Monday, April 9, 2012

I is for Imagination

Alphonse Maria Mucha, Poetry, 1898.
Via the Alphonse Mucha Art Gallery
...and for its elusive cousin, Inspiration. I've been reading articles over on The Creative Mind, a fascinating blog about psychology & creativity, and been getting into gentle little comment arguments on a few of the posts, which all seem to be saying, repeatedly, that it's not helpful to think about the muse or divine gifts or whatever when approaching creativity -- that waiting for inspiration to strike holds us back, that genius is not some special thing granted to the lucky few, that frustration and problem-solving make for the eureka moment and not some kind of touch from above. The thing is, I agree with all of these statements (and the articles are fascinating) -- it's just that I also believe in the muse. Not to belabor a point here, but I've said in a  few posts now that something really vital happens if we treat the things that give us the most joy and delight - like, say, our creative abilities - as gifts and not something that belongs to us by right. Does that mean I think anyone who doesn't feel "naturally inspired" should go ahead and give up art? Hell no. Listen, I woke up this morning to the sound of someone revisiting their breakfast in the alley outside my window. While that might be inspiring to some, I don't do 'gritty street humor,' and I hate the sound of vomiting. (Also, I was waking up from a dream in which I had to perform an impromptu bellydance piece with my boyfriend, which might have been okay if a little weird except that someone in the audience had just turned into a bright green zombie and was stumbling around mumbling about being hungry, which made me really nervous.) I just mean that thinking that we own our talents is as crippling as thinking that we're not responsible for them at all. (After all, if our talents are all our own, when we don't feel inspired, it's our own damn fault. You know what's crippling? Guilt, shame, and a sense of horrible failure. If you believe in the muse, you can just call her a fickle wench and go have a beer.)

"'Our digestions, for example, running sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars -- the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.'" - G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

I said Inspiration is the  elusive cousin of Imagination. Actually, I take it back. Inspiration is a species of iridescent fish that swims in the great sea that is the imagination, and I think our job as creators of art is basically to go fishing. But please, leave your industrial trawler at home. You know how a fishing trip is supposed to go, right? You go out in your little boat, you bait your line, and, well, catching fish is not really the point, is it? Even if you're a fisherman by trade, there's a lot of waiting around and enjoying the view...and then, snap, zip, you reel in your catch. And here are five ways to ensure you have a fruitful fishing trip on the vast rainbow ocean of the imaginary.

1. Get your boat. Get on the boat.

by Paul Kuczynski via Mayhem & Muse
It better be a good boat. You're going to spending a lot of time in it. And just to be totally clear what the heck I mean by boat, here -- I mean the space, both tangible and intangible, in which  you're going to be taking your creative time. This is more than just a useless breezy "create a pleasant place to work!" kinda tip. For example, I know perfectly well that if I try to write anything I care about after about 11:00 am, tough titties.  It's worse if I've actually interacted with other human beings. And if I've dawdled around on Facebook? Creative death. Trial and error has made it very clear that if I want to say anything meaningful, I need to be done saying it by around 10am. That means getting up at 7:30. I also know that I get up earlier, write better, and think more clearly if it's sunny outside. (This is why I'm moving back to California.) It's not that I can't write if I fail to get up early, or if I put it off for later; it just gets harder and harder, and half the time I end up procrastinating it altogether. If I want beautiful words that really come singing through me, I need to get up as early as I can stand, do ten minutes of yoga (which clears my head of dream fragments, wakes up my mind, and gets my blood flowing to my brain), and make myself a really good cup of coffee.

When I'm making collages or physical art pieces, though, I tend to need a four or five hour chunk in the middle of the day. I'll do some actual work (like, y'know, stuff I get paid for), eat lunch, wander around the internet for a while, clean my studio, pick my nails, whatever, until I've exhausted everything else I can possibly find to do without leaving the house. Then, and only then, do I tend to find that I'm ready to make something. As soon as I start snipping bits of paper or gluing or painting or sewing, that's it, I'm on a roll and won't stop for hours (by which I mean that I'll put off eating until I'm literally staggering because I just need to get - one - more - feather - glued.)

