This past weekend I had an experience that will likely be familiar to anyone who’s done any amount of solo travelling. I found myself (with my family, in this case) in a new place, with a small group of new people, in a fairly isolated environment, in which we interacted fairly intensively for a few days.
It probably helped that we were pretty off-grid, with little or no cell phone or wifi service, and so forced to be more in the moment than is perhaps the norm for most people these days in our hyperconnected (but strangely disconnected) world.
We cooked together, ate and cleaned up together, talked and sang and joked and walked and talked some more together. And the world did that thing where it gets really small – that little house in the countryside was the whole world for those few days, and those people, previously unknown, seemed very quickly like close friends.
It’s a nice thing, and I hadn’t experienced it for a while.
During our final meal together one of my new friends asked me, in the course of conversation, an interesting question. It was a question that initially made me slightly uncomfortable, since it brought up some old and long-suppressed thoughts and feelings, and I felt like I needed to give it some thought in order to properly contextualize my answer. The conversation moved along before I could do that (the problem with wanting to answer questions properly is that sometimes the world doesn’t want to wait around for you to get your thoughts together), and the moment was gone. But I’m left with the question, and it won’t go away.
So I’m going to try to answer it here…
It’s been a while. Nearly 4 years, in fact, judging by the date on the next-newest post to this one. Lots has happened! I wasn’t sure if I would ever get back to this blog. I mean, I never intended to stop, but life kind of got busy for a while there and it fell by the wayside in kind of a big way.
But today I have a reason to fire it up again. And that reason is the subject of this post. Warning: this post – and likely those that follow, at least for a while – will be predominantly personal in focus; however, it (and they) will touch on themes that I think most creative people can relate to, no matter how fearless…
Busy busy busy
A little backstory: I’ve written before about my performance work, which mostly consists of playing piano and keyboards – and increasingly, various other instruments including accordion, trumpet, french horn, and flute – for circus-tinged stage shows here in Germany. That work kind of took over the bulk of my life for a few years – over 200 shows a year for a few years, and these are typically long, intense shows.
I finished a run of such shows, at Palazzo Berlin, in March of this year, and found myself without any performance work on the horizon for 7 months, an unusual situation and while problematic on an income level, not an unwelcome one: I was pretty burnt out, needed a rest, and figured I could tie up a few loose ends and then dive into one or another of my various dormant personal creative projects.
But the weeks went by, and then months, and I realized I wasn’t doing that. The minutiae of daily life – parenting, taxes, home maintenance, computer maintenance, changing phone contracts – was like a gas that expanded to fill its container, and its container was my life.
And so I found myself with a creeping sense of anxiety. I have long defined myself in terms of the creative work that I do, and a lot of my sense of self-worth is tied up with that, for better or for worse. It’s one thing to be too busy performing, playing with other great musicians and crazy talented performers, digging deep and delivering in a professional show night after night and not really feeling like I have the time or energy to dive into a personal passion project. It’s quite another to have, in theory at least, all the time in the world and still be unable to get anything started. More
I’ve been thinking about brains.
Well, to be honest I’ve done a whole lot of thinking about brains over the years, so this is not exactly a recent development. But brains have been, umm, on my mind, as it were, even more than usual lately.
I think what started it, I mean this latest bout of cerebral preoccupation, was an article about a scientist getting a very large grant from the European Union, like a billion dollars large, to develop a complete virtual model of a human brain.
Now the idea of artificial intelligence is nothing new, of course – we’ve had blockbuster movies about it, after all… And the idea of AI has always been to explore the workings of the human brain by modeling various aspects of it in software, as it were… So the idea of a complete virtualization is not exactly revolutionary. Arguably the concept is foundational, at least since a brilliant young scientist devised a kind of ‘test’ for artificial intelligence that bears his name….
But this is not an article about artificial brains per se, and truth be told it’s real, organic brains that interest me more – and not just brains either… But brains are where we’ll start, for now.
There’s a unique feeling about being in a New Place – somewhere you’ve never been before, a place you get to see and experience for the first time, with fresh eyes and ears. Anyone who has travelled a reasonable amount will be familiar with it. There’s an alertness, an innocence, an openness to the experience which is really special and which can never really be reclaimed on subsequent visits – although familiarity, of course, brings its own very different rewards.
There is also a difference between being in a new place for a very short time, just passing through as it were, and moving to a new place for a longer period. ‘Just passing through’ is what many tourists and travellers do – even if you have a few days to spend in a great city, say, you still have limited commitment and are really only there for the quick ‘taste test’.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but the fact remains that living someplace new for an extended period – say, a few months at least – is an essentially different experience. You see things through different eyes when you’re looking for things to ground yourself and your new life in. There is a greater sense of commitment to the neighborhood you have landed in, the shops you know you’ll visit many times, the patterns you’ll fall into.
