The flow experience of making art

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Have you ever been so immersed in a task that you lost track of time or your surroundings? You may have unknowingly been in a flow state, explained fully in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Szentmihalyi: “The flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control – or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about loosing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.” In order for flow to take place, you need to be focused on a task that isn’t too hard you can’t ever achieve in, nor too easy that there’s no challenge. Effort has to take place in order for flow to occur. “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” If a task is too easy, long term it won’t provide you with enough stimulus to continue so the challenge becomes how can you increase the difficulty of a task as your confidence and skills improve?

But how can flow help with an art-making practice? Full immersion into a task quietens the mind’s chatter – negative thoughts or unhelpful comments – that can railroad you if you pay them too much attention. Szentmihalyi explains “In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. “Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?” Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because action carries us forward as if by magic.”

The feeling of being in flow is very rewarding and brings a sense of satisfaction about your work. If “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing”, then giving yourself the space and time to make art, you increase the chances of experiencing the benefits of flow.

A stepping back, incubation approach to problem solving

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Physically stepping away from your work when you feel stuck can help you find a solution more effectively compared to focusing all your attention on the project and grinding away to force an outcome. This is something Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc. talks about: “I’ve heard some people describe creativity as ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas!” If that’s at all true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections. So when I sense we’re getting nowhere, I just shut things down. We all go off to something else. Later, once the mood has shifted, I’ll attack the problem again.”

It might look like you’ve stopped thinking about the project, but the break actually allows your subconscious to work on it without you getting in the way by force-thinking a solution. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in Creativity describes an incubation stage in the creative process “during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made.”

Given that the subconscious – the unconscious mind – makes up 90% of your total brain function, it’s actually a richer and wiser resource to draw from. Russell L. Colling and Tony W. York explain “The unconscious mind contains knowledge accumulated in various ways throughout life. The vast storehouse contains past experiences… the reservoir of total memory and intuitive judgment.”

Csikzentmihalyi continues “When we intend to solve a problem consciously, we process information in a linear, logical fashion. But when ideas call to each other on their own, without our leading them down a straight and narrow path, unexpected combinations may come into being.”

A stepping back, incubation approach is actually a more effect way to work on a problem than a nose-to-the-grindstone hustle, so give your wise subconscious the chance to help you.

Slowing down and puttering around

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Slowing down for even 10 minutes to do nothing or to make art may seem like an indulgence if you don’t have space. Or it may seem like a waste of time when you could be being productive instead. But they are valuable ways you can recharge and reconnect to yourself which allows you to be more productive in the long run. Because the more rundown and busy you are, the less you have to give of yourself and the less productivity you inevitably become.

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less explains “Doing nothing, puttering around, and lingering were all things I considered a waste of time. Even though I’d indulge from time to time, I felt bad about it. As if because I wasn’t actually contributing, I was letting people down.” Shauna Niequist in Present over Perfect says “… the hustle will never make you feel the way you want to feel. In that way it’s a drug, and I fall for the initial rush every time: If I push enough, I will feel whole, I will feel proud, I will feel happy. What I feel though, is exhausted and resentful, but with well organized closets.”

Making art allows you to slow down and spend time with yourself in a way you can’t do when you’re engaging (distracted) with your phone or device. Pico Iyer in an podcast interview with Oprah talks of the art of stillness: “In an age of speed I begin to think nothing could be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” Making art forces you pay attention; to the world outside and to your inner world.

Iyer continues “I think we’re more happy when we forget the time, when we’re completely absorbed in the conversation or movie or piece of music and what we really crave is intimacy… and kindness… If you don’t have time, you don’t have enough kindness in your life. You don’t have the chance to open yourself up.” Being completely absorbed in a task is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about in Flow: “The positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I can flow.”

Slowing down and making art is much more important than we realise, or have been taught. Allow yourself to ‘indulge’ in slowing down and reconnect to your creativity so you can come back refreshed and reenergised to your everyday life.

Signs of adversity and giving up

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

It’s easier to give up making art if you feel the results aren’t ‘good enough.’ It’s harder to continue to practice, especially if progress feels too slow. But doing doing the harder thing causes it to become easier over time. That’s if you allow yourself time to practice so your creativity muscle can strengthen.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow says “When people start believing that progress is inevitable and life easy, they may quickly lose courage and determination in the face of the first signs of adversity.”