Figuring out that I work this way is what I mean by getting my boat. Actually doing the work is getting on my boat. That is, establish for yourself the elements that make for the best and most delightfully productive creative experiences for you, and then, well, repeat them over and over. In a sense, it's like sitting zazen: even if you're having a hard time learning how to meditate, you figure out the best time to do it, and then you go sit. You sit even if you're having a bad day or you can't relax or whatever your daily excuse is. You put yourself in the way of the creative experience. It's not guaranteeing you anything, but it's making it more likely. In other words: if you want to catch a fish, you must get in the boat.

2. Drop the line. Enjoy the view.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Peter Breughal, c. 1555.
Via Luminarium
It's widely acknowledged that most people don't go fishing to actually catch fish. Fish are a sort of pleasant side effect of the act of fishing. Let me say again: the imagination is an ocean, a magical sea made up of every image and impression that's ever come into you, swirling endlessly together into new combinations you don't even know exist, lurking somewhere in the deeps or hiding in the flare of the light out by the horizon - or right underneath you, bumping the boat. We have a hard time actually conceiving of infinity, but we can wrap our heads around the idea of something we can't see the edges of - something with dissolved boundaries, no finite borders. That's all you need. The sea of imagination is an unbounded aquarium; there's always another city just beyond the cliff, another giant octopus hiding in the hollows of the rocks. You don't need to do anything but float and keep your eyes open. Sometimes all you need is a tug on the line, the mere suggestion of an inspiration, to feel you've got everything you need for the day. Sometimes you'll be distracted by a school of flying fish that go scintillating past you until one flops right into the boat; sometimes you'll go home empty-handed and find that somehow an iridescent snail, a marvel of a thing, has lodged itself in a crevice of your hat. Sometimes you'll get a bunch of bilgewater and that's that.

But think of it this way: your job is to bring something home for dinner, anything. It doesn't matter what. You could, if you wanted, sit there with a bucket, scooping up everything that comes your way until you have a peculiar and wonderful stew or find an oyster with a pearl. If you fixate on finding one particular thing, in that vast ocean it's unlikely that you'll catch it - unless, of course, you're lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, which does occasionally happen. But if you're willing to see everything that drifts by as potentially fantastical, well, you'll have a much better chance of enjoying an unexpected moment of inspiration.

Aerial view of a bubble net, via Neutrons For Breakfast.
Or you can take a tip from the humpback whale, who uses what's called "bubble net feeding": a group of whales swims in a tightening circle around a bunch of krill, gradually enclosing them in a cylinder of bubbles. When the krill is tightly bunched, the whales suddenly swim up through the bubble net with their mouths wide, sucking 'em all in. You can do this, even in your little rowboat: it's how I think of structured procrastination, which is a fascinating technique in which you basically use your own tendency to put things off to subversively make yourself productive. In simplified terms, you use your desire to put off your bigger projects to get your smaller projects done, while your brain quietly and sub- or un-consciously works on the big project, and then when there's nothing else left, often we've got ideas or inspiration we didn't have to start with. It works because our brains often function way more awesomely than we think they do, in this case making connections and untangling problems over a period of time we spend doing something else.

John Perry, in his excellent essay originating the term, uses it to talk about accomplishing long-term writing projects, but I made use of it today on a smaller scale. I was posing for a sculpting group today, and I wanted to use the time to think about the next part of my novel. I got very quickly stuck, and my mind wandered away to thinking about how I could make a really cool stop-motion animation as a book trailer for it when it was done, thereby securing me a billion YouTube hits and an instant publishing deal. Daydreaming? Yes. Cart before horse? yes. Useless? Well - no. Because as I was busy planning the video in my mind, I got the idea for a graphic showing a bunch of my characters chasing each other up and down some paper staircases. Except there's no part of my book where that happens. And bam, zing, lightbulb, oh of course, I realized that it was the perfect symbol for the thing that has to happen next. That is to say: I went fishing. When my fish proved too slippery, I started dancing little circles around it: when my book is done, when I'm famous, when I make this vaguely-related video...and then, just like that, I'm rushing up to the surface, and there's my fish, shining and flopping in my hands.

