Creativity | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

I’m Back And Ready To Explore

I’ll start by thanking everyone who’s checked in with me during my month-long absence from blogging — that really brought home to me that I’ve made some genuine connections in the blogging world, and it’s not all just about “one hand washing the other” and “you scratching my back and me scratching yours” and collectively achieving A-List Social Media Superstardom.  :)

The explanation for my absence is that, for a long time, I just didn’t feel inspired to write.  The way I was writing simply wasn’t fully bringing out who I am.  There are aspects of me — particularly my wild, spontaneous part — that my structured, “prescriptive” style of writing wasn’t making use of, and that was frustrating to me.

I thought and agonized about this for a while, and finally came to a resolution.   I just needed to try a different kind of creative expression for a while, and find something that did bring out those parts that wanted to be seen.  I didn’t need to stop writing altogether, but I needed to take a little detour.

So, I’ve been exploring for a bit, and trying some new stuff.  I’ve been working on a computer game with a friend that focuses on what Stone Age spirituality might have been like.  :)  I’ve also done some videos I’d like to share with you.

At Least I Feel Alive

I’ve received all kinds of reactions to these videos so far — from “I had to lie down after watching these” to “I don’t get this at all.”  Wherever your reactions are on that spectrum, they’re welcome here (if you like them, I’d appreciate a “Like” on YouTube).

One thing I’ve noticed is that people’s reactions to my creative work, no matter what they are, always help me feel alive.  It’s not always a blissful kind of aliveness — it may be a “fight or flight” kind of aliveness, for example, when someone talks to me in a way that seems critical and attacking.

But one thing is certain — when I’m getting feedback on projects I’m invested in, and feeling the emotions that come with it, it’s impossible for me to go through my day in a numb and robotic way, as I can from time to time.  I’m sure to feel a lot of rich sensation — and learning to embrace intense sensation, instead of turning away from it, is what my own growth and exploration, and the work I share with others, are about.

Without further ado, here are the videos.  I’ll be doing a lot more writing shortly, and I’m looking forward to catching up with those of you I haven’t connected with in a while.

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 5: Emptiness Is Fleeting

I do something kind of unusual when I’m writing.  (I know, shockingly enough.)  I keep a journal of what I’m feeling and thinking when I’m faced with writer’s block.

To an outside reader, this journal would probably seem painfully repetitive, because it talks about the same worries again and again.  Some common themes are:

* “I think I had the last decent idea of my life a few days ago, and the well has officially run dry.”

* “I’m not sure I have the brain cells left to do this kind of piece anymore.”

* “I’m never going to finish this article — I might as well delete it.”

Why would I want to keep an angst-filled journal like this?  Because I’m a masochist?

I’ve Been Through It All Before

Actually, this has been one of the most helpful techniques I’ve discovered in a while for staying focused and motivated as I write.  The fact that the journal sounds like such a broken record is really what makes it so helpful.

Why?  Because the goal of this journal is to remind me that, no matter how much hand-wringing I may be doing as I’m writing something, I’ve been through it before.  There’s no moment of blankness, doubt about the originality of what I’m saying, or concern that I’ve “lost my mojo” that I haven’t experienced in the past.

And yet, even in the face of those doubts and fears, I’ve managed to finish my piece.

On one level, this is simply a reminder that I have the strength to handle whatever writing-induced suffering I’m going through.  But at a deeper level, it’s a way to keep in mind that, just like every experience we have as human beings, that creative blankness we call writer’s block is fleeting.  It passes away quickly.

From Black Hole to Break Time

My sense, from looking inside myself and talking to people, is that a lot of the suffering we do around writer’s block happens when we worry that it will never go away.  That sense that we’re empty of ideas can actually be kind of scary — almost as if the emptiness might grow and swallow us up if we let it.

Naturally, many of us tend to write in fits and starts, running off to fold our socks or play Solitaire when the emptiness arises.  Unfortunately, when we write this way, we usually don’t make as much progress as we’d like.

But when we keep in mind that the emptiness is fleeting, those blank moments become so much easier to be with.  Instead of looking like a black hole threatening to devour us, that blankness starts to seem more like a welcome moment of rest before we unleash our creative energies again — just as our bodies naturally cycle between waking and sleeping.

