Posted: May 1, 2022
There is a young lad I sometimes see when I am out to the stores or just going for a walk. As I get older, I don’t have as good a handle on age as I once did, but I would place him at somewhere in his early thirties. Until a few months ago I only had a nodding acquaintance with him. Our paths would cross enough that we would acknowledge that we had seen each other before – something of a notion that we were functioning together in the same little island in the sea.
But one day when sharing a park bench, I could hear from his headphones a band I have liked since the seventies and one that is not well known to his generation – Weather Report. When he took off his headphones and pulled out a journal to write something down, I remarked the bridge in the song. As it turns out music is his field. He is a musician/producer/ composer. It also turns out, as I have learned over a few conversations since that time, he goes to the park when he hits a creative wall. Sometimes it’s just a clearing of his head that he needs.
Last week was a fairly intense conversation. He is plagued by this question of the determination of when something is complete. In the non-creative, real-world-functional-stuff this does not come up. I have either pealed the potatoes or there is more peeling to do, but in the creative world there is no bell to say the meal is ready for pick up, no green light indicating its good to go.
Because I have been on the planet long enough to be his dad, and observed this mental maze before, I was able to share what I have learned about it, while observing similar creative humans.
The mind is really strange item. And the desire to make an artistic product the best you can produce when combined with the judgement that comes from putting your name on something as complex as art, is a challenge. It comes from the underlying problem of the final work being made up of those bits of nothing you have combined, whether it is notes for music, words for prose, or the elements of visual art.
One thing that I know he already does well is to go for that walk, and take his mind off the problem. The truth of it is that a persons mind is never really off the job, but the effect of doing something else, diversion, means the mind can work it without you getting in the way. One artist I know claims this is the real reason for sleep.
Some creatives have found the formula in working with an editor or to collaborate with someone else. Often the completion of a project is more easily identified than when working on a project alone. He shared that he loved doing this but had a rather upsetting recent break up with a musical collaborator and is not looking for another collaboration situation right now.
But there are also tricks and techniques for learning how to get your mind into the right place to sign off on a project. I shared the experience of a friend who was studying architecture. On the first day and the first class the exercise was to draw in pencil a facade of a building the student liked. They had fifteen minutes. Some of course at the end of the fifteen minutes were still figuring out what scale to use, others were creating a grid so the visuals could be accurate, but most had a finished drawing a façade and some were quite detailed. The instructor pointed out what had clearly been a matter of time mismanagement for some of the students in their desire to make it so perfect in scale and representation they did not get anything on the page and had missed the opportunity to show others what they actually thought. After some discussion it became clear that the students understood the value of the exercise – there are times where completing is the task, so they will be measured on that, not on the results.
A pretty good lesson, I think. But the exercise went on.
They were then given ten minutes to erase the drawing, crumple up the paper, smooth it out and then do the drawing again. Once again a few were challenged by this – either bogging down in erasing to make the paper completely free of any trace of the previous image and did not get the task completed, or the notion of crumpling up the paper before doing the new drawing was a leap a few could not fully embrace. Most instantly understood the significance – nothing you produce is precious – be prepared to mash it up and come back to it. The really important aspects or ideas expressed the first time will come back quickly and the drawing can be produced in less time.
Finally, after much more discussion the exercise took on another iteration. They were allocated five minutes to erase that drawing, do the crumpling up but this time to try to get it down to a very small little wad of paper before opening it up again. Now the challenge was to do the drawing with the hand they do not usually use. By this point all the students were on board and understanding the exercise. The drawings they produced were very rudimentary, but while pared back in detail and accuracy, most of them captured the essence of the best parts of their design. Every student completed on time and every drawing, while sloppy and basic had some architectural elements that could be discussed.
My young friend enjoyed hearing the story and related it to a performing a song night after night on the road, and cutting out the junk verses, and the trappings that are not needed and getting to the real elements of what makes the song work. Or going from the fully enhanced product to an unplugged version.
It was a springboard for us talking about some other techniques. I have never been a farmer but have some extended family members who are. They use the technique of letting a field lie fallow to regenerate. Over a period of one or more years the field would not be in production, letting it rebuild its nutrients. Leaving a creative work of any kind for a period of time does not change the work but you do come back to it somewhat refreshed as the creator of it and can see it in a new light and with some edits may be more easily identified as complete or the deficiencies identified to correct to complete. This I have found works very well for me but unfortunately while the technique works like a charm, it can also become a nasty excuse for procrastination.
A real challenge for many of us is to find the way to access the second most important thinking organ in your body. We all use our minds, but what we think of as the gut is often better at processing complex decisions. But how do you access it? My buddy Jim had a big investment company and tried to use consensus management as much as possible. When dealing with difficult decisions where various scenarios and proformas and risk analysis had been employed and put into the mix for decision making, the decision would usually fall out of the research. If the answer was not apparent, you needed to go back to do more research on the various risks, or opportunities. But when the answer would still not rise to the top, he would write a definitive action plan on a little yellow sticky note and post it on the fridge of the coffee room – WE ARE GOING TO BUY XYZ BUILDING, for example. This is the technique he has used in all his big life decisions as well – changing jobs, buying houses, having kids. If the next morning you get up and feel good about that definitive action statement, it’s a go. If you wake up at four in the morning in a cold sweat and go to the kitchen and rip it off the fridge, your gut has let you know.
But after sharing with him all the wisdom I could muster on the subject he raised another one that is as good as the rest – feedback. Hearing from others does not help you create but it does tell you how your work is received and that might prove to be a guide. His conclusion was to post a piece of his music or two on a platform that is a bit of showcase for his kind of music and see the comments that come back. Ultimately its his work, and his decision to keep it as it is, or erase, crumple it up and do it again. But getting a response from the public to what in his case is a largely solitary act of writing music, isolated from the rest of the world, was his conclusion. Many a musical performer have let their music evolve and respond to the audience.
Part of my sharing with him also got me onto thinking about those things in my life I have not completed. Some of these I have good explanations for, others I do not.
If there is one thing I have learned from Covid, it is the little day to day interactions we now experience, that in the past would usually not be indulged, today are often what sustain us. I have a new young friend, his name is Jared, and we are learning together.