3. Go home.
Listen, if the world wasn't full of absolutely impractically
unexpectedly awesome things, we wouldn't have sea slugs.
Photo via eBaum's World.
It's important to know when you're done. When your gut says to you that's it, that's I've got, take your boat and go home. Don't force the process; don't ruin your day. If you got nothing, so what? You never know -- just putting in the time might mean that something comes swimming along unexpectedly next fishing trip, or maybe it turns out you've got a whole sand dollar in your pocket and you didn't even know. This has to do with the idea of the muse in a very clear way for me: you can work until you weep, but epiphany is important, and it doesn't like to visit when you're angry and demanding and exhausted. No chucking whaling spears until you just goddamn hit something goddammit. You'll scare all the good fish right outta the water if you do that. Let me make it clear that I picked a fish as my image for a reason: Inspiration is slippery. Yes, sometimes typing til your fingers bleed produces results. No, the act of creation is not always about joy, or delight, or what makes you happy. Sometimes it is dark and painful and wretched and wracked. But pick those times with care. Use them when you really need them. Me, I tend to find that the moment I start ignoring the voice inside me that says it's time to quit just exactly coincides with  the moment when I'm feeling miserably like an utter noncreative failure who will never make anything again. That's when I start smacking the water. Look, leave your poor ocean alone. It's not going to reveal its mysteries to you because you yell at it.

There's a big difference between working hard and working bitterly, and while I'm all for working hard, it is vital to understand that the second you start to beat yourself up over your failure to produce is also the second that you stop being able to make anything of worth. Anything you do squeeze out in those embattled hours is likely to be sliced and soured by the violent spirit with which you went after it. Take a freaking break, already. See, because creative people tend to suffer from the stereotype that what we do isn't *really* work, a lot of us have the driving need to prove that we're productive in order to validate our lack of ordinary, acceptable productivity to the world, or our partners, or our mother, or ourselves, or to the little green demon dancing the meanie dance at the head of the bed and singing the you suck song every time we fail to produce on demand. (For more on why we seem to feel this way about creativity versus "normal" jobs, and the economics of an artistic life, I will once again vehemently recommend reading The Gift.) All the guilt and the self-flagellation is utterly and astoundingly counter-productive. So don't sit huddled in your boat until four in the morning, freezing and grumbling and eating saltines. Go home, put your boat away, and do something nice, like have a meal involving lots of fresh greens or reading a divertingly idiotic book. For the reasons why this will help, see structured procrastination, above.

4. Caught a fish? Eat with others.
My little sister, who invented the Museum of Joy.
More about her coming up in S is for Simka!
Although I am of the school of thought that believes that almost every creative person needs a good measure of solitude in order to create, I also think that to some extent every single creative act involves others - whether you're drawing on the financial or emotional support of your community, the active collaboration of partners or a team or other artists, or simply dipping into the enormous unconscious storehouse of knowledge that pervades each of us based on everything we've ever learned or seen or read. We can't create in a vacuum. We can create alone, but no matter what we make, it's got the influence of others in it. And that's fantastic. There is absolutely nothing that is not cool and froody about that at all. That external influence may extend further for some of us than others; it may color some of our individual works more than others. (For example, I wrote my novel in total solitude, but it would not exist without my father, Isaac Bashevis Singer, GK Chesterton, Bernard Malamud, Henry Miller, Leonora Carrington, Yuri Olesha, CS Lewis, or Lewis Carroll - and that's only the authors I can name in under thirty seconds. Oh, and also Chris Baty, who invented NaNoWriMo. Oh, and the drawing group I was modeling for at the time, who gave me the opportunity to stand still for six hours a week so I could dream up the plot. And - do you feel belabored by my point yet? Good.)

Although I come up with a hell of a lot of my best ideas while posing as an artist's model (seriously, there is nothing more conducive to creative thinking than standing stock still for five hours among a buncha artists - either you think interesting thoughts, or you go utterly insane with boredom and then, being insane, you think interesting thoughts - see, a win either way!) those ideas are often clarified, refined, or multiplied into a whole gleaming flock of ideas when brought into conversation. I find it helpful to talk to people who are neither exactly like-minded (you can't learn anything by defending your position against their differing perspective if their perspective doesn't differ) nor too different in their views (in which case you spend so much time defending your position that it becomes equally hard to gain anything new). Someone who is skillful at playing devil's advocate is cool or whatever, but far better to find somebody who both has strong feelings of their own and happens to be a good listener. (Yeah, good luck.)

