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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Keep Some of Your Process Analog

I recently read a widely cited study about how our brains engage in learning differently when we work by hand. According to their research, manually manipulating and drawing things out has a significant impact on our creative process:

“When it comes to learning and remembering material, the pen is mightier than the keyboard. Writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters. It requires more mental energy and engages more areas of the brain than pressing keys on a computer keyboard. The sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information. And learning is enhanced when we attempt to retrieve and recreate using multiple modalities, including kinesthetic, tactile, visual, olfactory, and auditory.”

And so, the question becomes, do we abandon our computers completely?

Not necessarily.

On my seventeenth birthday, my high school sweetheart bought me a custom embossed leather book cover. She was, after all, my official muse, so it was only fitting that I had a special book to hold all the love songs I wrote for her.

Now, although she and I eventually drifted apart, as many first time lovers do, I never stopped using that songbook. Almost twenty years later, even amidst the adoption of computer technology, writing software and other digital applications; even alongside my professional career as an author, publisher, consultant and laptop monkey, I’ve always insisted on keeping some of my creative process as a analog experience.

First, for philosophical reasons:

I use the songbook for nostalgia’s sake. It feels organic and romantic. It makes for a more intimate, interesting artifact. It allows me to think in ways hammering at a computer never could. It helps me escapes the speed and sanitized perfection of contemporary culture. It symbolizes a creative process that involves slowness, attentiveness and contemplation. And it reminds me that the more technology we have, the more people will be interested in what the human mind can create without it.

It just makes sense intellectually.

Second, I use the songbook for practical reasons:

Frankly, I just love the sound of a pen scratching paper. The gentle noises of the pages turning. The experience of stumbling into verbal accidents. The excitement of seeing my words stringing together on a page. The frustration of crossing out lyrics that don’t make the final cut. The varying shades of ink as I apply more pen pressure because of the uncontrollable passion and excitement for certain words and phrases. And of course, the satisfaction of circling the title of a newly finished tune.

It just makes sense physically.

Plus, you never know. One man’s scribble can become another man’s heirloom.

Detour is a traveling art exhibit that featured notebook creations by internationally recognized artists, architects, film directors, graphic designers, illustrators, and writers. Some works contained extensive stories, while others were converted into pieces of contemporary art and design. But once the exhibit was finished touring, all of the notebooks were published in a beautiful coffee table book.

I own a copy, and as a physical archive, I must say, having that whole collection of three hundred handwritten notebooks makes the me feel like I’m peeking into the brains of modern culture’s brightest creators. My favorite section is the essay is on the subject of notebooking, written by Lorin H. Stein, the editor of The Paris Review:

“The computer has given us permanent cold feet. No sooner do we try one thought, one rhythm or one piece on for size, we write by deletion and insertion and insertion and deletion, until at the end of a long day, we end up facing an empty screen. The notebook, by contrast, demands commitment. You write and there’s no turning back. You may immediately scratch it out, but the page has been breached. There are footprints in the snow.”

It’s a powerful case for the analog world.

And yet, it’s not a panacea.

The goal isn’t to compartmentalize our creative process into equal parts analog and digital. Life isn’t always that cut and dry. Not everyone has the square footage to maintain two different workstations. And trying to enforce a perfect balance of the two might do more harm than good.

Instead, we ought to take a closer look at our creative workflow and ask ourselves, are there any activities that might be better served without the aid of a digital hand? Is there anything work would benefit from a more human, organic approach? Because along the way, we may discover some corner of how we express ourselves, small as it may be, that’s begging to unplug and help us get back in touch with our bodies.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite reads on this topic, Shop Class As Soulcraft. This book legitimately changed the way I work. It renewed my cultivation for manual competence. According to the author, we experience a greater sense of agency, competence and cognitive richness when we do manual work. That we must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where our failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. That creating in a more physical way helps us tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines.

The point is, we owe it to ourselves and work to keep some of our workflow free from the constraints of digital. To stay current with our technological reality, but also to stay true to our analog humanity. And ultimately, this key decision will help tighten up our creative systems and release new levels of output and expression. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Catching Moonbeams in a Jar

Being prolific isn’t just about using your right brain.

It’s about using your brain right.

I’m reminded of a popular interview with Stephen King, who famously said that when it comes to the creative process, to get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. Isn’t that the truth? That if we don’t believe in magic on some level, those moments of virtuosity and mystery and meaning, those acts of human moral beauty that provoke the kindred and start a conversation with something much larger than ourselves, our work will suffer.