I think “this too shall pass” is a great mantra for moments when we’re feeling creatively empty, just as it is in other parts of life.

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 4: We’re Creative In Every Moment

(This piece was inspired by one of the many heart-opening conversations I had with Robin in the comments to an earlier post.)

There’s a lot of advice out there about “how to be creative.”  On the surface, this sounds great — everybody wants to come up with useful and profitable ideas, right?  But when I look more closely at this kind of advice, and what drives us to seek it out, I feel concerned.

On one level, none of us needs to be taught how to create. In every moment, we’re creating (or, at least, playing a part in creating) our lives.  We’re choosing where to go, what to eat, what to say in a conversation, and so on.  We make many of these choices unconsciously, but that doesn’t change the fact that we make them.

Yet, somehow, I doubt this would satisfy most people looking for creativity tips.  As someone I know who often complains about her “lack of creativity” put it:  “sure, I choose the words I use when I’m talking, but so what?  Everybody does that.”

Being Creative and Being “Special”

I think my friend’s words illustrate the real concern that often motivates people to seek creativity advice.  They aren’t actually interested in being creative — what they really want is to be special and unique. What’s more, they worry that, without outside help, they’ll always be mediocre and average.

In my experience, this need to be special, and self-loathing for being “average,” causes people a lot of suffering.  Ironically, I’ve found, it also hampers our progress in our work.

Speaking for myself, it’s hard to move forward in a project when I’m demanding that my work be brilliant and 100% original.  With that kind of mentality, I’m likely to second-guess, and probably delete, every line I write, and be left with a blank screen after hours of effort.  Worse still, perhaps, I won’t have fun, and I won’t feel inspired to keep writing.

It’s only when I drop my need for “uniqueness” that I start making headway again.  In other words, it’s only when I’m willing to take the risk of “being average” that I’m able to produce anything at all.

Who’s Afraid of Averageness?

And when you think about it, is “being average” really such a huge risk? What would happen if someone told you that your work was average?  Would you spontaneously combust?  Or maybe dissolve into a pile of steaming protoplasm?

I’m no expert on spontaneous combustion, but I can tell you that some people have said far worse things about my writing, and somehow I’m in one piece.  I’m still writing, to boot, and — for better or worse — showing no signs of stopping.

So, when someone comes to me bemoaning their lack of creativity, I often invite them to try this exercise.  For a moment, consider the possibility that you don’t have to try to be creative.  You are creating your life, through the choices you make, in every moment.  Imagine what you would and could do if you fully accepted that.

If we could let go of our draining struggle to “be creative,” and trust that creativity is already and always ours, I think we’d free up a lot of energy to accomplish what we want, and give the gifts we want to give, in our work.

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 3: The Creative Test of Faith

I used to believe that I shouldn’t sit down to write unless I had a compelling vision of what I’d say.  Unfortunately, this attitude was the reason why, for many years, I didn’t do any creative writing.  Sure, I wrote a lot, but only when somebody else (1) gave me a subject to write about and (2) was willing to pay me a bunch of money or give me a good grade.

Eventually, I started taking a look at why I had this mindset.  Why was I reluctant to just sit down and see whether any interesting ideas came up?

What I ultimately saw was that I lacked faith in my creativity.  I was assuming that, if I tried to write without an airtight plan, I’d squander hours at my desk, and end up with nothing but frustration to show for it.

My Emptiness Experiment

Armed with this knowledge, I decided to experiment with simply sitting, and trusting that inspiration would arise.  I committed to myself that, if necessary, I’d sit there all night.  I’d only give up if I woke up facedown on my desk in front of an empty computer screen.

My prediction that I’d get frustrated proved to be right.  I labored mightily to fill the blank screen with words, but none of my ideas or sentences seemed to satisfy me.  My shoulders grew painfully rigid, as if I were trying to physically push the emptiness away.

After an hour or two of helpless thrashing, it dawned on me that I wasn’t following the spirit of my experiment.  Instead of having faith that my creative energies would emerge on their own timetable, I was trying to force them to work.

