We've all seen it in movies and TV shows: the lone poet with his back against a tree, nestled in the tall grass with a moleskin notebook open across his lap. He let's inspiration wash over him as he "takes it all in" and suddenly, the sonnets and bucolic prose start to fill the page. How about the starving artist who wakes up in the middle of the night? She's frantically searching for a piece of paper and pen because the image of a masterful work of art has suddenly appeared to her and she has to get it out before it's gone forever. Clearly, this is just the way "creative types" work, right? They posses some innate sense that you're either born with or without and if you're lucky enough to count yourself among the select few, then creativity just sort of...happens. Not quite.
While these romanticized Hollywood depictions of the "creative spark" may occasionally happen, the truth of the matter is that they are the exception, not the norm. Real creativity stems from hard work and practice, not chance and whimsy. It's claimed that Frank Lloyd Wright drafted his designs for Fallingwater in under two hours. Whether that claim "holds water" or not, it could not have happened without years of hard work honing his craft. Wright "entered the University of Wisconsin at 15, designed about 1,000 structures, and worked for several architectural offices until he finally found a job". An allegedly drunken Mozart composed the entire overture for his famed "Don Giovanni" the night before it opened! Guess what? This was not his first rodeo. Despite his unmistakable talent, Mozart had been developing his skills from the ripe old age of four. Undeniably, these famous artists had creative vision that most of us can hardly hold a candle to. Yet it was the strong foundation of hard work, persistence, and determination that allowed their creativity to flourish as it did. Since these are things we can all do, it begs the question: Why isn't everyone a creative genius? One word: Resistance.
The Creativity Killer
Novelist Steven Pressfield devotes an entire book, The War of Art, to this subject. In his definition/personification of it, "Resistance" is attributed a suite of less than savory characteristics. "Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled, but it can be felt. Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves...in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within. Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. Resistance cannot be reasoned with. It is an engine of destruction...with one object only: to keep us from doing our work."
So yeah...it's safe to say Mr. Pressfield is certainly not a fan of this "resistance". Frankly, if you strive to cultivate your creativity, you shouldn't be either! This unstoppable force is everywhere and anywhere and it can't be beaten, but it can be mitigated and kept at bay. In the next few paragraphs we'll go over how to: Identify, Control, and Overcome this vile force majeure.
Know it when you see it. Resistance can take many forms both externally and internally. It can come from friends or family who invite you out on the night you wanted to get some work done. A schedule that is so busy and cluttered that you can't seem to find a moments peace. Those pesky chores that you keep putting off and are now piling up. Resistance is lurking behind every Facebook notification, every Instagram like, and every Snapchat filter that steals precious seconds from the task at hand. These disruptions and distractions do nothing but stall your progress and interrupt your creativity. Then there's the resistance that you create. That nagging voice in your head that says "You've been working on this for hours with nothing to show for it. Just give it up." Or maybe, "I'm just not feeling it today, tomorrow I'll do more." You may compromise with yourself, make excuses for why you haven't met your deadlines, met your goals, practiced your craft as much as you'd like to. Maybe that five-minute coffee break turns into 20 minutes. Whatever the case may be, anything, I repeat ANYTHING that keeps you from doing your work, accomplishing your goals, or honing your craft is "resistance" and if you want to grow your creativity it can't be tolerated.
Grab the reigns. Like any problem that needs resolving, once you identify it; once you've given it a face, now it can be tamed. Take a close look at yourself and your work. Find out where those shreds of resistance are lurking, then attack them. Can you cut out any unnecessary distractions? Can you streamline any processes to buy more time or improve the flow of tasks? Set your working hours and stick to them. Having a schedule gives you control, structure, and the added confidence of knowing what you're going to do and when you will do it. You may only have 1 hour a day to focus on your creative endeavors, but in that 1 hour focus everything you have into a clear and concise goal. Turn off your phone if you have to, set up up your office in a secluded spot in or out of your house. Keep your workshop clean, or your studio organized. Do everything in your power to enable work to happen. Do it often enough and it becomes habit. I mentioned earlier that resistance cannot be beaten. It is always there. With our desire to create, invent, design, and build comes the craving to relax, unwind, be lazy, and let go- resistance. The stronger our creative passions, the greater the resistance we're met with. However, staying focused, holding ourselves accountable, and setting clear goals can all help us to keep resistance at bay. That's when the magic happens.
The light at the end of the tunnel. A sculptor may spend countless hours chiseling away at a formless hunk of rock. His blistered hands ache, his tools dull, and still the rock remains; a rock and nothing more. Eventually, he reaches a point when it literally starts to "take shape". Now, with renewed vigor, he continues chipping away. The curves soften, the details sharpen, and it seems as if all of a sudden the rock comes to life! The sculptor finds himself staring in disbelief at the work of his own hands, the tangible fruits of his creative efforts. Likewise, our own creative skill can often feel like a shapeless hunk of rock: burdensome, impossible to form, unchanging. As we've learned, that's just resistance taking hold. Once we get the upper hand on it, then and only then can we begin to truly hone our creativity; to allow it to "take shape". Often you'll find that it's only after hours of trudging through your work that your creativity starts to take off. It's the 20th design for a coffee table that speaks to you, the 100th photo you've edited that blows you away, the 15th hour of writing and rewriting that final chapter when it all comes together. It will happen. Just keep chipping away.
While you're busy chipping, here are a few tips to stack the cards in your favor. Some things you can do to help breathe life into your creative skill:
- WORK - Don't stop doing. Keep busy working on your craft. Start from the beginning and put in the time to really learn the skills necessary to help develop your creative thinking. Pretty soon, you'll find that muse and the ideas will come.
- DON'T RUSH - Though deadlines may be looming over you, good ideas need time to be refined. Look at it from different angles (figuratively and literally if it applies), get others' opinions on it, combine it with other ideas. Clay doesn't dry immediately, mold it while you still have time.
- EMBRACE THE CONSTRAINTS - Often it's the limits we're given that spur our imagination. It's difficult to come up with brilliant ideas from thin air, but sometimes limitations can act as guidelines for us, essentially ridding our brain of unnecessary thoughts and allowing us to focus all of our attention on the remaining options.
- WELCOME FAILURES - Everybody messes up. Everybody. Get out of your comfort zone and push your creative limits. Try new techniques, new materials, new collaborations. Do something no one else is doing and accept that it may fail, but always, always...always learn from your mistakes. What can you improve upon? What worked, what didn't? What did you learn about yourself?
No matter the outcome, stay positive
I am not a world renowned furniture builder. You may not be a New York Times best seller, an award-winning actor, musician, painter, or photographer. So what? Creativity should be a form of self-expression and as long as you are giving your all, you will improve. You will keep resistance at bay, and you should take comfort in that. It is a long, arduous road to "creative enlightenment", and one I hope never ends. Yet, you'll never know what lies down that path for you if you don't take that first step. So, crawl, walk, skip, jump, run. Do whatever you can to get to the end of that road. I'll see you there.
Here are some extra goodies for those extra credit seekers!