The Arch-Enemy of Creativity

There are several forces that can choke creativity to death, but probably its most ruthless foe is a ticking clock set for a very short time frame.

“Ready, set…. create! You have twenty minutes to be creative, then we’re back on the clock: go, go, go!!!!”

In a situation like this the most musical sound you are likely to hear is the loud, rhythmic ticking of the clock counting down the minutes until creative time is over and you are back to the workaday drill. Young children can probably salvage something in this short burst of time, they are not bound by practical cultural imperatives as adults are, not yet daunted by seeming logical impossibility. A disciplined adult might write a tight paragraph or two in fifteen or twenty minutes, or play something nice on a piano or think up something new. But for most others, that tiny window to do something creative won’t be one they can leap through very productively. Just as they enter the creative zone, that free play place where most creative people report that time disappears, time will be called and it’s back to reality.

For one thing, as the clock goes from 20 to 19 to 15 minutes to 9, pressure is building. Pressure is the enemy of imagination. Time is required for the mind to unwind and the imagination to uncurl and stretch itself. Imagination takes its time, cannot be summoned instantly like a genie from a bottle. A short period of unwinding must be allowed for.

The rest of the world must be allowed to recede before the mind unwinds to dream up things that don’t already exist. This takes time. It can take 20 minutes or more for the distractions to dissipate enough for the relaxation necessary for inventive play to set in, and then at least an hour is needed for that play to be of good use. Only an undistracted, relaxed person can think and act creativity. In this world of a million constant distractions, it takes time for the rippling pond of the mind to calm itself.

It’s true that many creative thoughts happen in an instant, when we are doing other things– the aha moment stepping into the shower, the missing puzzle piece appearing out of nowhere as we chop firewood. The brain is ingenious this way, because creativity and problem solving are native to us, but I am talking about setting a period to do creative work. You must not be stingy when you do this.

Thought experiment: you live a pressured life with a hundred nagging responsibilities every day. When you are not actually ticking off tasks you are worrying about tomorrow’s list, which is bad, but not as bad as the list for the following day, or next Tuesday’s. You make room on your calendar for a twenty minute session of playing your neglected musical instrument. To do this in good conscience you must first squeeze in three additional tasks, saving the remaining ten for after your little play session. Imagine the music you might improvise under those conditions.

We live in a highly pressurized, competitive society where most of us are judged on how hard we work and how much money we make. If you are born, like Thomas Jefferson, booted and spurred, etc., you can be judged on the quality of the luck you worked hard to create, but few are born having worked hard enough in the womb to emerge attended by 300 slaves. Even so, Jefferson was undeniably a prolifically creative man. If you are not born super-rich, your life is usually spent in the practical pursuit of usefulness and making money.

Creativity, unless it brings an income, is reserved for day dreamers and idlers. That I can easily be seen as both of these at the moment leaves me in a distressed state of mind sometimes. I find myself tormented by the simple fact: unless you monetize your creation very few will understand what you have been wasting your time doing. Unmonetized creativity, no matter how otherwise cool that creation may be, is– say it with me: failure and a source of shame.

I picture an immensely talented little girl who two decades ago sat at her grandmother’s upright piano and began playing two handed classical music by ear. I can see her little left hand, it was like those water bucket carrying brooms from the Sorcercer’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia. The left hand was animated, relentless, moving in perfect time, of its own accord, and continued to keep perfect time as the little girl looked at me over her shoulder and beamed. “And look, you can play this one too!” and she played another classical melody as the left hand kept playing its part perfectly. Then she played a third classical tune over the still uninterrupted bass line.

Fast forward– or better yet, don’t. Let’s keep the focus right there. The six year-old was not imagining herself on stage at Carnegie Hall, or cashing the check for playing at Carnegie Hall. She was not picturing her face on the poster, on the album cover. She was certainly not thinking of the clock, or what she might have to do next. She was in awe, splashing happily in a joyous torrent, connecting herself without any self-consciousness to a deep human longing, magically coaxing life, melody, beat and danceable music from an inanimate object.

“Yes, but the six year-old did not understand that she was not actually coaxing magical life out of that piano, she was merely discovering the musical/mathematical discoveries already made by other very talented people, Mozart, Beethoven and so forth. Remarkable, perhaps, that she could do this without knowing how to read music, OK, I’ll give you that. Good for her that her left hand could play so independently and so steadily– a real talent, OK, we’ll give you that too. But I hardly think, you know, this is just so typical of the way you try to build your ‘case’. I say, I say, blah blah blah,” says the predictable voice of the world.

There is no market for what I’m selling so far, or, more precisely, I haven’t found a way to market it yet. Our free market (as those who profit most from the system have romantically named it) is run according to the bottom line. What you can sell has value, clearly. What you dream about, unless monetized, is only a dream. We all like to dream, yes, of course, but better to dream of creating something of tangible value than of building play castles in the clouds. It may seem a shame that our culture is the way it is, to someone who likes to waste their time dreaming of things as they wish they were instead of logically fitting their creativity to what is marketable… I say, I say: blah blah blah.

Forget for a moment the arguable shame of a culture that puts a price on everything and discards whatever can’t be sold for a profit. Forget you are reading the words of a man who swims, ranting on the strenuous out breaths, against the current of the mercantile world we live in. Forget that most people simply don’t have the luxury of 20 minutes to unwind before spending an hour being creative, or any real desire to abstractly create in the first place.

Remember this — there is nothing to lament if you’re unable to think creatively if you don’t give yourself time to let life’s pressures fall away for ninety minutes or so once in a while. Creativity may be an abstraction that means little to you, it seems to mean little to most people. That’s perfectly fine. But if you mean to be creative, remember to give yourself enough time to unwind and let the world of other demands turn hazy and fade away, before you fault yourself for a lack of creativity.

This entry was posted in musing.

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