I’ve been thinking about joy.
Perhaps triggered by the last post here, where it formed the focus of my central complaint about an otherwise quite amazing and important book… perhaps heightened by being near the end of a two-month holiday away from my instrument and principal creative medium, and looking forward to a blissful reunion.
Regardless, joy and creativity are on my mind, and I’d like to explore the connection between them a bit further this week. In my opinion and experience there has to be some joy in the creative process, on some level, even with dark material (and trust me, I’ve contributed to some very dark material), or else the whole thing feels hollow and cheap.
I have to be careful here, because this is dangerously close to a kind of Kumbaya, rose-coloured-glasses view of creativity and art as essentially light and fluffy, warm and fuzzy. There is no lack of this around the net, and I am not eager to add to it; generally it strikes me as unexamined and shallow.
No, I’m after something deeper, a kind of spiritual joy that comes from much more intensive and uncompromising self-observation and examination. I want to understand this joy and try to figure out what makes it tick, and how we might create the circumstances that give rise to it, a little more often…
Connectedness – is the Universe creative?
For me, the deepest source of this joy has always been the sense of connection with the universe and its energy that creative activity brings. It is my profound belief that the patterns and processes at the root of creativity are fundamentally the same as those that underlie consciousness and, indeed, life itself.
I’ll be examining this in more detail in future installments (and in the upcoming Cliffjump Manifesto), but for now I’ll just say that I think this is one of the reasons creativity ‘feels good’ when it’s going well. It affirms to us that we are part of and deeply connected to the creativity of the world we live in, and particularly its dazzling variety of life forms and cultures.
Go with the Flow!
What do I mean by “when it’s going well”? I guess I’m talking about that myterious condition called ‘flow‘, as studied and described in eloquent detail by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi*. A person in a state of ‘flow’ is “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity”…
Another way of describing this state, which I’ve also used and heard used, is ‘being in the Zone’. It means pretty much the same thing – that wonderful combination of playfulness and confidence that somehow transcends the sense of self; somehow everything is effortlessly right, surprising yet completely natural and familiar.
Mistakes are almost impossible when you’re in the Zone. You feel like the work is coming through you, and the creative act is more like channeling or guiding something into existence, rather than an act of force or willpower.
I Sing the Body Artistic…
For me, this comes about when there is an intersection of two factors:
First, deep familiarity with an idiom or instrument (in my case, music – and more specifically the piano), such that the knowledge transcends conscious effort and control, and enters the realm of body-knowledge – a deep and fluent state where ‘magical’ things can happen that seem beyond our normal capabilities;
Second, some significant factor or difference that takes this ‘body-knowledge’ into an unfamiliar place, presents some new challenge or problem, with just enough ‘danger’ to raise the stakes that extra few degrees – without taking things so far outside the comfort zone that the previous condition is no longer met. This could be working with a new collaborator, or with an unfamiliar tool or idiom, or some other such influence.
Presto Abracadabra Open Sesame Alakazam!
The reason this combination works is that it enables us to surprise and delight ourselves. I realize that many artists might argue that this is not or should not be the main purpose of art, and I’m not saying that it is. However, I think that when this ‘magic’ happens, the work (again, even if it’s very dark in theme, or challenging in intent) tends to have an energy and a natural, unforced beauty that is hard to achieve when we exert too much conscious control.
And in my experience, the work that results is that much more likely to connect deeply with an audience, which I do believe is one of the essential goals of art – though not necessarily the only one.
The joy that comes from this is beyond the satisfaction of doing something well; it transcends whatever rewards may follow, be they money, attention, respect, prestige, status or fame. This joy is physical, experiential, and as immersive as the process that engenders it.
We’re trained professionals; please do try this at home!
Notice, too, that I did not say that this joyful synergy requires any particular level of accomplishment or experience. I used the words “deep familiarity”, and talked about ‘transcending conscious control’ and entering the realm of body-knowledge. This state can actually be achieved at a fairly basic level of technical prowess; what is important is a deep command of that technique, a comfort and ease with it, even if it’s limited.
Too much technique can even, as previously discussed, be detrimental if the technique itself becomes the goal or focus. It’s better to know a lot about a little than a little about a lot. Moreover, it’s essential to have a real and clear understanding of where our technique is at, so as to avoid taking on challenges that are actually beyond us and will lead to frustration and anger.
However, the joy that comes from this process when we get the balance just right, is intoxicating and addictive; once you’ve experienced it, you want more. This means that it is cumulative and self-perpetuating – it gets easier to find as the complex interactions of technique, control and body-knowledge grow deeper, more familiar and complete. The body is remarkably good at learning when in this state, so in some ways it’s better and more effective than ‘practice’ as it is usually defined.
The thrill is gone…
However, we always need that extra element of novelty, challenge, struggle, and that can actually get harder to find as your technique increases and improves. This is where our conscious mind can play an active and vital role in finding and maintaining this joyful flow: by looking for interesting new challenges and influences.
Even if you’ve attained that level of ‘Effortless Mastery‘* that Kenny Werner describes in his wonderful book of the same name – when you get to the point where you’re in that state of Flow instantly the moment you sit down at your instrument, or pick up your paintbrush, or whatever form your creative work takes… without the spark of challenge, it will eventually become boring and safe, and the energy and joy of it will fade.
The really essential artists, I believe, are those that are able to maintain this balance, this perfect and prescription for creative joy, and ride the wave deep into the Zone. Their technique and mastery evolve and develop but never become formulaic, and never take center stage. The joy and excitement of discovery stays at the heart of the work.
Well anyway, that’s what I’m after. I’ll let you know how it goes!
What about you? What gives you joy in your creative life? What about in non-artistic fields – science, technology, business, marketing… is there a Joy factor? Is it essential? Please leave your thoughts and comments below!