On Flow and 'Putting in the Time'


OR Cultivating a Creative Practice Part II

subjects: flow, being an amateur, 'putting in the time

I previously wrote about cultivating a creative practice. I wrote about how it's an essential activity as a human.

Cultivating a Creative Practice

I want to expand on that post with some additional ideas.

The ultimate warm and gooey feeling that one can achieve in the act of creative expression is the feeling of 'flow.' This zen-like state is when time drops away, the mind disappears and your whole being is absorbed in creation. You are singing or moving or sculpting and you forget yourself. You turn out the work almost as if you were divinely led.

Flow can be very relaxing or it can be intense concentration. The outcome of your work may be a beautiful work of art. Or it could be just a momentary period of unrestricted improvisational creation. It can happen solo, and it can happen beautifully in a collaboration like a jam session.

When we fail to hit flow in our creative practice many people have a tendency to become self-critical. Or worse: they quit. The problem is that they may have quit too soon. In a society that rewards virtuousic mastery (as well as vapid 'fame') it's important not to force ourselves to only do activities that we can be 'masters' of or professionalize.

That said, if you do want to become 'great' at an activity then you have to 'put in the time' and sometimes that can take months or years.

So there's two parts to keep in mind. First, enjoy being an amateur. There can be a real joy in having the freedom to make mistakes. Beginners often stumble across techniques and optimistic mindsets in ways that those with lots of experience can only dream of experiencing again. In our quest to become experts it's easy to resent one's lack of experience and to want to jump to being an expert, but if we do that we are forgetting these opportunities for exploration and discovering with fresh eyes, ears and minds.

Secondly, it's normal to be bad at something, often for a long time. Ira Glass of the podcast This American Life speaks about how he sucked as a host, for years and years and years.

For the first couple years that you're making stuff what you're making is not so good. It's not great. It's trying to be good. It has ambition to be good but it's not that quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste can tell you that what you're making is a disappointment to you. You can kind of tell. A lot of people never get past that phase, and a lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn't have this special thing they wanted it to have. Everybody goes through that. And for you to go through that right now or if you're just getting out of that phase you've got to know is that it's totally normal. And the most important thing you can do is to do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you're going to finish one story. Because it's only by going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And your work you're making will be as good as your ambitions....It's normal to take a while and you're just going to have to fight your way through that.

Okay. So this contradicts some of what I earlier wrote about being an amateur, allowing yourself hobbies or pure joy of creation. I'm okay with having these simultaneous thoughts that may compete with one another.

Doing creative work often means just putting in dedicated time. Doing a little each day or when you can. Not letting other things get in your way. If you want to get great, whatever that means to you, just putting in the time is important. What Malcolm Gladwell calls the '10,000 hours' to become an expert (that number has been disputed by the way).

Each year I usually participate in a month-long creation project. For example in October is Inktober. November is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoGenMo, the National Novel Generating Month). I've done looptober, where I played and recorded an improvised new track every day on my modular synth, which rapidly taught me how to play my synth and to understand control voltage way better. Other months I've worked on a game every day, or committed to doing daily code sketches.

Other motivators to help dedicate regular time to work on my practice includes having deadlines. Setting internal deadlines doesn't usually work for me. I can ignore. But having open studios that I announce means I need to have something ready to show when people show up. Applying for and getting into exhibits means I have to make the work to show it or attempt to have it shown. Setting up a date/time to do a zoom or in-person studio visit means I'll need to have work ready to show at that time. These are all ways to motivate and encourage spending time on my creative practice.

It Is okay to quit. If during this time you decide you aren't interested in the practice anymore, or want to shift to something else, or if you really want to enjoy it as an amateur, that's OK. But make sure you don't decide on this too soon! Put some intention into it.

What I've found is that over time I've been able to build control and my craft but I also am able to retain some of my 'amateurism' too. I've been able to unlearn the proper way to.....draw, program, play my instrument, even teach. I put in time. I cultivate my practice. I find collaborators. And I have some deadlines (and good things like open studios, concerts, exhibits and talks) at low stakes and sometimes 'bigger' venues along the way. I think this is what's allowed me to have an expanded creative practice and success organizing in artist and experimental communities for over a decade and not be burnt out but in fact still excited and motivated.

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