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How to Do Creativity

I was in the studio for fourteen days in January, and I think it changed my life. I haven’t known quite what to share about my album-making experience, but the short version is that it was extremely fun. The details are harder to explain; it feels as though those two weeks cracked open a deep well of insight and awe and “oh, DUH” feelings within me.

The well of DUH has to do with creativity: what it is, how it works, and what it’s good for. I felt truly creative in the studio for the first time, and I think all five of us (the band who worked on the record) managed to get pretty dang creatively engaged, together. In other words, the spirit was with us in that little basement studio; and when I listen back to what we made, I can hear her.

Which reminds me, again, why it’s a good and important endeavor to invest my every last ounce of grit and gumption into the creative process, for the remaining moments of my little life.

Because when you manage to DO creativity, it’s a kind of healing magic. And when you SHARE it, the magic works on every witness. Any shmuck can hear and feel it, via microphone or printed page, even over long distances of space and time. It gives you the grinning goosebumps, and fills your heart with comfort, and brings you something holy in this weird and wicked world.

That’s why I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” ten times as a girl. That’s why I spin Ray Charles when I’m happy and Billie Holiday when I’m sad. It’s why I can stare at a Chagall for hours without getting bored. I’m not looking at paint, I’m looking at the creative spirit, and it fills me up with wonder.

SO, WHAT IS CREATIVITY?

Creativity is a process by which our tiny, confused, self-obsessed shit-talking mean little minds become conduits for unicorns and rainbows and Jesus and Beyonce.

It’s what’s happening when we fall in love and become raw-hearted and open, when we get stoned or otherwise silly and yuk it up at the hilarity of the human endeavor, when we lose ourselves and become one with the music we’re making or the dance we’re doing or the face we’re kissing.

HOW DOES CREATIVITY HAPPEN?

You can’t really force it to happen, because it is a profoundly unserious process, highly allergic to plans and strategies of all kinds. Seriousness and planning are the territory of the ego, and it’s a scientific fact that your ego is the least creative bone in your body.

Creativity happens when we are present and playful.

To be present means to be connected to what’s happening NOW, in the actual world you’re in, and unconcerned with what’s happening in the past, the future, or the imaginary alternate universe in your head.

That means you aren’t, for the moment, tripping on any of the following:

  1. Whether the thing you’re doing is stupid, brilliant, wonderful, terrible, or better or worse than some other thing somebody did or might do.
  2. What you might think about the thing you’re doing later on.
  3. What your mother/father/sister/friend/pope/idol/enemy might think about the thing you’re doing.

To be playful means that you’re invested in the PLAY: that is, the actual moment-to-moment ACT of making the thing you’re making. As opposed to the usual, which is being invested in your ego: your identity as the maker of that thing, how your identity will fare once the thing is made.

Playful and present are really two words for the same way of being. Other words include unserious, lighthearted, curious, twitterpated, soulful, feeling the spirit, in the groove, in the pocket, in the zone, open to surprise.

In other words, we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.


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(Yes, that’s the only bible verse I’ve ever quoted in my life)

HOW DO WE DO IT?

Although you can’t do it on purpose, there are lots of ways to encourage it to occur. I tend to think in terms of spirits and angels, because they are an elegant metaphor for how creativity feels; which is as though you were walking along minding your business, and suddenly a magic being from another world swooped down and whispered in your ear.

So, to DO creativity, you have to make yourself available to the angels. Here are a few tricks.

1)  Practice.

Practice is not just for getting better at your instrument. If you ask me, it’s for making your self-consciousness about playing/drawing/dancing slowly recede into the background, so that you can become engaged by the actual activity.

When we’re new at something, we are at least 90% self-conscious and only about 10% engaged. As you practice, the ratio gets better. You get less self-conscious, more engaged, and thus more present and playful (and thus more available to angels).

2)  Surround yourself with angel bait.