Dropping The Need To “Just Do It”

I began making progress only when I dropped the struggle.  I sighed deeply, let my shoulders relax, erased the words I’d written just to fill space, and simply stared into the creative vacuum on my monitor.

In the moment when my flailing ceased, the emptiness in my mind, and on the screen, began to dissipate.  Effortlessly, fluidly, another article began taking shape.  Within twenty minutes, the new piece was ready for editing.

As it turned out, the physical act of typing the article wasn’t the hard part of the writing process.  The difficult part was trusting that, eventually, my creativity would come out to play — letting go of my need to fill the emptiness, and having faith that it would pass away on its own.

In other words, I see the emptiness we encounter when we’re writing, or doing some other creative pursuit, as a test of our faith in ourselves.  We pass the test when we end our thrashing and trust that, in its own time, and in its own unpredictable way, inspiration will show up.

Many people see writing as a matter of “just doing it” — of forcing ourselves to write something, no matter how much pushing, fighting or flailing it takes.  This “beat yourself into submission” strategy seems to work for some people.  But if it’s wearing thin for you, I invite you to try simply sitting, relaxing, and waiting on your muse.

What Would You Create If No One Could See It?

To help us find a compelling direction in life, self-development writers often tell us to ask ourselves “what we’d do if we couldn’t fail.”  For example, we might ask, what kind of book would we write if we knew that whatever we produced was destined to be a #1 bestseller?
I’ve taken to asking myself basically the opposite question:  what would I create if I knew no one would ever care about it? In other words, what would I do if I knew I would fail?  Believe it or not, this question has been much more helpful to me in finding the direction and motivation I want.
Why?  Because I think the reality is that much of our creative output will be ignored — or, at least, it won’t get the huge audience we’re hoping for — and that’s a reality we need to accept and even embrace.
Odds Are That They Won’t See It
For instance, I don’t know the exact statistics, but I’d wager that close to 100% of writers hope their next book will be a bestseller, or their next blog post will go massively viral, and so on.  But how many of them will get what they want?  I think it’s safe to say the number is much closer to 0% than 100%.
So, since most of our work is overwhelmingly likely to “fail,” in the sense that it won’t get the attention we want, “what would you do if you couldn’t fail” is an unrealistic question.  We can, and will often, fail.
But I think the deeper problem with this question is that it plays into the common belief that the pleasure of creating comes from others seeing and appreciating our work, rather than from the act of creation itself.
The conventional wisdom has it that, if lots of people think our project is cool, it must be a “success.”  But if it doesn’t get enough readers, pageviews, retweets, or whatever else, it’s a “failure,” and we’ve “got nothing to show for our work.”
Being Okay With Being Unseen
If being seen by others is what matters most to us, I think, we’re destined for disappointment.  Here’s why:  every creative project requires long periods of unseen, unappreciated work. Even a writer who produces a bestselling book must spend hundreds of hours alone, with no audience, putting it together.
If being by ourselves, unnoticed, is too painful for us, we’re going to have trouble making progress in our task.  This is a big reason, I think, why many people keep “planning on” doing a big creative project, but never get around to it.  They can’t bear the thought of all those solitary hours.
But what if being seen wasn’t our priority? What if we genuinely enjoyed the project we were doing so much that it didn’t matter whether anyone cared about the finished product?  If we were having so much fun that it didn’t even occur to us to agonize over being unseen?
If we want to know what this kind of project would look like for us, a great question to ask is:  what would I do if I knew no one would ever discover my work?  If I “knew I’d fail,” by the usual standards of fame and fortune?  If I knew, whatever the end result was, that I was going to have a blast?
If we can sincerely answer this question, I think, we’ll have discovered a true “labor of love.”

Embracing Writer’s Block, Part 2: Content Needs Emptiness

I’ve written before about how it’s helpful, when you’re facing writer’s block, to just sit with that sense of creative emptiness, and allow it to pass away on its own — rather than beating yourself up for being uncreative, or distracting yourself from the emptiness by playing Minesweeper.  When we learn to just let the writer’s block be, instead of resisting it, we get more inspired and productive in what we do.

