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.
Should you keep every piece of art you make? If you’re not making much quantity, it may be beneficial to keep more of it to track progress over time: The physical evidence of improvement can help inspire you to continue practicing, if having fun during the process is not enough to validate the time spent on something ‘frivolous,’ (especially as adulthood seems to bring the concern to be productive all of the time).
If you’re focusing on quantity and start to accumulate piles of artwork, you may want to consider throwing some of it away. In the Atlantic.com article Throw Your Children’s Art Away, it argues “If it’s the act of making the art that’s useful and good for children, then let this part of the art live, and then let its results die. Like its aesthetic quality, the output of children’s artistic efforts is incomplete. Throwing it away actually does everyone a favor.” And “The correct answer is to make the art, bestow it upon someone to behold and admire for a while, and then toss it.”
Children make art for fun, with minimal focus on quality because the act of making something IS the result, not the main point of the exercise. Its’s through the process of making art that you gain feedback so it almost seems irrelevant if the art is any good or is kept. The art is the means to an end in order for you to be creative. Why as adults, do we pressure ourselves to make a thing that has enough value to be kept (and admired) forever? By adopting the childlike spirit of making art and throwing it away, we release ourselves of the burden to make ‘good’ art. We become less attached to the art needing to be perfect which ultimately helps us to be more creative individuals.
Deciding to try to make art for fun as an adult is a big step and overcoming the multiple hurdles you face before picking up a pencil is a huge victory. The lack of time, material or space can be hard enough, but overcoming the fear of not being ‘good’ at art and the guilt of not spending time productively can halt all creative endeavours.
Continuing to make art regardless of the above is an act of bravery. It takes determination to face the white page and put pen to paper and create from the unknown. But once you decide to do it and you get into the flow of making, the rest will take care of itself. All you have to do is turn up at the paper and be willing to make some marks. That’s it. Don’t over complicate it by having to make something worthy of being in a gallery, that’s not what making art is about. Art making is about having fun and enjoying the process.
Just make something. ANYTHING. Nobody is watching and nobody cares if it’s ‘bad’. How will you know how creative you really are if you never give yourself permission to make any art?
“Don’t give into your fears… If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Creativity is fuelled by a sense of play but as adults, do we have to give up play in order to “grow up?” Productivity and play can be viewed as polar opposites on an imaginary ‘success’ scale. At one end there’s productivity which provides an outward marker of how ‘successful’ you are by ticking off goals and getting stuff done. At the other is play, with many people seeing as being a kids-only activity and a silly and frivolous use of time. But with so much research pointing to play being a vital component in a fulfilling personal life, as well as in business, it would be silly to ignore the benefits.
Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection says “If we want to live a Wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.” In Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist explains how, “Productivity became my idol, the thing I loved and valued above all else. We all have these complicated tangles of belief, identity and narrative. And one of the earliest stories I told about myself is that my ability to get it done is what kept me around… The world that made sense to me was a world of earning and proofing and I was getting it out just like everyone around me, frantically trying to prove my worth.”
Being seen as productive is so highly valued because of the myth that ticking boxes – i.e. on a daily basis via a to-do list – somehow relates to worthiness and self-value. The more you achieve, the more valuable you are perceived as being to others and therefore the more loveable and attractive you become. Productivity becomes a quantifiable measure of your ‘success’ in life’s uncertain chaos.
Kirsten Miliken in Playdhd suggests “As an adult there is a stigma about play. We’re trained to take things seriously, work hard and not ‘goof off.’… it is likely that you were ever encouraged to play to meet your potential, much less to have fun in an effort to be more creative, happy, energetic, and productive.” The idea that play can actually help you to achieve more, as well as being a vital tool for living a good life is an exciting one. “Play is a biological drive as crucial to our health as sleep or nutrition. Some of the key descriptions about play according to Miliken is that its purposeless (it’s done for the fun of it), voluntary, you loose track of time whilst engaging in play and your self-conscious is diminished (you don’t censor or judge yourself while playing).
Spending time playing “just because” may be the best thing you could do to improve the quality of your daily life. With creativity being fuelled by play and playing around with new ideas, play is one of the best tools you have available right now.
“It’s about playing. It’s like being innocent enough to just play without an outcome in mind.” – Sofia Munson, painter