At the same timer, despite our most romantic inclinations, the creative process just as much clerical as it is magical. It’s equal parts sorcery and ditch digging. And in the beginning stages of our work, we have to get the idea to ground zero before infinity intercedes.

As a collector, creator and communicator of ideas, you have to hone your ability to play the roles of both the goofy artist and his scientist buddy.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Have You Made Peace With Piecemeal?

Creativity isn’t a linear experience, it’s an associative one.

If we want to become prolific, we have to make peace with piecemeal.

The problem is, to satisfy our basic human need for unity, order and completeness, we demand that everything have a beginning, middle and end. Human life, after all, is punctuated by a definite beginning, middle and end.

And so, it’s no surprise that we require everything we deal with in life to follow the same structure. Our rational capacities crave a certain amount of story. We depend on dramatic structure. It’s hardwired into us. Aristotle was accurate when he said, a whole is that which has a beginning and middle and end.

I’m reminded of the book The Literary Mind, in which professor of cognitive science Mark Turner explains how story is the fundamental instrument of human thought:

“Narrative imagining, story, is our chief means of looking into, predicting, planning and explaining the future. It is a capacity indispensable to human cognition generally, and is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.”

Looks like there’s no stopping that story train.

Unfortunately, this particular human tendency is at odds with the creative process. And if we’re not careful, our biological craving for resolution, our cultural need to perfectly compartmentalize everything into a neat little package with a beginning, middle and end, can stand in the way of effectively collecting, creating and communicating our ideas.

When you read the autobiography Last Words, it’s clear why George Carlin was the undisputed heavyweight champion of standup. Not just because of his years in comedy, but because of his files of comedy. Carlin actually attests that the reason few writers have ever achieved his level of prolificacy is because they refuse to keep a record of their reactions to issues. At the end of the book, he tells the story of an journalist who once asked him if he ever thought he might run out of ideas. If he ever worried about not having anything to say anymore.

Carlin put the creative process into perspective with the following:

“Occasionally that does flash through my mind, because it’s a natural human impulse to think in terms of beginnings and endings. But the truth is, I can’t run out of ideas, not as long as I keep getting new information and I can keep processing it. And as long as I have observations to make, as long as I can see things and let them register against my template, as long as I’m able to take impressions and compare them with old ones, I will always have material.”

And so, each one of us needs the freedom to express ourselves in a nonlinear fashion. The permission to work with ideas without strict chronological terms. The space to create without corresponding to the illusions of sequence and rational order. And the detachment from our natural human impulse to think in terms of beginnings and endings.

We need to make peace with piecemeal.

How do we accomplish that?

By recording our incomplete, fragmentary associative process.

Creativity, after all, is nothing but a coalescence of fragments. It’s alchemy. It’s associative, not linear. Meaning, our duty as creators of ideas is to populate our content management systems, our personal creative inventories, with any snippet that crosses our cognitive path. Even if the story doesn’t have a beginning, middle or an end.

Edison famously recorded his thoughts, observations, visualizations, imaginative patterns, experiments, flashes of inspiration and ideas for new inventions in a series notebooks. By the time of his death, he had accumulated over three thousand notebooks over his lifetime, each of which contained more than two hundred pages.

But what’s most important to remember is, the majority of his documentation was done in a raw, fragmentary, clumsy and incomplete fashion. Edison’s creative inventory­­, all half million pages of it, didn’t have a definite beginning, middle and end. And yet, he still became the most prolific inventor in history.

Because he trusted the creative process.

And that’s the challenge of the input phase of creation. Setting aside our biological need for unity, order and completeness, and trusting our raw materials into the system.

Keith Kennif has made peace with piecemeal. He’s a composer, multi instrumentalist and music producer who releases ambient electronic music under several monikers, all of which fall under his independent record label, Unseen Music. He’s best known for his music’s wide use in film, television, dance, advertising and performance art. Facebook famously commissioned one of his songs for their tenth anniversary video, which received hundreds of millions of views and shares.

But in addition to being a daily listener of his music, I’m also a diehard fan of his approach to organizing it.

Keith’s website has an astounding music library. It contains hundreds of tracks––not full songs, just tracks, just fragmentary associations of music––in various styles for the purposes of commercial licensing. Each track is labeled in relation to its general mood and tone, some of which are even available as alternate versions and lengths. That way, when clients submit their licensing requests, they can include all the details about their project, including media type, industry, intent of use and the like.  

