CREATING “IN THE MIDDLE OF THINGS”
By Eric Maisel PhD
COACHING THE ARTIST WITHIN
Advice for Writers, Actors, Visual Artists & Musicians from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach
People do not create in a vacuum. They have every manner of worry, doubt, and fear coursing through their system and every urge to distraction pulling them away from the centering experience of creating. They have relationship pressures and day-job pressures stealing neurons and preventing them from thinking deeply. They are always in the middle of life. There is no escape, no rest, and no sanctuary. When I train creativity coaches, one of the lessons I drive home is that clients do not have a way to take a respite from life. They will have to try and create even if they are cranky, even if their bank account is depleted, even if their last three short stories turned out poorly, even if their in-laws are visiting.
When the Franco-Prussian war erupted in 1870, one Impressionist rushed off to join the French Army and was killed. Another used his parental influence to avoid service. A third, without influence, fled Paris for the French countryside to paint in peace. Every person, painter and non-painter alike, had to do something, even if that something was to bury his head in the sand. They had no choice. They were caught in the middle of something real, in this case a war, and if they were going to create they had to do so in the middle of terrible turmoil.
You must be able to create in the middle of things or else you will not create. You must recognize that you are always in the middle of things and take whatever practical and psychological actions are necessary to combat the anti-creating forces that surround you and live within you. The Russian composer Shostakovitch faced the collapse of his country, invasion by the Nazis, the horrors of Stalin, and death by the millions—and composed three war symphonies. Not only that, he butted heads with Stalin, who demanded that he compose triumphant music, rounded up starving musicians, found instruments, put together full concerts attended by desperate souls dressed in rags, and fought his personal fight to keep up the spirits of his countrymen and countrywomen. Could you have done the same? Most people caught up in such circumstances can’t create—it is only the rare Shostakovitch who can.
It doesn’t take a war to put a crimp in one’s creativity. Everyday crises do a perfectly fine job of stopping people from creating. Most of these everyday crises are internal, crises of faith and self-doubt, crises of self-recrimination and self-incrimination, crises of fear and meaninglessness. A marital spat or just calling himself “untalented” is sufficient to keep a person from writing the book on the tip of his tongue. Even a cloud passing in front of the sun can cause a would-be creator to lose heart and turn away from her creative work. The “middle of things” that people are always in is, first of all, their own skin.
Sometimes it may seem as if you aren’t in the middle of things. You come home from work, have a little dinner, then turn on the television instead of turning toward the novel you hope to write. What exactly are you in the middle of that’s preventing you from creating? Don’t you have a “perfectly free” few hours in which to write? Absolutely not. To believe that just because you have no particular errands to run or duties to perform means that you are somehow not trapped in your own personality and your own culture is to not understand what being in the middle of things really means. You are always in the middle of your personality, always in the middle of your stream of consciousness, always in the middle of your culture. There is no exit.
Unless you are impervious to the facts of existence—and no one is—you must learn how to create in the middle of things. You must learn how to create when wars are raging and when your own hormones are raging. You must learn how to create even if you hate your country’s policies or your own painting style. You must learn how to create even if you are embroiled in a bad marriage or living alone and lonely. You must learn how to create even if you work eight hours a day at a silly job or, sometimes worse, find yourself at home all day with time on your hands.
If you wait for a better time to create, better than this very moment, if you wait until you feel settled, divinely inspired, perfectly centered, unburdened of your usual worries, or free of your everyday skin, forget about it. You will still be waiting tomorrow and the next day. You will be waiting for a very long time, wondering why you never managed to begin, wondering how you did such an excellent job of disappointing yourself. Nothing is less useful to a creator than the romantic idea that inspiration is necessary, that a visit from the muse is required. Such visitations are splendid but the muse only comes if you are already making an effort to create in the middle of things.
How do most people meet this profound challenge, that life never presents them with the ideal time to create? They don’t. They don’t create. A thousand things defeat them. One day it’s that they’re very busy. The next day it’s that they aren’t in the mood. The day after it’s that they have to recover from a spat or from a piece of criticism. Always it is something. Most people aren’t as creative as they wish they were because they haven’t mastered strategies for creating in the middle of things. That is one sort of bad answer: not knowing what to do and not making the effort to find out.
