Once we get rid of the extra stuff, clear away much of the mess we thought necessary to being able to create… What’s left?
Here’s what I think is required. Without which I can do nothing.
My list is as short as possible – because every added thing is another reason to postpone putting myself in motion.
By « need”, I mean the minimum, that without which I can’t seem to function well. I’m not speaking about optimal conditions but the bare minimum…
These are my needs. Your own list will probably be different from mine, and will depend in part on the type of work you do, your internal architecture, etc.
Finally, when I say “to create,” I’m referring mainly to my work with words. Words I write in this letter, or to advance a book project, or to clarify what I intend to do before I die, or to lay a foundation for any “thing” I want to put in the world. As for me, even if the end product is not a text, something comes to fruition via words on a page.
Freedom = complete license, the kind I can only give myself. Freedom not to be at my best. Freedom not to know where I’m going. Freedom to do what might be considered inappropriate. Freedom to make a sentence that begins and ends with the word so: “So.”
Freedom that allows me to let go of any temptation to compare myself to others and just be myself. Oscar Wilde wrote a few brilliant aphorisms (and a bunch of silly ones, in my opinion), including the following:
Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.
Several things happen if I miss more than one day a week at my “work screen” (I can’t say “work table” because I’m not always at a table anymore, and I can’t say at the “page” since I write mainly on my Mac or my iPad).
The only remedy: familiarity triggered by paying regular visits to whatever I’m working on.
Marguerite Yourcenar could stop in the middle of writing Memoirs of Hadrian to talk with construction workers in the next room. She then returned to her work, and was completely absorbed in it again, without unnecessary delay.
She mastered the art of concentration.
The timer at the top of my screen tells me I have six minutes and fifty seconds before my next break—which I’ll probably brush off as an unwelcome distraction if I’m deep into the work, and I’ll start a new stretch of 25 minutes of concentrated work right away.
Why the timer? It’s a way to increase the intensity by marking clearly the start and end of a period of writing. Just a personal preference, which allows me to promote something that is not a mere preference but an actual need: full concentration. For whatever length of time I exercise it.
For all aspects of creative activity, I follow the “business rule” devised by Martha Beck, as follows:
Play until you feel like resting; then rest until you feel like playing. Do nothing else.
Attempts to violate this rule produce a lot of misery and struggle and only a meager harvest. Not worth it.
If I lack sleep, it’s inevitable: I procrastinate, I feel weak, I flit. I don’t want to “play”. My attention is repulsed from focusing on something as vague and elusive as a draft text. That’s fine: at that moment my brain is geared towards daydreaming, contemplating, letting things go.
The trouble is that this particular state of mind ruins the steady rhythm needed for sustained productivity. And then I tend to judge myself as lazy, to castigate myself, and grudge returning to the work at hand. Which is the most depressing thought of all.
To avoid this swamp, I just need to make sure I get enough sleep. Or to remedy the problem with a good nap!
A corollary of the need for rest: the need to enjoy “lost” time, nonlinear time, unoccupied time.
If my mental space is constantly cluttered with thoughts and concerns… If my time space is constantly saturated with urgent things to do… If I think I have to constantly respond to the demands and needs of others… My life becomes oriented to reaction, and creation is impossible.
I don’t need to know exactly where I’m going. I can savor the infinite subtleties of the unknown and unknowable (especially if I manage to wake up from the trance of believing every moment should be productive).
But I need a direction. Will I head north, or northwest? And why? Fortunately, « because I have a vague sense that it is the right direction for now” is a sufficient response.
In other words, “a general direction” simply means I need to tap into my intuition and rely on it.
I don’t think I’d write more than a personal diary if it were not for potential readers. I would create nothing that I didn’t find immediately useful.
Hope for recogition–wanting to be loved–is a vain pursuit, which never fulfills.
Fortunately, there’s another impulse that gains strength as just about everything else’s futility gets unmasked: wanting to make a difference–because we love, because we are surrounded by fellow human beings.
The act of creating is this crossroad where the need to explore, to reveal oneself through self-expression… meets the need to contribute to evolution in one’s small way, to make a difference in the life of others.
For this, Wonder, I’d say it’s best to require as little as possible in order to get moving.
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