Keith’s piecemeal approach to creating music is brilliant. In a recent interview with public radio, he explained it as follows:

“I write distilled, powerful tiny pieces of music, like mini film scores, telling so much story in so few notes. They’re very simple melodies, often very simple chord changes that everybody can kind of pick up and play. That’s the point and function of these songs. Everybody be able to relate to them.”

Not full songs, tracks. Hundreds of incomplete, jigsaw puzzle pieces of music. With no beginning, no middle and no end. The accumulation of which makes Kennif one of the most successful and prolific commercial musicians working today.

Who knew?

One man’s fragment is another man’s fortune.

Are you treating creativity as a linear experience, or an associative one?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Inviting Nature As Your Creative Collaborator

If we want to become more prolific, we have to create a more visceral and spontaneous contact with our work.

We have to invite nature as our creative collaborator.

Jackson Pollack famously laid his canvas on the floor of a converted barn instead of using the traditional easel. Back in the forties, he did an interview with an limited edition art publication called Possibilities, in which he made the following statement:

“My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor, I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting, allowing the creation to take on a life of its own.”

By changing the way he approached his work, he put himself in a position, quite literally, to listen for what wanted to be created. By changing the perspective of the canvas in front of him, he changed the perspective of the ideas inside of him. By relieving his body of the necessity of gravity, he freed up his brain to float wherever its fancy led it. And by grounding himself physically, he grounded himself psychologically, engaging a posture of humility, appreciation and respect for his creative environment.

But what’s really interesting about his process is the science behind it.

Physics Today once published a fascinating article that analyzed the application of fluid dynamics in Pollock’s art. Their hypothesis was, to the degree that he let science take a role in the painting process, he invited physics to be a coauthor of his art pieces. And by creatively ceding some of the responsibility for the appearance of his work to a natural phenomena, he used fluid dynamics to contribute to the creation of an art object.

Pollock, of course, was no physicist. Had he been asked to explain the application of scientific concepts like hydrodynamic instability, surface tension, gravitational acceleration, axial velocity, inertial force, flow rate, liquid density, fluid stream, kinematic viscosity and coiling oscillations, Pollock’s head probably would have exploded. Instead, through trial and error, through pure chance and guided inquiry, he intuitively assimilated the implications of those scientific relationships into his work. And thanks to this process, he became a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement, inspiring an entire generation of painters.

The lesson, then, is to operate at the intersection of what is aesthetically viable and what is physically possible. To invite the collaboration of natural phenomena, forcing ourselves to think about art from a more scientific perspective.

I had my first experience with this practice a few years ago, when I started busking on the weekends under the historic Meadowport Arch, which is located at the entrance to Prospect Park. Over one hundred years old and one hundred feet long, this limestone tunnel has a unique double entrance onto the park’s great lawn, giving the traveler a choice of which way to go in their journey.

It’s quite breathtaking. The tunnel has benches built on both sides, a restored cedar sheathed ceiling and with paneling covering the entire surface, making it an iconic destination for daily joggers, curious tourists and frolicking children alike.

It also happens to have the best natural acoustics I’ve ever heard in my life.

And I’ve played everywhere.

Since I started performing music as a kid, I’ve been obsessed with singing songs in obscure venues, including apartment stairwells, old churches, long hallways, hotel bathrooms, even post office vestibules. These are the magical spaces where voices carry like bells and footsteps echo like gunshots, and frankly, it just seems wrong not to make music there. The spaces are aching for it. Like a match waiting for a spark. 

And so, on most weekends, I play a concert in that tunnel by the park. My shows usually last about two hours, I sing all original songs, it’s just me and the guitar, and I perform for anybody and everybody who walks past. By the time the show is over, I’ll earn anywhere between ten and twenty dollars in change.

But the revelation was, since I started playing these shows, the tunnel helped me create a more visceral and spontaneous contact with my work. Turns out, the physical act of performing music in a naturally reverberated environment changes the biology of the songs. Notes, riffs, rhythms, melodies and lyrics, ones that might not have worked when I was just singing in my bedroom, magically started to make sense under the arch. By collaborating with the tunnel’s scientific principles, I was able to do things I never thought I could do as a songwriter. It’s like I finally let out a deep breath I had no idea I was holding.