In this post, I want to expand on why this is.  One thing I often say is:  “If you can’t be with emptiness, you can’t be with content.”

Emptiness and Procrastination

What I mean is that, no matter what creative project you’re working on — whether you’re painting a picture, drafting a business plan, or something else — you’ll inevitably encounter moments when your mind feels empty of useful ideas.

Many people, in my experience, can’t bear those moments.  For them, staring at a blank screen, canvas, or other empty surface, is agonizing.  Because they know, consciously or not, that working on their project will involve empty moments, they find it easier to put the project off, or perhaps never to start in the first place.

So, because they can’t tolerate creative emptiness, they can’t generate the creative content they want to bring into the world.  It seems we need to get comfortable with emptiness if we want to make sustained progress in our work.  But how can we do this?

Why Is Blankness So Bad?

In my experience, it’s helpful to become aware of why emptiness is a problem for us.  When we closely examine the reasons why we see writer’s block as a threat, we often recognize that it isn’t so dangerous after all.

What I’ve found is that the fear of blankness is often driven by a sense of urgency.  We think “I’ve got to put my work ‘out there’ as quickly as possible.”  If you can relate, I invite you to ask yourself, in those anxious moments:  “What will happen if I don’t finish this project immediately?”

Often, the answer to this question is rooted in a desire to be seen and appreciated.  In other words, it comes from the ego.  “If I don’t finish this project, the world may never recognize my brilliance.  I may never get written up in the New York Review of Books.  I may ‘die with my music left in me.’”  And so on.

Now, I don’t mean to put down the ego — we all have one, and without some degree of concern for our own advancement we probably couldn’t survive.  But I do think it can impede our progress in our creative work.

Content Needs Emptiness

So, if you find this fear that you’ll “die with your music in you” arising, consider these questions:  what if it isn’t really “your” music at all? What if the ideas at the core of your project aren’t really “your” ideas?  What if you are simply an instrument on which the universe plays its music?

At a deeper level, what if you are not just the instrument, but also the music? What if you are not just a body, small and limited in time and space, but a limitless creative energy suffusing all that is — just as a wave on the ocean, in some sense, is the ocean?

If all this were true, why would a moment of blankness bother you?  A pause in a piece of music creates tempo and expectation — without space, music would be a confusing, unpleasant jumble of sounds.  Without emptiness, content cannot exist.

The next time writer’s block comes up for you, see if these questions help bring you peace and focus.

Creativity and Boundary-Setting, Part 2: The Limits of Responsibility

In the last post in this series, we talked about how developing the ability to say “no,” and protect our time, is important for making the kind of progress we want in our creative work.

In this post, I’ll discuss how it can help our creativity to set another kind of boundary — to stop blaming ourselves for how others experience the world.

As I’m sure you’ve learned firsthand, when we let people see our creative work, we risk getting criticized.  But criticism by itself, I think, isn’t a problem. It only becomes problematic when we take responsibility for the critic’s suffering and anger.

My Criticism Fantasy

I’ll give you an example from my own life.  While I was writing my book, I had a nagging tendency to imagine ways people might attack it.  A very specific “worst-case scenario” kept coming to mind.

The scenario involved me speaking at a bookstore.  During the question and answer period, a man stands up and launches into a tirade.  “This book doesn’t solve any real problems,” he shouts.  “I’ve got two kids, a wife and a mortgage, and no job — how does this book help me with that?”

I thought for a while about why I kept imagining this situation, and why it seemed troubling to me.  Eventually, I realized the problem was that I was taking responsibility for my fictitious critic’s suffering.

In other words, this man was basically blaming me for his situation and his emotional distress, and I was buying into his story.  But in “reality,” I didn’t create his financial problems, abuse him as a child, or do anything except tell him about my book.  When I recognized that, my body suddenly relaxed — tension I hadn’t noticed before melted away — and the fantasy no longer seemed so worrisome.

Releasing Your Responsibility

I’ve found that this kind of fantasizing is common among people who are having trouble putting their creative work “out there.”  Often, these are compassionate, empathic people.  They want to heal others’ suffering — not bring more into the world.