At the first sign of things being hard, don’t sabotage your creativity by stopping. It’s okay that it’s hard so accept it’s going to be hard and make your art anyway. Time and practice is the antidote.

Downtime and busyness

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Do you currently schedule in regular downtime or time to quietly reflect? Taking a breather from work and “doing” may actually help you to be more creative compared with constant work and taking action – aka busyness. Spending time away from work, chores and responsibilities is not self-indulgent, it’s vital for our wellbeing.

Shonda Rhimes in Year of Yes talks about how important downtime has become “this downtime is helping to relight that little spark inside, it’s helping my creativity and in the long run helping me tell the stories my work needs me to tell. I give myself permission to view this downtime as essential.” When there always feels like there’s something you should be doing, giving yourself permission to have regular downtime can feel unobtainable. Rhimes admits that “It’s hard to feel like I deserve any time to replenish the well when I know everyone else is working hard too.” But in order to avoid burnout later down the track, downtime is, as she says, essential.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi in Creativity explains that “constant busyness” not good for your creativity. “It is important to schedule times in the day, the week, and the year just to take stock of your life and review what you have accomplished and remains to be done. These are times when you should not expect any task to be done, and decision to be reached. You should just indulge in the luxury of reflection for its own sake.” If you find it difficult to let go of your busyness because you believe you’ll be less efficient, Czikszentmihalyi argues that the opposite may occur for your creativity: “Whether you intend it or not, new ideas and conclusions will emerge in your consciousness anyway – and the less you try to direct the process the more creative they are likely to be.”

Your creativity will thank you for slowing down and having a rest.

The conversion of the negative

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Avoiding negative feelings while making art can be counterproductive to your growth. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity says “every feeling that you have, every negative feeling, is in a way precious. It is your building material, it’s your stone, it’s something you use to build your work.”

He explains the idea of conversion of the negative as being a valuable tool in the creative process and that pain has value: “the conversion of the negative is very important. So I taught myself what I try to teach my students who are becoming writers: don’t duck pain. It’s precious, it’s your gold mine, it’s the gold in your mine.”

While it’s uncomfortable to have negative thoughts about while making art, it offers valuable self reflection and fuel to move forwards. From the negative – frustration about something “not working” – comes a spark of inspiration about what to do next. By rushing through the negative, you may skip vital insights that allows you to grow as an artist.

Not working, play and fascination in the creative process

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Interesting insight into the writing process from author/musician/screenwriter Jeremy Dyson via his interview on The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast by Stuart Goldsmith (Episode 241 – Jeremy Dyson 3/4/2018). While he speaks from a writers perspective, it’s relevant to any creative field. ‘Not-working,’ incorporating play and being fascinated with what you’re doing are key themes.

Preparing the soil:

“So much of the work of writing happens when you are not doing it… you’re not actually doing the work, you’re preparing the soil and the work happens when you’re not thinking about it.”

Balancing work and play:

“…the creative process, it’s always a dance between both [work and play] and you’ve got to get them in the right amount. You can’t just have the hard work without the play because it’s deadly and you can’t just have the play without the discipline of a tangible date when the show’s going to be on… because you won’t do anything.”

Your best work:

“It’s about what have you got to offer, what’s particular to you that’s gong to be interesting to other people. And again it’s not mild interest, it’s passion, absolute fascination. What’s your obsession? And that’s where you do, I think, your best work, that’s where you’ve got to be.”

Creatives constantly sat at a desk ‘working hard’ is an outdated idea when it comes to producing good art. Engaging in conversations, thinking, dreaming and pottering around can allow your brain to think more divergently compared to actively thinking hard about what you should make next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity explains “This does not mean that creative persons are hyperactive, always “on”, constantly churning away… They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work… a strategy for achieving their goals.”

Also the interviewer and comedian Stuart Goldsmith made an interesting comment about the joy of discovery:

“The first half is very enjoyable, it’s a strong show. The second half… does occasionally make me think that I should just do work-in-progress for the rest of my life. I think it suits my energy. As soon as something becomes fixed I find myself going “Well that is fixed and I know how this works.” And it works, it really works, it’s great fun, but it doesn’t contain the same joy of discovery for me and I think maybe I’m a joy of discovery person.”

Can you learn to find joy in the journey of creating where learning and developing is the goal, instead of just focusing on the finished, final artwork? The process of discovery is a richer experience when you haven’t figured everything out.