The tunnel didn’t just give me access to the park, it gave me access to myself.

The challenge, then, is for each of us to cede some of the artistic responsibility to an environmental phenomena. To invite nature, in any of its infinite forms, as the creative collaborator against which our work is hurled.

I’m reminded of famous study conducted by the Carlson School of Management, which explored how ceiling height affected the way people think and act.

Scientists tested how people processed information in different environments, and they found that a twenty food ceiling helped them feel more free, enabling them to brainstorm more creatively and process more abstract connections between objects.

Does your current project require you to discover innovative solutions to problems through divergent thinking? Find a room with high ceilings. Consider collaborating with that natural phenomena.

On the other hand, a person in a room with only an eight foot ceiling is more likely to focus on specific tasks, details and other tactical concerns.

Does your current project require you to bring thinking down to a more detailed and accurate level? Find a room with low ceilings. Consider collaborating with that natural phenomena.

Ultimately, there is no force more honest, more reliable, more ubiquitous, and more scientifically proven than nature. It’s not supernatural, it’s just natural. And as creators and communicators of ideas, as people with an inherent need to connect with something bigger than ourselves, we ought to design systems and structures that invite nature as our collaborator.

Because it’s hard to be creative alone.

It’s like playing basketball without a backboard.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Daily Rituals for Prompting a Work Mindset

The brain takes cues from the body. 

As creators and communicators of ideas, part of our job is to activate the creative subroutine in our head, bring up our energy and snap ourselves into the appropriate state of mind to do our work. In the same way that the physical act of smiling triggers the chemistry in our brain associated with happiness, the on ramp is the cue for releasing the chemicals that stoke our work fire.

That’s why so many creators start every day of their lives in the exact same way. They don’t want to have to wake up, drag their butts out of bed and look for options of what to do first. That’s just another unnecessary decision making process that’s exhaustive, stressful and wastes valuable energy that they should be dedicating to their ideas.

To make matters worse, most people’s creative processes are solitary endeavors. Which means the inevitability of showing up has to be created by sheer willpower. They have to summon tremendous reserves of discipline and energy. And so, the power of the on ramp is, it allows creators to cultivate the seeds that have already been planted, as opposed to going out into the rocks to chip away at a brand new garden.

There's an intriguing book called Old Type Writers, which explores the obsessive habits and quirky techniques of great authors. Turns out, many of our most cherished creators used methods that were just as inventive as the works they produced:

Joyce wrote in crayon. Colette picked fleas from her pets before picking up her pen. Poe balanced a cat on his shoulder. Hugo placed himself under strict house arrest, wearing nothing but a long, gray, knitted shawl. Schiller filled his desk drawer with rotten apples, relying on the pungent smell to spark his creativity. Steinbeck always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots.

Each of these creators, whether they relied on specific tools, eccentric routines, strict schedules or bizarre environments, steadfastly adhered to them. The combination and accumulation of which constructed the creative on ramps that enabled their prolificacy.

My on ramp is to spend the first half hour of every day inhaling. Not just reading, because that limits the medium, but inhaling. Breathing in. And doing so promiscuously. The routine is, I read and browse and learn from a diverse range of websites, blogs, pictures, comic strips, trending memes, online publications, interviews, research studies, books, articles, songs, street art, store signs, podcasts, eavesdroppings, conversations and other sources of inspiration. Plus, I take notes. Lots of notes. And by the time I’m done making my rounds, my desktop is littered with new documents and ideas and perspective and insight. I feel engaged with what’s going on in the world. I view the news as a source of energy, not just a source of information.

This morning practice, this creative subroutine, ensures that the first part of my day has a cadence and rhythm that includes movement. By giving my ritual of thinking the primacy it deserves, never forcing it to compete for my attention with anything else, I find that I’m able to stay prolific.

What’s your on ramp?

I have a therapist friend who specializes in sleep hygiene. He tells his clients the key to ensuring restful, effective sleep is to establish a soothing presleep routine. According to the famous Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, this presleep ritual, an hour of relaxation before bedtime, reduces the body’s secretion of the stress hormone cortisol––which is associated with increasing alertness––and helps to ease the transition from wake time to sleep time.

Now, that particular subroutine focuses on sleep, but it still points to the same general principle: The human brain craves routine and likes to know what’s coming. And so, the goal is to establish a clear association between different types of activities. To prime ourselves to do our creating. To set the tone that it’s time to go to work.