You can read the story behind this adorable photo here.
Despite my love of argument, in recent years I've learned not to come flouncing in waving my shiny new fish around and expecting everyone to get excited. I recommend taking the collaborative cooking approach, both literally (eating delicious food together is the best conversational stimulant I know) and figuratively: you bring your fish, let your friends bring the greens and the spices and the couscous and the lemon, and dice 'em all up together and serve them forth in harmonious interaction of awesome newness. (Oh god, now I'm hungry.) Insert totally cliche clever "food for thought" joke here.

5. Don't treat your ocean like a commodity.
Yeah, that's right. You think you did this all yourself? Gimme a break. It's a totally marvelous and inexplicable thing that any of us get to make anything beautiful. Don't take it for granted - not your body that takes the world in and put the pen to paper and interprets electrical impulses and lets you taste the nectarines, not your wild and magical mind flickering faster than anything we can possibly comprehend ever, not the people who taught you and brought you here, not the weird phenomenal world constantly filtering into to our immense and unseen sea of imagination. Just say thank you. It doesn't have to be fervent or humble or profoundly spiritual or whatever. Listen, we know what happens when we treat the real, out-there-in-the-world ocean like a commodity: it gets trashed. Sure, it's big and all, but that doesn't mean we're not doing a truly stupid amount to ruin it for just about everybody and everything. And like the real ocean, it's a beautiful, compelling, complex, shifting, peculiar thing, this being creative; no matter how much we participate in it, we don't really understand it, and we certainly don't control it. So would it kill you to act like maybe it doesn't belong to you, like maybe it's --- a gift?


  1. I used my dog to describe the process once. Often, she sits around and waits for me. Just waits for me to come sit with her or play with her or whatever. When she's doing that, just waiting, that's when I take the time to do other things. However, when she hops down and starts playing by herself, tossing her chew toy around or her rope, or just rolling around on the floor, those are the times that I'm drawn to her. Basically, I look at it as if inspiration wants to come play with you as long as you're working at it.

    And I had a comment for your Easter post, but I didn't have time to leave it, and, now, I've forgotten what it was. If I have time (which is unlikely, unfortunately), I'll go back and re-read it and, maybe, I'll remember what I wanted to say.

    1. That's an AWESOME way to think about it, Andrew -- thanks for that! I dig hard on the idea of inspiration wanting to play with you. That's a really nice medium between the camps of creativity-is-the-touch-of-the-muse and creativity-is-you-own-hard-work.

      Shame about the forgotten comment, but thanks for stopping by on this one! I always enjoy what you have to say.

    2. I have to say I'm more in the camp of getting inspiration while working at it, but I do have to have those initial ideas, and they always come while I'm doing something else. In that respect, it is a melding of the two concepts.

  2. Oh, I like this a lot. I often find that I get much too hung up on being 'productive' and forget to have fun. It wasn't always that way. It used to be more about the journey than the final destination. But somewhere along the line, I've become more and more focused on results (word count, deadlines, blah blah blah). Maybe it's time to let myself relax and do a bit of exploring instead of hurrying from A to B.

    1. Part of the reason I wrote this post is that I get hung up on productivity as well -- getting it done because I need to or I'm supposed to -- and I was hoping to recall *myself* to a sense of discovery and excitement as much as anyone else. Glad to hear it's touched you too.

  3. Dang. I needed this today.
    Most excellent post.

  4. Nice post. Very inspiring and full of ass-kicking goodness. Especially the end. I have a tendency to take imagination for granted. I need to stop doing that.

    Just stopping by from the A to Z challenge. Good luck with the rest!

    1. Thank you! Can't imagine anything I'd rather have my writing be than "full of ass-kicking goodness." That's a swell turn of phrase. Looking forward to visiting your blog as soon as I have a moment to breathe! In the meantime, good luck!

  5. Thanks for your stimulating article, and for linking to a couple of my Creative Mind posts. You inspired me to write a new post on my main site:
    Embracing Our Creative Abilities and Inspirations as Gifts

    1. Whoa! First of all, I'm honored to have been an inspiration (ha) and thank you for quoting me so richly in your post! Secondly, what an awesome post it was! I hadn't thought about the literal nature of inspiration as breathing in/taking in the world until reading that, and I'm very excited to explore more of what Dr. Piirto has to say! Thanks for an excellent, and yes, very inspiring continuation!


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