Unfortunately, people with this mentality (myself included, sometimes) also tend to have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for how others feel.  If someone else is hurt, they assume, I must have hurt them, and it’s my job to make it better.

The paradox is that this attitude actually prevents people from playing the healing role they desire.  Their fear of hurting others causes them to shrink away from giving their gifts to the world.  If they wrote that book or started that business, they think, somebody might get mad, and then the world would be worse off.

The key, I think, is to recognize that it’s possible to care about people without “merging” with them – without taking all of their hurt, suffering and fear upon ourselves.  Breathing deeply, and sensing the pressure of our feet against the ground, I think, is a helpful way to remember our separateness from others, and our solidity in the face of their upset and distress.

I know this was a liberating realization for me, and I hope it also helps you find the sense of ease and flow you may be seeking in your work.

Creativity And Boundary-Setting

If someone told you that a piece you wrote is garbage and you’re a moron for writing it, could you object to their behavior?

When I work with people who are having trouble starting a project, this is often an area where they feel blocked.  They don’t trust their ability to protect themselves against mistreatment.  They feel reluctant to “put their work out there” because they don’t think they can handle the criticism that might come their way.

It’s also unsurprising that these people suffer greatly at the hands (or maybe “claws” is the better word) of their inner critic.  Because they don’t feel capable of standing up to the critic, and they know how viciously the critic will savage their work, they understandably find it easier not to start projects they’re interested in.

The Power of “No”

Why is it so hard for many people to stand up to abuse, whether from within or from others?  For one thing, I think many of us, growing up, were shamed or punished for saying “no,” or “talking back.”  Many of us came to believe we were not allowed to set boundaries with others, and perhaps that it was “spoiled” and “childish” to do so.

When I work with someone dealing with this issue, one thing we often explore is how it feels for them to say “no.”  I tend to find that, even if the person is alone with me, and there are no judgmental or critical people within earshot, they still feel some shame around doing this.  They don’t look me in the eye as they say it, and their “no” comes out soft and weak.

Often, if they can release their inhibition, and let out a loud, firm “no,” they not only feel empowered — the project they’ve been putting off starts to look less scary and more doable.  Because they know, from firsthand experience, that they can set clear boundaries with others, the prospect of criticism no longer frightens them so much.

I think another benefit of learning to say a powerful “no” — which may seem like a paradox — is that criticism doesn’t make us as angry when we develop this ability.  Work, and life in general, take on more ease when we know we can handle ourselves if we’re attacked — in a way that’s similar, I think, to the quiet self-assurance of a martial arts master.

Priorities Depend On Boundaries

Yet another reason the ability to say “no” is important is that it allows us to set, and enforce, our own priorities.  Often, I’ve noticed, people who are having trouble starting creative projects say they “just can’t find the time.”  However, the reason they “can’t find the time” is usually that they’re afraid to refuse others’ requests.

Whenever someone calls on the phone, for instance, they can’t bring themselves to let the call go to voicemail.  Nor can they be the one to end the conversation.  After all, the other person might feel neglected, and become angry and critical.

When they experiment with declining requests, and get comfortable with the feelings that come up when they do that, the book or business they’ve been “planning” for years ceases to look like such a daunting undertaking.

I’m not saying we should be critical toward others, or take revenge on those who put us down.  As I’ll discuss later, that’s just another way of giving in to the inner critic — by merging with or embodying it.  But I do think learning to say a forceful, unapologetic “no” can bring us a refreshing sense of creative freedom.

The Gift Of Boredom

boredom

What?  How can boredom be a gift?  Isn’t boredom what we read blogs and mess around on social media to avoid?

Let’s think for a moment about the situations where boredom arises.  Do we usually get bored when we’re doing something empty and meaningless?  In my experience, the surprising answer is no.

Look at your own experience — do you get bored reading blogs?  Watching the news?  Playing Minesweeper?  I suspect you’d say no – after all, we normally do those things to “take a break” and escape boredom.

In fact, it seems, we tend to get bored when we’re doing something that feels creative and meaningful.  For example, I’ve heard people say they get bored when they’re writing their book, planning an exciting new business, finishing up that winning proposal for a client, and so on.