I’m reminded of the book The War of Art, which has inspired people around the world to defeat the internal foe of resistance. In fact, it’s the only book I’ve read once a year, every year, for the past ten years. And although it was written for writers, it has also been embraced by business entrepreneurs, actors, dancers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, military service members and thousands of others around the world.

The opening paragraph of the book gives us an inside look at how the author activates the creative subroutine in his head:

“I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy for only eight bucks. I have my lucky nametag that came from a dream I once had, and I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend gave me. I point it toward my chair so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, invoke the muse, and I sit down and plunge in.”

That’s his on ramp. The ritual that prompts the work mindset and merges him into the creative process.

What’s yours?

Friday, April 11, 2014

You never know where you might use it

If you don't write it down, it never happened.

When I first heard this phrase, it had a profound effect on my creative process. It taught me to relieve my mind of the necessity of remembering. It taught me to stop trusting my memory and start managing my creative workflow intelligently. To train myself to become an informational virtuoso who’s fast, responsive, proactive, organized, and never lets a single idea get away. And to never encounter inspiration without picking its pocket.

Mitch Hedberg used to have a great joke on this:

“Sometimes in the middle of the night, I think of something that’s funny, so I go get a pen and I write the idea down. Unless the pen’s too far away, and then I have to convince myself that what I thought of wasn’t funny.”

And so, before the documentation process even begins, the creator’s obligation is to empty himself of any expectations attached to his ideas. Rather than ignoring or evaluating or trying to get rid of the ideas he doesn’t like, he breathes them in and writes them down. He allows his work to be enriched by the things he would normally consider to be useless. And no matter how strange that little germ may seem, no matter how much the idea goes against what he intended to create, he honors it by at least hearing it out and finding out what it has to say.

Because you never know where you might use it.

In my office, I have a songwriting station. It’s a classroom style rolling whiteboard, chaotically collaged with lyric sheets. Most of the ideas aren’t fully formed yet, they’re just long typed lists of words and phrases and sentences that I’ve been collecting from a variety of inspiration sources over the years.

And you’ll notice, my material is sorted chronologically from left to right. Meaning, I can visualize lyric ideas from three years ago, three months ago or three days ago, depending on where I stand in relation to the board. And the exciting part about this process is, at any given songwriting moment, I might end up using some old, obscure lyric from three years ago that I don’t even remember writing down. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s what wanted to be written.

I had no way of knowing that at the moment of conception, but because I wrote down that idea, without expectation or judgment, it eventually found a home three years later.

And so, this approach to collecting ideas has both cognitive and strategic implications. You have to process information quickly, but you also have to manage your creative workflow intelligently. You have to avoid trusting your brain, but you also have avoid editing your instincts.

Because if you don’t write it down, it never happened.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Power of Polyamorous Creation

I once read a fantastic book called Realizing The Impossible, an anthology of commentaries and images on the relationship between art and social movements. The book gathered contributions from around the globe, both from current artists and historical creators, curating a vibrant history and overview of political art.

This interview with multidisciplinary artist Shaun Silfer said it best:

“The best artists have shit on their shoes. They’re running around in the middle of everything, they can’t settle down, they can’t shut up and they can’t quit fidgeting with everything.”

And what’s interesting is, if you study the world’s most prolific creators, they all work the same way. They’re masters polyamorous creation, or, working on multiple projects simultaneously.

The term polyamory is the hybrid of the words poly, meaning “multiple,” and the word amor, meaning “love.” The controversial idea first penetrated public consciousness in the seventies, but its definition has been researched, redefined and revisited by a number of accredited institutions over the years.

In the romantic sense, here’s the essence of the philosophy:

“Polyamory is the practice, state or ability of having more than one intimate, loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.” 

Obviously, there’s much criticism around the topic. Issues of relational stability and marital longevity have been widely debated, researched, even satirized by a number of cable and reality television shows.

But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.

I’m interested in the concept of polyamory from the perspective of a creator, not a couple. I’m interested in transferring polyamory from the interpersonal domain to intellectual domain. In this regard, it’s not about pursuing relationships with multiple romantic partners, it’s about pursuing relationships with multiple creative projects.

Our artistic endeavors, after all, are living, breathing things, with which we have intimate relationships. Ask any artist in the world, and they’ll agree there is a profound connection between the creator and the creation.