Your angel bait depends entirely on the preferences of the angels you are courting. Mine prefer: clean spaces; bright colors; images of animals and children; small trinkets from faraway places; beautiful instruments; good books and records; feathers, bones, candles, and yarn. My writing studio (The Watermelon) is chock-full of this stuff, and while making this album, I finally had the presence of mind to import some angel bait into the recording studio.

My theory about why angel bait works is that creativity is the realm of the unconscious, and so if you want to be creative, you’ll need to speak the language of the unconscious (the language of symbols, myths, and dreams), not regular everyday language. 

For example, hanging up a sign that says “BE CREATIVE AT 10AM” probably won’t work, because it’s written in the wrong language. You’ll be better off hanging up a picture of a seahorse, or a poem that you like. 

Know your audience! If your audience is an angel, don’t be talking deadlines and spreadsheets.


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(Studio alter: prayer candles, kazoo, motter, Japanese anime figurines) 

3)  No more bullies

In addition to deadlines and spreadsheets, angels seem to have an aversion to bullies and egomaniacs. That has at least two connotations for creativity:

  1. If YOU have a tendency towards bullying or egoizing*, now it the time to start taming it. If you’re bullying yourself or anybody else, or if you’re acting with the intention of stroking your own or anybody else’s ego (even subtly and covertly), the angel will know and she will not deign to inspire you with a ten-foot-pole.
  2. If you have a bully or an egomaniac in your life, ESPECIALLY if they are in your creative space, or collaborating with you on your creative work, you’d better get them out of there PRONTO.

Take a moment to look deep inside your soul, and answer honestly: do you have an ego-crazed bully hanging around? Will you miss them more than you’re missing the angels they’re scaring off?

This was another major and recent revelation for me. It forced me to be very choosy about who was involved in the making of this album, especially considering the close quarters and emotional demands of the studio. The people I hired to play on and produce this record are incredibly thoughtful, sweet, emotionally perceptive goofballs. And also wickedly, outlandishly talented (turns out the two are not mutually exclusive).  


(These people are not assholes)

4)  Take care of your body, house, and heart

AS A GENERAL RULE, to be open-hearted, you have to be well-slept, well-fed, recently showered, and somewhat emotionally intact. 

I know this may come as a shock to those who have been operating the Van Gogh/Bukowski model of creativity. I try to follow some combination of Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s:

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now.
After the feet of beauty fly my own.

I find that the angels visit when I’ve slept and eaten, put my house in order, and followed beauty with ardent and steadfast commitment. Neglect of one’s body, abject poverty, and the tortured drama of dysfunctional relationships are all highly overrated methods of courting inspiration.  

In terms of album-making, this means that I rented a house near the studio, did my best to provide comfy beds and good coffee, food, and liquor, paid the band the absolute maximum I could afford, and kept regular hours most days.

WHEN IS A BAD TIME TO BE CREATIVE?

Here’s my last and final knock-down drag-out take-home heart-expanding ass-kicker of a thought:

As far as I can tell, there is no time when creativity is a bad idea. When I am creative, I am smarter, faster, more in tune, sexier, funnier, more perceptive, more compassionate, and a better contributor to those around me.

I used to think that writing was creative, and sometimes performing, but the rest of my life was not. Now I’ve realized that recording is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the studio.

And cooking is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the kitchen.

And doing dishes, and reading, and talking, and walking the dogs, and sitting quietly, and making love, and dreaming, and driving, and waiting in line at the post office, if (and only if) I open my heart to those particular angels. And getting dressed in the morning could be, too, and parenting, and maybe even paying bills (although that is some ninja-level creative magic that I’ve yet to unleash).

When we are creative, we are present and playful. Is there anything worth doing that isn’t improved by those qualities?

And that means, my friends, is that it’s time to put out your angel bait, kick out your bullies, and get your house in order. Because all the world’s a stage, and a canvas, and a guitar. 

And I feel an angel coming on.

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- *As far as I know, ”Egoizing” is a word coined by Ursula K. Le Guin in her book The Dispossessed, a fucking excellent book that you should read.

- My new record will be released in summer 2016.

- This post was inspired by at least two books: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Finite & Infinite Games by James P. Carse. 



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