Bits and Bites

anticipating the turkey
Creative Commons License photo credit: theilr

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!

A few clarifications…

I confess I found the short format really difficult. 200 words is a tight enough limit that you really have to make every word count, which is hard work but worth it in terms of really clarifiying what you want to say. The downside is that you lose complexity and nuance – I’m someone who believes pretty firmly that there is more to every story, and other valid and valuable ways to look at everything.

So I was worried that might come off as trite, that it trivializes the very real sense of risk and danger that many people experience around creativity, which I don’t want to do. In fact I do understand that, all too well, but I seem to have found a way to not be crippled by it, which does in fact have a lot to do with maintaining a playful attitude.

In a way it’s very easy for me to say this stuff, I have a body of work that I’m fairly happy with and proud of, and which in some cases has made a real impact on people, far beyond what I could have hoped for. In other cases it’s had very little impact at all, but I am still proud of having managed to get something done, and make something I think is beautiful. That’s what it comes down to in the end…

Learning and Unlearning

So my little mini-essay is not intended to say that falling into the ‘phony syndrome’ trap is a mark of weakness and stupidity, and look at me I’m so much smarter and better because I’ve figured out how to be confident and cool (which I’m often most definitely not). It’s just an observation that this kind of kneejerk self-doubt and self-criticism is largely a learned, adult trait – and if it can be learned it can probably be unlearned, at least to an extent.

I do tend to think the best way to retrain ourselves to be playful is by re-imagining our Big Important Creative Work as simple play, as pouring the blocks out on the floor and stacking them up into something. Take away all the expectations, the attachments to the outcome, the inflated value of the work itself, often before it’s even become anything yet. Just find a pattern that looks interesting and explore what’s there, and above all HAVE FUN.

The advantage we have as adults is that we can bring much more to bear on these explorations – more technique, more perspective, more experience. The disadvantage is this tendency to start taking it all so seriously, investing it with our whole sense of self and value. If we can get around that, the added stuff we bring to the table can make it more fun instead of more serious, and in the end I believe the results are better, more honest, more organic, less contrived.

So that’s what I’m working on anyway. Incidentally my book ‘Cliffjump’, which explores these ideas in considerably more detail, is basically finished and waiting for me to have more than 10 minutes of time to focus on getting it into a releasable format. If anyone would like to have a look at an advance copy, drop me a line and I’ll hook you up!

As always, comments are most welcome… or head over to Deryn’s site and join the discussion there!