What do you chase? Fortune or bliss?
I really enjoy making up stories, but I’m a professional writer who writes about real-life, grown-up things for a living, and this makes telling fictional tales very difficult to do.
I’ve been having a case of writer’s block lately. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can get on the storytelling horse again and just churn out one good short story. I’ve made mind maps, subject lists, I’ve scheduled a regular time each day to sit and write, and I’m reading books about the craft. I’ve been coming up with all kinds of different methods to try and get the show on the road, but nothing’s been happening.
Today, it dawned on me that I was approaching it all wrong. I realised that the conditions required for synthesising information and producing clear, effective articles of communication as a journalist are antithetical to the conditions needed for facilitating the flow of imagination, and generating the eureka moments that fuel good storytelling.
I attended a design and architecture conference this afternoon and had lunch with one of my publishers and a friend of hers who organizes visual art events and tradeshows. All of us are self-employed business owners, and the conversation turned to work and how to avoid taking on more jobs than we really want to.
The publisher, an architect by training, dreams of one day designing and building her own house on a beach, but she can’t because she has twelve employees and clients on her tail constantly. The art event organiser can’t find the time to work on her own oil paintings, because she has too many meetings scheduled on any given day. I had a book and two short stories published too many years ago, but can’t seem to write fiction anymore because I’ve got too many paid assignments and copywriting projects to complete.
“Saying no is very difficult to do, especially if you have overheads and staff to pay,” said the publisher.
“Every deal you clinch feels like a win. The adrenalin of getting a new client is addictive. And who can resist the thought of expanding one’s portfolio.” I added.
“I sometimes feel bad about saying no, because I think that will stop them from ever coming back to me,” said the art event organiser.
“The problem with getting the big projects or having a good fiscal year, is that you have to keep it up, and you feel compelled to exceed your numbers from the previous year. So every year, the anxiety mounts because once you get used to making big money, it’s hard to go back to making small bucks,” said the publisher.
“But we have to learn to say no. What’s important to ask ourselves is: do we want to be productive or do we want to be creative?” said the art event organiser.
We only have so many hours in a day, should we spend most of our time being productive, or should we allow ourselves the pleasure of being creative more often?
Most of the time, being productive feels right; it feels more appropriate than being creative. Productivity seems like the responsible, mature approach to life, because it helps to remove unwanted circumstances (like poverty, homelessness, hunger or lack of perceived social value) and propels us upward in the world (earn an MBA or PhD, buy a home, become a CEO, buy stocks, have everyone kiss your ass).
When I think of creativity in its purest form, I often see images of Van Gogh slicing his ears off, doped out street buskers writing killer songs that never get heard, or drooling children building sandcastles on the beach. So it’s not surprising that I’ve ended up taking the productivity route.
Being busy, efficient and prosperous makes me feel like I am doing the best I can to get my basic needs taken care of, which in turn makes me feel righteous, superior to, and fit to sit in judgment of those who are less busy, efficient and prosperous than myself. It makes me feel as if I have earned my place in the world, and that I am indispensible to those whom I like to believe (often falsely so) depend on me. Being productive improves my self-esteem, it helps me feel a little more in control and a little less afraid of how unpredictable life can be. But it also leaves me with a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.
I walk around like I have really important things to do and lament how there’s never enough time, but there’s this big question hanging over my head. Why the heck am I doing so much boring, tedious, meaningless and unoriginal crap? Probably because it’s a lot safer than the alternative.
Because of the nature of my profession, I’ve always assumed that I was being creative every time I produced decent copy. But my new friend’s remark got me thinking more about how productivity and creativity are really very different beasts.
The Oxford dictionary defines productive as “producing or able to produce large amounts of goods, crops, or other commodities; or achieving a significant amount or result”. It defines creative as “having good imagination or original ideas”, while Webster defines creative as “using the ability to make or think of new things: involving the process by which new ideas, stories, etc., are created”.
The productive person is one who is goal oriented, result-driven and concerned with dolling out quantity, and generating benefits, while the creative person is one who has the ability to think up new things. Though both productivity and creativity clearly have their merits, I find that the later is a much rarer condition of mind, and the place where great things happen.
Just before lunch, we had attended a talk by architect Rem Koolhaas about the coexistence of chaos and order in the workplace of the 21st century. In the world of start-ups and design, innovation is an absolute necessity, and according to Koolhaas’s presentation, it is the chaotic and unstructured environments that inspire improvisation – the seed of all new creations; while ordered or highly structured spaces (like the traditional office cubicle and boardroom) can stifle improvisation and thus creativity.
Now take Koolhaas’s proposition and apply it to the human mind at work. Like a built environment, the programme that a mind is accustomed to can determine if it becomes a place that encourages productivity or a place that inspires creativity. Making “do to” lists, work flow charts, doing research or performing routine activities on a daily basis can perhaps be likened to the highly structured office. To work productively, one usually follows templates, guidelines, modus operandi and processes that allow for the efficient deliverance of a tangible commodity. Productivity often stipulates benefits or profits, either in the form of a purchase order, pay cheque, certificate, positive appraisal, social approval or a promotion and a raise. To be prolific as productivity requires, the mind needs to move within the framework of an assembly line. It has to approach its tasks step by step: Take a brief, meet the client’s requirements, deliver the work, wait for feedback, rework the concept, send to client for approval. Clean things ups so the work looks professional and perfect, get paid.
To work creatively, the mind needs to be in a state that is well, a little uncoordinated and messy. More like an artist’s studio – lofty and spacious, with cluttered corners. It needs to be in a state of play – an energetic, emotionally charged, frisky state where random thoughts, ideas, images, sounds, feelings or impressions vibrate with sufficient intensity and verve that they can actually be captured by the worker and transferred into their medium of choice.
The key phenomenon in creative thinking is randomness. When there are too many rules in place, there is a lower chance for psychic happenstance – that magical lightning bolt of the gods. Hence, a mind in a state of leisure, a mind free to entertain all sorts of emotions and notions, both good and bad, is probably more conducive to receiving random thoughts and observing previously unnoticed patterns than a mind that is too singularly focused on achieving a particular goal. Therefore, to arrive at a state of mind that encourages creativity, all structures (deadlines, word counts, client briefs, client expectations, industry standards, budgets, fees, hourly rates, formatting etc. etc.) ought to be obliterated.
If productivity is a fashionably and formally dressed lady ready to dazzle at the ball, creativity is the orphan with no shoes, but the face of an angel. Productivity clings to the trappings of the material, the tried and true formulas for corporeal success, whereas creativity is undoubtedly guided by the spiritual and seeks only to find solutions to the whys, hows and what ifs. Agenda can only be an afterthought of creativity, whereas it is the driving force of productivity.
All that said, we should not abandon productivity altogether. Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”. I think the problem with becoming a producer is that the rewards of quantity and worldly achievement become so seductive, that we forget about discovery, novelty, authenticity, higher purpose, and the joy of play.
I know I must try to say “no” to doing what I feel I ought to, and say “yes” to doing what I want to more often. So perhaps my initial plans to get on a “horse” or attempt to “churn” – both interestingly enough adjectives of industry, is not the way to get through this block. I can see now that the creative mind is not a farm where ideas can be reined in or stories harvested, but an open field that sees drought, pestilence, rain and fire.
But as long as this field is left undomesticated, unfenced and unfettered, the sunlight will continue to shine upon it, and the grass will grow. I do not know what plant or flower or fruit will blossom there this season. Maybe there will be nothing for a while. But I take the wild field over the farm today.
Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo 2014