.

Of course, there are times when we need to reference both the past and the future, but there is no advantage to dwelling in either place, and much benefit in returning to the present as soon as possible. When we are not distracted by what we think will happen or what has happened, we get to enjoy where we are and what we are doing much more fully. Because we are not distracted by mental static, we become those who are fully and completely engaged in the conversation, the sale, the intimate moment, the creation of art.

Many who create drift into flow naturally—when they are creating—and so for a time live in the present. But it never occurs to them to employ it the rest of the time. It stays contextualized as part of the creative process—and it is a very important part, but it could be very useful to be able to generalize this skill to life. The good news is that this ability can be learned. Once learned, it can then be applied to any situation, not just creativity. Mostly it takes identifying the factors required to stay in the present moment and then putting them into practice. And then, as with any skill, practice, and practice, and practice. Constant “flow” is not the goal, but rather existing in fully in the moment.

And that can be both beneficial and exhilarating. Yoga instructors often advise their students to “take yoga off the mat.” A variant of this advice for artists would be “take the first element of flow out of the studio.” (Some of the other elements may follow, but that’s just a bonus). Your world and your work will be better.

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Want to Make Your Best Art? Trust the Process

Monday, 16. July 2012 0:20

Last month at a group show, I was discussing the process by which I produce the pieces in my latest project, Grids, with a painter whose work was hanging on an adjacent wall. I was explaining that sometimes the work itself seemed to demand that I modify my plan and the piece changes direction. He said that the same thing happened with him, that he would start painting with a very firm idea of what he wanted the painting to be, and then “the paint has a different idea” and would lead him in a new direction.

This is hardly a unique phenomenon. For example, Francis Bacon has said, “In my case all painting… is an accident. I foresee it and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.Robert Motherwell says it a little more succinctly: “In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.”

I have written about the accidental in art before—a couple of times (here and here), but this is not quite the same thing. This is more that the work itself takes over and guides the creative process. That sounds very strange when put into words, but it is very much what happens, or what seems to happen. What really happens, I suspect, is that the artist drifts into flow, and the unconscious/subconscious begins to influence the work more and more.

How this works is anybody’s guess. Bacon says that you don’t have to know how you do it; you have to know what you do. This is not to suggest that all you have to do is pick up a brush or a camera or a pen and get yourself into the right frame of mind and art will happen. You do, as Bacon says, have to know something about what you are doing. It happens in fields outside the arts as well; according to Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” And while I don’ think we are really talking about chance at all, I do agree with his sentiment.

And it happens in the written arts well. Best-selling author B. J. Daniels is one of many novelists who talk about the characters taking over the story. Writer Cora Vasseur says, “I just get to sit there and be a medium. I get to discover the story like the reader.” And after that, of course, comes the editing, when the writer reasserts him/herself. The same thing happens in non-narrative writing. For example, I begin every post going very resolutely in a specific direction, but by the time I have put some words together and gathered some quotations, the focus has shifted a bit and is now going somewhere different from the path along which I started.

Sculptor Lynda Benglis probably sums it up best when she says, “Actually it’s really a marriage between the conscious and the unconscious that occupies the creative mind. I find what the materials can do and within that context there is that decision-making… the artist is always dealing with the bounds of the material and the unbounded nature of the universe and of the imagination — and trying to mark the time. Whether you comprehend it or not, you don’t understand it all.”

Understanding is not necessary. Trusting your unconscious and conscious and your knowledge of the medium to come together is. And it can be a process of discovery—discovery of how the colors and textures best work together, of how the shapes relate, of how the words and ideas should be arranged, of how the chords progress and resolve, of how the pieces of what you are doing really should fit together to produce your best work.

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