Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The non-negotiable importance of yourself

Yesterday I blogged about a special state of consciousness that's required for creative work -- the "creative state." This creative state is a source of vexation for artists, because it's so not under our control -- it's the Unruly Beast in this blog's title.

You can't enter the creative state at will, even if your life depends on it; but it emerges spontaneously whenever the conditions are right and you give yourself an interesting enough problem to solve.

When the creative state hides out on artists, we might feel lost and worried (and other negative emotions). There are plenty of creative chores we can do in our normal states of consciousness, but it's a little painful and unnerving (and usually unsuccessful) when we try to do our primary creative work without benefit of the creative state. We might say, "Crap! I'm no good at this! I'm a phony and a failure as an artist!" Or, if we recognize what's going on, we might say, "I feel blocked. My creative juices are not flowing."

If this happens to you, it should make you feel better to know that this is something that every artist has to deal with at some time or other. It doesn't mean you're a fake or a failure, but it might mean that there's something wrong in your life that needs some attention.

There is one common theme that runs through most of cases of creative blockage. If you find yourself unable to enter the creative state, it might well be that you have negated yourself in some way. You've neglected yourself, left yourself out of the picture.

If you did, it's understandable. Everything in our culture teaches us to negate ourselves. In school our opinions, experiences, and knowledge have no value, and we must temporarily put them aside in favor of whatever the teacher or textbook is presenting. In religion, sports, military, jobs, and even in the "creative and performing arts," the truth is that suppressing or even sacrificing yourself in favor of the team's or institution's goals and values is usually the successful strategy.

But suddenly you arrive at actual creative work, and the rules are different. You can't do it without yourself. Even if you want to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the greater good, to create a glorious work of art, it just doesn't work. You, as the artist, are the vessel in which the miraculous transformation occurs, from base raw materials to golden new creations. If you're not a whole and intact vessel, the magic cannot take place.

It's surely no coincidence that many successful artists are egomaniacs with a greatly exaggerated sense of their own importance. Not that you have to be a jerk to be an artist, thank goodness; there are also plenty of examples of gracious and humble people at the top of every creative field. But having a strong sense of your own value and importance really does help. So don't be embarrassed to put on your superstar cap in private while you're working.

Here are some examples of negating yourself. Any of these things can be the cause of a creative block:
  • Trying to create something for an assignment that doesn't make sense to you. You can't afford to ignore your own doubts about the assignment.
  • Trying to work in a style that you don't understand. If you don't feel that the style belongs to you, you won't be able to create in it.
  • Pretending to be something that really isn't what you are.
  • Trying to create something that will live up to someone else's standards. For example, you can't write a "#1 hit," because the hit charts are beyond your understanding and control.
  • Trying to create something "good enough" that it will magically change some circumstance in your life. For example, if your goal is to write a song so good that your bandmates will have to respect you, you probably won't be able to write anything at all.
The solution, in a general sense, is to find the way to own what you're doing. If you must create for a class assignment that you think is silly, bring that opinion into your creative space, and discover your way of doing the assignment — perhaps sarcastically.

You can use the circumstances of your life as raw material, but not as rules to govern your creative work. Instead, create things that suit your own standards, create in your own style, do it your own way, and please your own ear.

In my next post, I'll talk about two key conditions that are necessary for entering the creative state, and I'll look at some of the common thoughts and attitudes that can interfere with one or both of those keys.

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