June 1, 2016

The Secret to Creative Thinking


Typically I aim to keep personal "feeling reflections" on this blog to a minimum. But every once in a while, personal style is interrupted with personal life. The first sign of it is writer's block. Usually there's something inspiring me, but on days like these, my mind is pure static. Then something starts to nag at me -- a mosquito of a feeling vying noisily for my attention -- and I know there's nothing to do but to sit with it, pause all hope of creativity, and let the beast have its way with my brain. It's a tricky business; when writing is the preferred method of arranging your thoughts, the sensation of not being able to write is agitating. But I thought I'd let myself run with it.

To begin with, summer came stampeding through NYC this week, and boy was no one kidding about the heat here. Already 88 degrees and with enough humidity to envelop every square inch of me in a permanent sweat... I've had to break out my summer capsule items nearly a month ahead of schedule, and I've abandoned the notion that my relationship with shorts was over. Apart from the sticky hours spent outside my apartment, last weekend saw me in exactly three positions: partially-submerged in the fridge, foraging for something frosty; spread-eagled before my bedroom fan, reaching for the coolest corner of the bedsheets, and draped over our living room couch with the only adequate match for such prematurely sultry nights: John Hamm in Mad Men.

It's humorous in theory, but in reality I'm facing a seasonal demon. Whether it's a heatwave or a cold front, as soon as my body temperature goes out of whack, I lose all sense of personal motivation. And this particular cycle comes at the end of a list of ever-growing obstacle-excuses: I just moved to a new city, It's the holidays, It's the new year, I'm moving to a new apartment, I'm decorating the new apartment, I have guests in town, I need a haircut... While it's true I've felt a sense of excitement, possibility, and genuine contentment since coming to New York, I've been overlooking some anxieties and uncertainties which accompany those positive feelings. I understand how important it is to forgive ourselves when we're in the midst of a stressful, new life transition -- but how do we tell when it's time to snap out of it, put our helmet back on, and face the fray?

Spending time alone and in pursuit of my own agenda has always brought me great joy -- a fact I used to regard as incontestable proof I was born to be a writer. I could spend hours reading books, writing nonsense, coloring, organizing papers, daydreaming scenes, taking inventory, making lists, placing and rearranging belongings... At the end of the day, it didn't matter whether I'd produced something interesting or not, just that I had enjoyed the process of letting my brain wander. These days (like most people), I'm prone to gauging that joy off more external measurements -- dollar signs, work hours, and heart icons. In theory, we all know such measuring is frivolous. Yet we nevertheless hold ourselves to these standards. Then we blame and we expect and we feel wanting from it. And we sprawl on the couch and lose ourselves in Mad Men over it. And rarely do we ever try to examine it further.

So I sat myself in front of my laptop (in front of my fan...), willing myself to open my mind -- to ask whatever questions I've been afraid to ask, to confront this thing that had purloined my creative motivation -- in hopes that I might not miss the lesson this time. Suddenly, as I stared at the end of my last paragraph, willing a conclusive moral to appear, I realized the answer was staring me in the face: I'd just written the post I thought I was incapable of writing today. My creativity was sparked not by defeating, but by simply engaging with my idleness.
 
It occurred to me that I couldn't exploit this same insight every time I hit a creative block. But by accepting my moment of inactivity, I resurrected a creative amulet: inquiry. I began to ponder how this could be applied to other moments of creative idleness. If we are lazy to paint, might we challenge ourselves to paint "Laziness"? If we are fatigued in our rehearsal, might we let a floppy limb manifest itself in a character's physicality? If we are uninspired to cook, might we simply ponder the ingredients until curiosity tells us what's for dinner?

Next time I'm staring into a whirring fan in search of artistic purpose, I have a better idea what to do. I'll take a breath of that air, let it vaporize a question in my brain, and set about answering exploring the question. And that's all. For the first moment, that will be enough.

This is the great secret, I think.