But as the definition of polyamory suggests, there is a full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. Meaning, the act of dividing your love and attention among several creative works doesn’t automatically lessen it. Just because you’re juggling multiple projects simultaneously, doesn’t mean you love either of them any less because of the existence of the other.

I have a writer friend who’s incapable of polyamorous creation. It drives me crazy. Whenever his latest book enters into the editing and design phase, he refuses to work on his next project in limbo. As if doing so would be the equivalent of cheating on his current project.

But I always tell him, look, just because you switch gears midstream and dive into another creative endeavor, doesn’t make you any less focused, efficient or loyal to your current pursuit.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Albert Bandura is one of the most frequently cited and influential psychologists of all time. He originated the theoretical construct of self-efficacy, which is the belief in your own ability to succeed and achieve the goals you set for yourself.

In his research on the cognitive functioning of creative thinkers, here’s what he found:

“People’s creative efforts are more productively deployed when they pursue multiple projects simultaneously, at varying stages of completion, shifting among them as circumstances dictate. In doing so, they’re less likely to succumb to the impediments, false starts, inevitable delays and distractions of the creative process, and more likely to experience greater productivity and goal attainment.”

How many creative irons do you have in the fire?

When you practice polyamorous creation, it also produces positive interactions between projects. In my current workload, I’m building a course curriculum, writing a book, producing a documentary and a composing musical album. And initially, each project was mutually exclusive. Unique in its own right. Four different mediums, audiences and messages. But over time, the projects began to bump into each other. And I couldn’t help but notice thought bridges, cross fertilizations, subconscious connections, natural relationships and unexpected integrations between them.

As a result, that unconscious integration allowed me to quickly, easily and effectively transition from one project to another on a daily basis. And that contributed to a greater consistency in my body of work and overall artistic vision. Proving, that our creations may be multiple, but the creator is singular. 

Are your ideas talking to each other?

Of course, the question of polyamorous creation is, how do you know when it’s time to switch gears between projects?

That all depends on your schedule, rhythms, natural energy cycles, creative preferences and environments. As I’ve mentioned before, the great creative discipline is simply knowing what season it is. Developing an exquisite understanding of your own timing. Listening for what wants to be written.

Scott Adams, cartoonist and entrepreneur, says one of the most important tricks for maximizing productivity is matching your mental state to the task.

“When I first wake up, my brain is relaxed and creative. The thought of writing a comic is fun, and it’s relatively easy because my brain is in exactly the right mode for that task. But I also know from experience that trying to be creative in the midafternoon is a waste of time. At six in the morning I’m a creator, and by two in the afternoon, I’m a copier.”

How does your physical body dictate your creative body of work?

And keep in mind, just because you’re working on multiple projects, doesn’t mean you’re not focused. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You’re more focused than ever. Focus, after all, isn’t about activity, it’s about identity. Keeping all your passions in play, while still staying true you dominant reality. Not hammering one nail all your life, but hammering lots of nails, one way, all your life. And believing that doesn’t matter how many different things you do, it matters that you’re the same person when you do them.

Polygamous creation, then, is not about spreading yourself too thin. It’s not about procrastination. It’s not about chasing too many rabbits. It’s not about becoming a jack of all trades. It’s not about accumulating a bunch of unfinished projects. And it’s not about placing too many cumbersome demands on yourself.

It’s about hedging your creative bets.

It’s about insuring yourself against the daily discouragements, delays, distractions, depressions, derailments and disappointments of the creative process. And in many cases, that means giving yourself permission to go work on something else.

New project receive an unflattering review? Go work on something else.
Editor move the final deadline back two weeks? Go work on something else.
Meaning starting to drain from your current endeavor? Go work on something else.
Computer freeze at an inopportune time? Go work on something else.
Client go on vacation and forget about your website? Go work on something else.
Receive a rejection letter from a publisher? Go work on something else.
Stuck on a song lyric that just won’t rhyme? Go work on something else.
Spirit won’t move the way you want it to? Go work on something else.

That’s how you use polyamory to buttress your creative practice.

In fact, I read interviews everyday with artists, songwriters, painters, designers and other creative professionals, and they all echo the same sentiment. Prolific creators know resistance will eventually rear its ugly head, and so they always have something waiting in the wings, ready to be worked on.

With only one iron in the fire, you wouldn’t have the freedom to do that.

Ultimately, polyamorous creation, the practice of pursuing relationships with multiple creative projects, is a proven strategy that allows you to be both prolific with, and protective of, your artistic work.

