I’ve gone to a couple of silent retreats, including a 10-day Vipassana course and a month-long stay at a Zen monastery. Over the years, folks have asked me if that sort of retreat was hard or said that they just couldn’t imagine enjoying silence and introversion. As someone who lives pretty intensely in her head, this is nuts to me. I get to hang out with my thoughts! My thoughts are like a wonderful interesting puzzle, like a great tangled necklace that I get to tease out.
That said, there is a definite downside that I’m experiencing to my active interior life: those ideas tend to bounce around in my skull with so much energy, but then get trapped in there. Especially when I’m excited about the ideas I’m engaging with, I end up revving my engine and getting manic. Everyone that I trust who gets near me gets an earful of the bubbling soup of ideas on my mental stove, as my arguments and ideas get processed. This is fine, but sometimes I don’t move on to doing something with those ideas by putting them in writing or out into the world. That seals my happy brain kitchen off from fresh air, turning my thought process into a pressure cooker.
There are a ton of really interesting things I’m learning and doing: I’m running a business for the first time, I’m working with a team of people to create our vision of what a local newspaper can be, I’m supporting my partner in building a home, I’m working on a masters degree in a program that introduces me to dozens of people working in my field and then I’m also learning chess, playing terrible violin, keeping in touch with my family, project managing a video project, thinking about starting another media company, doing maintenance on my life, and planning on shooting a 10-minute short horror movie with my partner. Woof.
It’s all good stuff, but lately I’ve been able to feel the pressure building. A couple of my grad school assignments have gotten stuck in that mental kitchen. I find myself basically narrating a term paper with crazy intensity to my partner or my family instead of just processing what I want to say and writing it down. I end up sounding, I think, a bit like the stereotypical deranged detective or conspiracy theorist with the string mindmap on the wall…except talking about media theory.
Check out this piece from Esquire on media depictions of a “crazy wall” or “big board”
This isn’t so uncommon. A lot of well-known books like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and others identify this transition between the thinking stage and the doing stage as one of the most common places to get lost in the creative process. Sidenote: there are an absolute ass-ton of books on business plans and productivity and some are very good, but books that target writers and creative professionals speak about this way more articulately. Or maybe they just resonate with me more?
I don’t want to be the deranged detective permanently, so I’ve decided to commit to pushing my thoughts outward and turning toward the public. I like this inside/outside feeling. Years ago, I made a playlist of aggressive rap from women and called it “It’s okay to turn outward,” meaning I suppose that I can give myself permission to be public and aggressive and confident. It brings to mind a funny anecdote about Catherine of Siena, a female mystic that Carole Lee Flinders writes about in Enduring Grace (which is a lovely book particularly for nonbelievers like me).
Catherine wrote about having continual visions of Jesus while she was living in her family home (which Flinders calls “the sweetness of contemplative life”) until one day her vision of Jesus stood outside the house and said he wouldn’t come in and wouldn’t see her again.
“The service you cannot do me you must render to your neighbors,” the vision said, according to Catherine. In other words, turn outwards and be public.
I’m not looking for Jesus nor am I currently a shut in, but I think this story is again about the hard turn from contemplation, which I love, to action or creation. Really, maybe the best word is communication, the turn from thinking to expressing and sharing an idea with others.
Artist and educator Jessica Abel does some work that has been helpful for me, identifying stages of what she calls the “Creative Engine.” I first came across her on the What Works podcast with Tara McMullin and enough of what she said rang true to me that I went a bit deeper into her process.
Collection is the initial stage of a creative process, where you are researching and ruminating. Maybe you are building skill sets or taking training that will help move you forward.
Twyla Tharpe writes memorably about this stage in The Creative Habit, another great book on the creative process. Tharpe writes that she began her choreography projects by starting to add whatever ephemeral material or notes she had to a large box: a pretty blunt metaphor but a good one!
“The box is not a substitute for creating,” Tharpe writes. “The box doesn’t compose or write a poem or create a dance step. The box is the raw index of your preparation. It is the repository of your creative potential, but it is not that potential realized.“
This is the stage that I personally love (like a lot of people), it’s dreamy and future-focused and can feel very intense. It’s not necessarily a lazy stage, as for me, collection is a lot or research and a lot of thinking strategically in my mind. I turn ideas over and over until I feel I’ve mastered them. However, it’s possible I mistake this step for the whole shebang of creating something, to be honest.
“Sadly, some people never get beyond the box stage in their creative life,” writes Tharpe, noting that she herself doesn’t know what’s going with people who can’t take the next step. Abel has an answer for that: people are trying to skip the stage of Decision, which might be better termed ‘commitment’.
I am one of the people who try to skip the decision stage, when you intentionally and consciously choose to focus your efforts in a single direction. This means realistically committing to a project, making priorities and plans and potentially bringing collaborators in. (Maybe Tharpe feels commitment when she begins a box?). Abel identifies this as the prime place that people’s projects go awry.
“It takes strategic planning to move from one phase to another,” Abel says, “That’s when you face context-switching costs.”
I make a lot of decisions but, examining my process, I don’t have a very good or intentional process for doing that with intention or making a steady and stable long-term plan. It’s a combination of what I think I have capacity for and what is easy or if there is an obvious next step. That makes it very hard to involve others or delegate because I don’t really have a specific, granular plan.
The next steps Abel identifies are Acting and Reflecting. Acting is breaking down the project into do-able steps, putting those steps into a calendar and building a support system for the daily work that goes toward this goal. Reflecting is when you come to a natural conclusion and pull back to learn from your experience and progress.
Again, I don’t have a great set rubric for reflecting, often just remembering if something was stressful or not after a project was done. I really use my moods and emotions to judge the success or failure of a thing, which seems strange now that I think about it. It means that I’m sensitive to all feedback from others since I don’t have an inner barometer of success. I’d do well to change this.
First, though, is that turning outwards and taking the bubbling pot of my brain’s thoughts outside. Ladling them out like soup to poor hungry suckers like you reading this, perhaps! I’m committing to writing here five times a week, posting at least a few hundred words on something I’m thinking about that has ties to media studies, the creative process or my masters program in journalism and media. That’s a decision!
“Deciding is the hardest thing to do cognitively, it takes the most energy,” says Abel. She points out that if you are stuck in deciding, it’s likely that you know what you want to do but it feels too large and you want to perfect the idea in private. That old detective in the basement trying to figure it out. There’s also something in there that speaks to a lack of trust in others, a presumption that others won’t believe you.
Jessica Abel has a ton more to say on the creative process. I recommend checking her out at http://www.jessicaabel.com. Her work also reminds me of Jim Munroe, a Canadian anarchist and writer who created a weird and kind of terrible flash video-turned-comic book back in 2003/2005 called Time Management for Anarchists which I’ve been fond of for, like, a decade. Here’s his original summary of the presentation. I think the Flash animation is dead?
Anyway, it’s a start.
- Time Management for Anarchists, Jim Munroe (2003)
- Decoding The Detective’s ‘Crazy Wall’, Richard Benson (2015)
- The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharpe (2003)
- Autonomous Creative with Jessica Abel
- Enduring Grace: Seven Living Portraits of Female Mystics, Carol Lee Flinders
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