Boredom And Tenderness

Why does this happen?  I suspect it’s because doing something creative and meaningful requires us to draw on parts of ourselves we aren’t fully comfortable with.

If you’re writing a novel, for instance, you’ll almost inevitably need to base your characters and situations on your own experiences.  Recalling some of those memories will feel painful and vulnerable.  And yet, if you didn’t access those experiences, the novel wouldn’t have the emotional depth you’re hoping for.

So, as you’re writing, it makes sense that you’ll meet some resistance.  This often comes up as discomfort in the body.  Maybe your shoulders will tense up, or you’ll feel a weight in your stomach.  It’s tempting, when faced with sensations like these, to decide “this is boring” and go instant message with friends.

In other words:  boredom, I think, is the resistance we meet when we access tender parts of ourselves.  I think psychologist Bruno Bettelheim put it well:  “boredom is a sign of feelings too hard and too deep to bring to the surface.”

Boredom Means You’re Close To The Gold

Why do I think boredom is a gift?  Because that resistance, in a sense, is a sign that we’re on the right track.  It’s a sign that we’re delving into vulnerable areas — and that vulnerability is the creative fuel that lets us do our best work.

You might think of yourself as a prospector using a metal detector to find gold.  Boredom is like the buzzing sound you hear when you’re close to the precious metal you’re looking for.

I think you’ll see this for yourself if you practice simply letting the boredom be, without running from it, and persisting with your project.  Don’t push the feeling away—just keep breathing, relax your body, and hold your attention on what you’re doing.

When you become able to create, even in the face of boredom, you may access a dimension of inspiration and insight you didn’t know existed.

Why It’s Great To Want Attention

dog_wanting_attention

I think we’d all like to believe that we don’t care whether anyone pays attention to us.  We’re heroically forging our own path, and if other people don’t care about what we’re doing or think it’s important, that’s just their loss.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll see that the reality is a little different.

If you’re a blogger, for example, can you truthfully say you don’t care whether anyone reads what you write?  If it didn’t matter whether anyone read your writing, why would you bother blogging at all?  Just to organize your thoughts?  Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Uh oh, now we’re treading into dangerous territory, aren’t we?  If you admitted you wanted attention from others, wouldn’t that make you a narcissist?  A people-pleaser?  A needy child in a grownup’s body?  There’s nothing good about that, is there?

The Gift of Narcissism

Or is there?  Do you suppose Michelangelo would have spent four years painting the Sistine Chapel if he didn’t care whether anyone saw it?  That Shakespeare would have written all those plays if he didn’t care whether anyone read them?  That Michael Jackson would have recorded Thriller if it didn’t matter whether anyone heard it?

My point is that the human desire for attention has gifted us with a massive amount of brilliant creative output.  If people didn’t care about being noticed by others, the world would be far poorer for it.

And, yes, that same desire has probably produced some horrors in human history.  I’ll grant you that, if Hitler didn’t care about getting attention, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to become chancellor of Germany.  Maybe he would have stayed an unappreciated artist.

But all this means is that our desire for attention, like any other human quality, has light and dark sides.  It isn’t inherently good or bad.  If we consciously harness it, it can help us do incredible things for the world.

Letting Go Of Denial

I think it’s a shame, then, that we often hate and deny our desire for attention.  Instead of acknowledging it in ourselves, we project it onto others.  “They’re the narcissists and people-pleasers,” we tell ourselves.  “I’m just doing my own thing.”  Or maybe we see it in ourselves, but do our best to keep it hidden.

What if, instead of hating it, we accepted — and maybe even appreciated — this part of ourselves?  What if we recognized that, without it, we’d be less able to give our gifts to the world?

I know, the ideal in personal growth is for your work to be an expression of your wholeness, rather than an attempt to become whole.  But there’s a reason we call that an ideal.  It’s something we aspire to, but we don’t usually achieve 100% in practice.

It may sound like a paradox, and in a sense it is, but if you want to be fully okay with yourself, I think you need to accept the part of yourself that doesn’t feel okay unless it’s getting attention.  You can’t have unconditional self-love without loving all of your parts, imperfect as they may seem.

Oh, and thanks for paying attention to me and reading this.