You’re inserting yourself into the environment in a more substantial way, and allowing itself to get much deeper under your own skin. You’ll become enmeshed with it, hear and feel its more subtle rhythms and allow your own to synchronize somewhat with them.
And being conscious of this at the outset (perhaps because you’ve done it a few times before, as I have) is a pretty neat feeling. It’s fun to know that there is so much waiting to be discovered, so many secrets waiting to reveal themselves to your explorations, so many stories waiting to unfold.
Just passing through, or staying a while?
That’s what I’m experiencing now, for the first time in many years. I’ve relocated for 5 months or so to Vienna, Austria – one of the great cities of Europe, without a doubt, and a place with a deep and complex history and culture which I’m excited to have the opportunity to really explore.
And it’s got me thinking about that particular sense of openness that comes with relocation – as distinct from the dislocation of travel which I discussed in the last post. More than being open to new experience, allowing a place to make its superficial imprint on you and imagining what it might be like to live there, this is about opening ourselves up as well. It’s a symbiotic thing.
In a sense, any creative act is more like this than like the just-passing-through feeling of travel; we give of ourselves to a new creation, and we allow it into ourselves just as we shape it, put our stamp on it, and so on.
But I’m wondering if some creative work is more like this, and some more like travel. There is a different feeling when poised at the edge of beginning something ‘big’, a sense of anticipation that many things remain to be discovered, many secrets have yet to be revealed… More
I can’t say I’m the world’s most prolific social media user sometimes, especially when I’m going through a heavy work phase as I have been recently (more on this soon)… but sometimes I have to admit that it facilitates wonderful meetings with people I would very likely never have encountered otherwise.
Recently, after a lively debate on another online-friend’s post, I was contacted by Deryn Collier to see if I was interested in making a contribution to her ongoing series of ‘Soundbites’ – short, provocative question-and-answer format pieces on creative ideas and issues.
The question Deryn gave me was this:
Stacey Cornelius’ post a few weeks ago got us talking about creativity and risk. You have a project underway where you compose a piece in less than an hour and you post it immediately to your website. Most people would call this risky, but you think of it as exploration and play. Is there a difference? What is it? Risk of what? Exploration of what?
And, given the tight 200-word limit, here’s what I came up with:
First I should probably clarify that the ‘under an hour’ thing is more a prescription than a rule, as I don’t like being rigid about these things. However, it’s a helpful framework for actually getting something done… It also minimizes risk, as it’s clear that not every session will produce a masterpiece.
However, I believe creative risk is largely artificial and comes from falling into a trap I like to call the Phony Syndrome – imagining that everything we ‘put out there’ is an opportunity for the world to discover the frightened child hiding behind the confident, competent façade we try so hard to maintain.
But kids don’t actually do this to themselves, at least not until we teach them to. They don’t worry about how their work will be perceived, they just pour the blocks out on the floor and start stacking them up into something. What people will think of it or whether it’s ‘good enough’ are thoughts that don’t enter their minds until later. I think it’s our great mistake to let them in.
So I basically try to channel that approach as much as possible. If people end up liking the results, so much the better!
I have been travelling a lot lately, so I guess that means it’s time for a followup to my old Creativity and Travel post from a couple of years back. I’ve also been reading a bit more than usual, and one of the things I’ve been reading is Jonathan Fields’ excellent book Uncertainty, which I may do a full review of at some point.
I liked a lot of things about Uncertainty, and it rang true in a lot of ways; mostly confirming my suspicion that in many ways I am that oddest of creatures, a person who basically enjoys unstable or unresolved situations, genuinely likes to shake things up, try new and unfamiliar things, take on challenges I don’t know if I’ll be able to meet.
In many ways this ties into my general philosophy of ‘just say yes‘… interestingly, an old friend just contacted me via Facebook and told me that he remembers me from time to time when he uses a story about me learning to tune pianos to try to inspire patients to ‘confidently go forth into areas where they have no apparent skill in the present moment’. Guilty as charged, I suppose!
However, I am also human and so despite learned habit I am subject to many basic human instincts and traits, so the idea that we can find ways to mitigate our general distaste for being out on a limb also made a lot of sense to me. One of the key concepts Fields outlines is that of the Certainty Anchor: these are things in our lives that do not change and/or that we feel sure of, that can give us something stable to hold on to while we take risks in other areas.
Many of these consist of routines. We can anchor our threatened sense of self around a set of things we are sure about and that give us a feeling of security – familiar places, people, little rituals or practices we do the same way or at the same time every day. We all do this anyway, but if we pay a bit more attention to it and do it consciously or with more intention, we can increase that feeling of security that allows us to take risks in other ways.
So what does this have to do with travel? Travel is when we cast the certainty anchors aside for a little while and step into the realm of the genuinely uncertain. Or at least, it can be. Why would we want to do that? Read on…