Saturday, November 10, 2007

If you want to be creative, it pays to be organised

So you start the day full of enthusiasm. You’re excited about a new piece of creative work and itching to put your ideas into action. Firing up your computer, the familiar stream of e-mails pours into your inbox, burying the ones you didn’t get round to replying to yesterday. Scanning through the list, your heart sinks – two of them look as though they require urgent action. You hit ‘reply’ and start typing a response to one of them… 20 minutes later you ‘come round’ and realise you’ve got sucked into the e-mail zone and have been sidetracked by interesting links sent by friends, as well as writing replies about issues that aren’t a priority for you. You minimize the e-mail window and get back to your project…
After 15 minutes you’re really enjoying yourself, getting into your creative flow – when the phone rings. Somebody wants something from you. Something to do with a meeting last week. You rummage through the papers on your desk, searching for your notes. You can’t find them. Suddenly your heart leaps as you lift up a folder and find an important letter you’d forgotten about – it needed an urgent response, several days ago. ‘Hang on, I’ll get back to you’ you tell the person on the phone, ‘I’ll ring you back when I’ve found it’. You put the phone down and pick up the letter – this needs sorting immediately, but you remember why you put it off – it involves several phone calls and hunting through your files for documents you’re not sure you even kept. By now, you’ve only got half an hour before your first meeting and you’ve promised to ring that person back. Your design stares at you reproachfully. The e-mail inbox is pinging away as it fills up – already there are more messages than before you started answering them. Your enthusiasm has nosedived and the day has hardly begun. Creative work seems like a distant dream.
Is this a familiar scenario for you? Swap the design software for a wordprocessor and I’ve been there a hundred times. In an ideal world we’d be putting all our time and energy into creative work, but the realities of modern work often seem to be conspiring against us. And in lots of ways the scenario is getting worse. The wonderful thing about modern technology is the amount of communication and information-sharing it facilitates. And the awful thing about modern technology is the amount of communication and information-sharing it facilitates. We are deluged with new information and connections, via telephones, webcams, instant messengers, e-mail, websites, blogs, newsletters, wikis, and social networking technology. The list gets longer every year. And with Blackberry and the mobile internet you can have data and demands coming at you 24/7. No wonder people are starting to run workshops on ‘digital stress’.

All of which is bad enough whatever your line of work. But if you’re a professional artist or creative, it’s even more damaging. Concentration is essential for creative work - certain stages of the creative process require single-minded focus on the task in hand. When we’re really in the zone, we experience ‘creative flow’ – the ‘almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness’ that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified as characteristic of high-level creative performance. Interruptions, multi-tasking and the anxiety that comes from trying to juggle multiple commitments – these are in danger of eroding the focused concentration that is vital for your creativity.

If you’re worried about the effect of all those interruptions, frustrations and distractions on your creative work, this series is for you. Over the next seven posts I will offer you some principles and practical methods for maintaining your creative focus under pressure, and for managing the stream of information and demands so that it informs and stimulates your creativity instead of drowning it out.

And that means being organised.

There, I’ve said it. Organisation, structure, discipline and habit – these often seen as threats to creativity. Not to mention corporate-sounding phrases such as ‘time management’ or ‘workflow’. We like to think of creativity as a space for untrammelled imagination, free from all constraints. Yet while freedom, rule-breaking and inspiration are undoubtedly essential to the creative process, the popular image of creativity overlooks another aspect: examine the life of any great artist and you will find evidence of hard work, discipline and a hard-won knowledge of the rules and conventions of their medium. Choreographer Twyla Tharp, who directed the opera and dance scenes for the film Amadeus, has this to say about the film’s portrait of Mozart:

The film Amadeus dramatizes and romanticizes the divine origins of creative genius. Antonio Salieri, representing the talented hack, is cursed to live in the time of Mozart, the gifted and undisciplined genius who writes as though touched by the hand of God… Of course this is hogwash. There are no ‘natural’ geniuses… No-one worked harder than Mozart. By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose… As Mozart himself wrote to a friend, “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”
This passage is taken from Tharp’s excellent book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, in which she argues that ‘routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more’. It’s an inspiring, challenging and very practical book that deserves a space on the shelf of anyone who takes their creative work seriously.

I’m not suggesting that all artists and creatives need to be ‘organised’ in a way that would satisfy a corporate boss. You might get up at noon and work at home in your dressing gown, in a pigsty of a living room. You might check into a different hotel room every day and work on the bed. Your creative process and working habits might look like total chaos to an outsider, but if they work for you, that’s all that matters. And there will be some method in the madness – patterns in your daily activities that are vital to your creativity. These are the things you need to do to keep your imagination alive – whether it’s sitting at a desk by 6am, using the same pen, notebook or make of computer, hitch-hiking across America, putting rotten apples in your desk so that the scent wafts into your nostrils as you work, or sitting in your favourite café with a glass of absinthe.

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