The Distraction Theory of Creativity
I have often wondered why creative artists tend to create more when they are miserable and unhappy. At least that’s what I hear and see written. Being a creative artist myself I have done my share of creative work in states like that. I am firmly convinced it does not have to be that way!
Hence my new theory. The Distraction Theory of Creativity. It’s probably not new, there is probably some treatise written by a French Monk in the 14th century that explains all this. Though I am somewhat well read, I am not that well-read, so for the time being I am inventing this theory for myself.
It’s pretty simple. Creativity flows most freely, and best, when the creativity is not the focus of the mind at work, but a byproduct of the mind at work. I have to be almost “tricked” into my highest creative state. There are lots of ways to do this, and ways it can happen. The key is that I am focused on something other than the need or demand to be creative, or perhaps focused on nothing at all as in meditation, and the creativity starts to flow unencumbered by expectation and goals.
I have a story, one of those “everyday work world” as opposed to “tortured artist trying to create a masterpiece” stories. I was working as a Manager on a construction project. It was a 25 story building and it was a major disaster from an engineering standpoint. Exterior finishes were cracking and while there was no safety risk the owners were most displeased, as they rightfully should have been.
The President of our firm came to the job site and picked me up. I was managing this expensive process, it was about to bankrupt our firm, I was 24 years old and felt like I was in way over my head. “Let’s go to the Hardware store”, he said.
It was one of those big box discount hardware stores that sold everything from garden hose washers to lawn tractors, lumber, plumbing, basically everything you need to build a house type places.
We wandered around for about an hour. He would point to some object on a shelf. “What do you think that is used for?” he’d ask. I would read the label, tell him, and then he would ask, “What do you think it could be used for, other than its designed purpose?”
We would brainstorm on this for a while. We would come up with all kinds of ideas for how we could use this object in a variety of applications. After about an hour we went to go grab some lunch and drive back to the jobsite. We had not once discussed the job and all its problems. On the way back from lunch he asked me “what do you think we should do about problem XYZ, at the job?” I had five ideas all hit me with seemingly no effort at all. One of them actually was the solution. My creativity needed a break from the problem, which is what I was directing it towards, in order to be activated.
I had been so focused on the problem that I could not see solutions. There is no solution in problem, there is only problem. There is only solution in solution. It sounds stupid, but that is how it works.
Creativity flows the same way for me. If I am wanting to write a song, I often go mow the yard, or do some laundry. Both need to be done anyway. I have gotten a lot of ideas for songs, or written pieces, doing both tasks. A long drive, as I have lived all my life in Western states where long drives are as easy as getting in the car and pointing it somewhere, is good. My mind detaches from the objective I want to achieve with my creativity and my creativity starts to flow.
I think that may be one of the allures, among many, that drugs and alcohol held for me earlier in my life. They distracted me from reality, and my creativity started to flow. My solution became my problem in that case, because the drugs and alcohol created a new reality I became enslaved to, and creativity was reduced in its role to become a function of “how can I get more”.
Freed from that, thankfully for well over two decades, I have been able to enjoy my creativity in a variety of settings and then help a lot of folks. I have noticed that pain and sadness, much like drugs and alcohol, were distractions that took my attention away from anything specific I was trying to create, and because I was in the grips of having no choice but to feel what I was feeling, the creativity expressed itself through the lens of those emotions.
I now find that I can consciously access the creative process in all manner of emotional states, and my best work seems to come when I free myself from focusing on the specific objective of the creative task and just create, whether it’s creating patterns in the grass as I push my old reel mower through the yard, or piles or sorted laundry, or just being open to see the beauty of the countryside I am driving through. It opens the channels. Sooner or later in this process I begin to circle around to the specifics of something, once the tap is open and the flow is going.
So I need to distract myself from the end goal sometimes, actually virtually all times, in order to find my way to wherever “there” is supposed to be. I suspect there is a bigger metaphor in that for my whole life process.
Walk In Beauty