No one religion can console this enormous country.
No single philosophy convince it.
No therapy relieve it of its burdens.
No legal system comfort its injustice.
No medicine deliver it from pain.
No government give it joy.
Only art does that.
-playwright Romulus Linney
NOTE: Before reading this posting, please make sure you’ve read Women on the Verge Vol. 4, which outlines the entire creative process. Otherwise, the following may be confusing, rather than helpful.
Transformation and Evaluation
Transformation and Self-Evaluation are unlike previous stages, which were mostly unconscious. These two are hands-on and mentally engaging. In addition to identifying specific challenges (blocks), that can pop up, you will be given tools to get you back in the studio, at the keyboard, on stage, or wherever you do your thing.
Stage Four: Transformation
This starts with that first stab at manifesting your vision. This is where the invisible becomes visible; your idea becomes a draft, a sketch, a sound, a movement. Here is where fantasy is realized. Here is where you will discover skill deficits or struggle with unfamiliar materials, as you push yourself outside your comfort zone. This stage is what many non-artists think is the entire creative process; you put some clay on a table and pound, you speak in your character’s voice, you fling yourself across the stage, across the page. They don’t realize the internal struggle that preceded this stage … nor the complex one that will follow. This stage is about MAKING. All previous stages (when you didn’t “look busy”) unfolded in your mind. That’s why your process is often so difficult to discuss outside your creative community. “What are you working on?” is usually followed up with “Can I see (hear, watch, read) it?” Sometimes you just have to say, “I’m not at that point yet. But I appreciate your interest.”
There are some required skills and desirable attitudes to bring to this stage of the creative process. There is no detour around them. No short-cut. There is no way to know what you can do, without discovering what you can’t do (yet). Consequently, this stage is where perfectionists tend to drop out. Even for the most confident, flexible artist, it can be a highly frustrating experience over an extended period of time. If you don’t know this – if you don’t talk to other artists – you will misinterpret your steep learning curve as a sign of incompetence and simply give up. Those desired attitudes and skills are:
Committing to an idea; not waiting for an absolute guarantee that you’ve chosen the best idea to manifest. (Afraid to commit? Then commit with fear!)
A willingness to fail. Research has shown that highly creative/successful people are willing to make far more mistakes than non-creatives.
A willingness to experiment with unfamiliar materials, styles or processes.
Ability to manipulate and control the medium you have chosen. (Or learn how.)
A willingness to seek assistance or consult when problems arise.
A willingness to rethink and redirect effort. (Too wedded to an idea to let go?)
Time-management skills. (Can be learned and incorporated into your process.)
An openness to FLOW.
“Flow” is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an original researcher in creativity and former Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. He describes flow as an optimal experience that comes from investing your attention fully, not holding back, not protecting yourself or criticizing or monitoring your effort. Just riding the wave, in deep concentration, with a single-minded focus. In this state we feel at one with our work and merged with the world around us. We are not aware of any boundaries. Time passes without our noticing. Hours whiz by. The actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, describes it this way: “There are moments when you’re acting wherein something comes over you where you, all of a sudden, feel as if the entire set and director aren’t there. It’s a weird, trance-like experience.”
Flow is an organic process. You cannot force it. The myth is that alcohol and other substances, like LSD, expand creative consciousness. However, brain research has shown that under their influence, the contents of our mind are merely shuffled around, and the “self” returns to its pre-drug state. It might feel like some major activity is going on, but there are no long-lasting results to enhance your future creative efforts. Whereas, after a drug-free extended period of flow, the “self” actually becomes more complex.
Block #1 “All or Nothing Thinking”
This happens when you arrive at the Transformation Stage with only one option in mind: a perfect project. When an experiment fails, your entire effort is scrapped (including the parts that actually work). No thought is given to another approach. Once there is an error, it’s regarded as a fatal error. Back to the drawing board, over and over — with each trip costing precious time — as you start from scratch again and again. Destroying work is both impulsive and compulsive. It’s triggered by a strong defense against both the fear that you lack what it takes to be the artist you want to be, as well as, a fear of success. The problem is this: When you destroy your work, you are destroying thebravest part of you; the part that had the courage to take risks. The part you need to nourish and protect.
Create a ten-second rule. When you FIRST feel the impulse to destroy an effort, count to ten. Sometimes that’s just enough to keep something moving forward. If not, then it’s definitely enough time to toss the unsuccessful attempt into a drawer or box. You can examine it later: It might still have life in it. If not now, maybe later in the project. If not this project, maybe a future one.