A second bad answer is to violently withdraw from life. In order to reduce the number of things in which they are in the middle—like relationships—some creators and would-be creators slam the door shut on life. They manage to create in their hiding place but at the very high cost of alienation, loneliness and unhappiness. Whereas solitude is both necessary and beautiful in a creator’s life, a violent withdrawal from life is a terrible response to this real predicament. Nor, of course, have they escaped, for they are still squarely in the middle of their personality, their thoughts, and a psychological place—because they are hiding and at war with life—that they experience as dark and difficult.
A third bad answer is to sporadically and accidentally create, that is, to only create when some fortuitous alignment of the spheres causes a creative impulse to course through you. You paint, then paint again two years or a decade later. You write eleven poems in your lifetime. You always want to create but you actually create only a tiny percentage of the time. This is as unacceptable an answer as the first two. You do not actualize your potential this way and you disappoint yourself during those long stretches of time while you wait for your next flash of inspiration.
Not bothering to create, violently withdrawing from life so as to create, and sporadically and accidentally creating are not good approaches. What are some good approaches? You get a grip on your mind. You name and then honor your life purposes. You convince yourself that meaning must be made, not sought after or waited for. You learn how to generate (and modulate) your creative fires. You become an excellent creativity self-coach, someone who understands the rigors and contours of the creative journey. And you put together a repertoire of strategies that help you create in the middle of things. Here are four tactics provided by Leslie, a creativity coach I trained.
#1 "Suit up and show up."
Time-honored advice from AA can work for creating in the middle of things. Recovering alcoholics can't keep cutting work because they feel rotten or because they still haven't got their act together. Setting times to write and then showing up at the keyboard no matter what form the backbone of my writing strategy. "Suit up and show up" doesn't mean that it has to be pretty. I don't even have to feel prepared. I just can't afford any more excuses.
#2 "Don't snivel."
One student from a well-known writing program published an article in a slick magazine about the slogan taped to her computer. She said that "Don't snivel” embodied her whole creative philosophy. It's surprisingly powerful. Once you make the choice to cut off the pipeline of complaint, you free tons of energy. Not whining, not having to "process" issues was the single biggest aid in stopping my dependence on self-indulgent journal writing.
#3 "Avoid Anticipating."
Samuel Johnson repeatedly made the point that anticipation (or expectation) stood as the enemy of creativity. If I'm anticipating what fine and shining thing I will write, the first sentence I put on the page will blast my dream to bits. As I keep my writing appointments (a minimum of three each day), I write my first sentences without any expectation at all. Thinking how the mightiest river begins somewhere with a tiny, uncertain trickle, I'm unconcerned when my first sentences don't seem to roar.
#4 "Picture a Flawless Ignition System."
During moments before I write each morning (while feeding the cat and starting the coffee), I hold the picture of a car starting effortlessly on the first try. If I'm not already hearing my first sentences in my head, I'll savor the details of feeling a car key in my hand, turning it in the ignition, hearing a satisfying "vroom" as the engine fires. Since I can count on myself to start every morning, I'm simply less anxious and don’t worry whether the road will be straight or not.
#5 Try “dropping everything.”
The phrase “drop everything” means dropping your resistance, dropping your doubts, dropping aspects of your personality that hold you down, dropping your nagging to-do list, dropping all the reasons you use to convince yourself that you and your efforts don’t matter, dropping everything just as you would drop your parcels if your child got hurt. I’m sure you get the idea—now go practice it! Drop everything right this minute and go create.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D. is America’s “Foremost Creativity Coach” and is widely known as the creativity expert. He coaches individuals, and offers workshops and conferences for groups throughout the year. His website is: www.ericmaisel.com
This article based on his new book COACHING THE ARTIST WITHIN, $14.95, Published by New World Library, available in March 2005 www.newworldlibrary.com,