Go get some shit on your shoes.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Don’t run from your limitations, leverage them

I met a travel photographer who had an interesting philosophy.

He said natural lighting was the only way he worked.

Not only because of the image quality, which was often stronger than staged lighting, but mainly because he didn’t want to schlep all his heavy equipment through foreign countries for weeks at a time. Imagine marching through a rainforest carrying flashes, umbrellas, light boxes, reflectors, backdrops, accessories, optical slaves, power supplies and metal stands.

What a nightmare.

Interestingly, because of his decision to only use natural lighting, he never committed to one particular photographic aesthetic. He never stylized himself into a corner. Which meant he was able to experiment with a variety of different approaches. And as a result, that freed him to evolve his visual voice as he saw fit, solidifying his reputation as an interesting, versatile and unique photographer.

Adrienne didn’t run from his limitations, he leveraged them.

And I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if this happens in other fields?

You bet.

There’s the musician, whose early records were limited to three minutes on a side. That put pressure on him to the keep the pieces short, but helped him become a master at creating short, concise musical statements that were close to perfect.

There’s the commercial artist, whose day job gave him a steady income that allowed him to delve into each chosen project without having to worry about a deadline or a panic to sell. That allowed his pieces to become complete on their own schedule.

There’s the photographer, whose antique photograph paper had a chemistry that was overly sensitive to ultraviolet light. This allows his white and featureless skies to become strong graphic elements in his pictures that echoed the shape of the land.

There’s the painter, whose vision dimmed due to macular degeneration. But since he couldn’t see the details of the canvas anyway, his conditioned enhanced his impressionistic painting style.

There’s the standup comedian, whose incurable perfectionism forced him to develop jokes glacially. But since he waited sometimes years for punchlines to full ripen, that allowed for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise.

There’s the homebuilder, whose client had a severe slope in her land, which inspired him to add terraces, stonework, waterfalls, and extensive landscaping. As a result, he created an unexpected feeling of calm and contentment for the residents.

There’s the choreographer, whose principal dancer was struck by a motor scooter and couldn’t perform the traditionally powerful moves. But he exploited her stillness to powerfully evoke the feeling of loss and separation between her and the other dancer.

There’s the rock band, whose nominal music skill and crappy equipment forced them create unconventional performances with props, staging, masks and costumes. These elements later became a crucial component to their mysterious brand persona.

Each of these artists leveraged their limitations.

How are you leveraging yours?

I remember when I first transitioned from being a full time artist to being a full time employee. Initially, I was concerned. Because now that I had a new day job, I also had a serious time limitation. And I wondered how that might affect my output.

But because my creative work had became a supplementary source of income, I began making art independent of my need to make money and keep the lights on. That freed my ideas from the burden of having to support myself. And I found that creativity wasn’t as claustrophobic anymore, now that I wasn’t worrying about money as much. Ultimately, by removing the acute business pressure that previously hung over my head, I experienced a newfound artistic sovereignty that allowed me to experiment with new mediums and genres and ideas.

I leveraged my limitations.

It’s a form of optimism, really.

Which doesn’t increase your success, but what it does increase is your field of vision, and that allows you to better notice the opportunities that lead to success.

I’m reminded of this fascinating interview I heard between a physician and a cancer survivor. Recounting his diagnosis experience, the patient said:

“If you have a bad attitude about your disease, odds are, you won’t get better­­, because you won’t do the necessary research on the resources that will make you better. You’ll never find the solution that leads to the solution. That’s the physical and procedural manifestation of a bad attitude. Mindset may not affect the outcome, but it does affect the experience.”

In this way, leveraging your limitations becomes part of your expanded field of vision. It’s not about mind over matter, it’s about using your mind to allow more things to matter, so you can expose yourself to the best solution. 

Think of it as a filter.

In the production management world, factories and organizations call this the theory of constraints, in which they identify the limitation, decide how to exploit it, and then restructure everything in the system around it.

Which sound like dry, dense corporate speak––and it is––but it’s also a useful filter for approaching your creative work. The artist’s journey, after all, is a journey of revealing to yourself what you love, who you are and who you aren’t. And so, the goal of the filter is to embrace the entirety of your personality, not just your strengths. To creatively channel your liabilities, play the ball where it lies and make the most of what you’ve got.

Don’t run from your limitations, leverage them.

Constraints are catapults.