Block #2 “Skill Deficit”
You feel like you’re in over your head. You can’t think creatively, because you are overwhelmed just trying to manage the material you’ve chosen. You’ve confused the ideal with reality. Something attracted you, but you weren’t ready to take it on.
Play detective and assess your situation. Inventory what you should know – or be able to do — at this stage. How big is the gap? Who can you consult with? Break it down: Is the deficit information-based, skill-based or attitude based? Is it a matter of researching the materials, practicing or improving technique? Or, will it take a mental adjustment? If you reach out, know where to reach: Who might be familiar with the technique or form you’ve invested in?
When you become frustrated by your deficit, the following information may keep your frustration from shifting into a sense of helplessness. Knowing how your mind processes a new skill may guide you to be more patient. A deficit isn’t a weakness. It’s a guidepost. Your frustration is signaling that you don’t, yet, have all the tools you need to succeed at whatever you are trying. You’re mind is asking things of your brain, that it is not capable of supplying. So, here’s how it works for you. How it worked for Sylvia Plath, Martha Graham, Billie Holliday, Diane Arbus and Richard Burton. Your mind’ssense of competence cycles through the same stages with each new skill you take on:
1. As a newborn, incompetence is unconscious. You don’t know that you don’t know how to tie your shoe. You don’t know tying exists.
2. As a toddler, incompetence is conscious. You try but can’t, so you get help.
3. By age five, competence is conscious. You know you can tie, and you do.
4. As an adult, competence is unconscious. Tying no longer requires active thinking. You do it so well now, you can be watching t.v. at the same time.
Young childhood is full of frustration. We want to do so many things we can’t … YET. Sometimes, as adults, when we’re trying out new tricks, we jet right back to when we first experienced an awareness of our own incompetence. This can send a current of “shame” each time we discover a gap in our creative skills. Remind yourself: before ability becomes an unconscious act, you might feel the old sting of not knowing how.
To remain highly creative, it’s important, at times, to be willing to “dump” what you know and return to the “not knowing” mind that is the newborn’s (and also the heart of Zen). By allowing yourself to not know, you remain open to solutions that might not, otherwise, occur to you. Of course, to do this, you must trust the creative process.
Block Number #3 “Mid-Project Fatigue”
You’re tired before you begin. You’re experiencing “burn out.” Not feeling creative. The next day you return to your project but lack the inspiration to begin.
Try what Hemingway did. He often left his writing space in the middle of a sentence. This created a “bridge” between his days, allowing him to take time away. No matter what happened in that gap — since he last sat at his typewriter — there it was, waiting for him when he returned: a half-sentence, begging to be completed. The next session, he didn’t have to stare for an hour at a blank page, while feeling inspiration drain out of him. He got right to work. This trick can free you from pushing yourself to exhaustion. Instead, STOP! But stop when you know exactly what the next step is.
Stage Five: Self-Evaluation
You’ve done it! You have created something that did not exist in the universe before this moment. It may, or may not, be how you imagined it. But here it is. Now is the time when you take measure of your intention and compare that to what is. There is no skipping over this stage, if you hope to make a name for yourself. Now is when you calculate what’s working, what’s not, and what to do about that. Many a creative project died on the vine, because the artist didn’t have the confidence, passion, skill, dedication, and determination to close the gap.
You’ve lived with this piece for weeks, months, or even years. Consequently you’re too close to it, emotionally, to see things that need pointing out. It’s vital that you don’t show your work to just anyone. Pick folks who inspire you. Folks whose opinions you respect and trust. For technical or aesthetic issues, choose those who are also artists and – preferably, but not necessarily – work in your medium. Loved ones are great for support, but they may not have the sensibility or vocabulary to communicate in a way that will help you problem-solve. A hug won’t help you out of the creative corner you might have painted yourself into.
Even as you were putting the flourishing touches on your work, you were already aware of obvious flaws, and now – as you examine it closely – the hidden ones appear. Each time you visit the work you know which parts excite you, and where you played it safe. But at some point you must declare it “FINISHED!” or you will overwork it. This is the stage where you step back, try to remove biases and blind spots, and truly see what you have accomplished. And here’s a secret: Your evaluation of the piece will be based more on your attitude toward it, than the work itself: If early on, poor time-management and a deadline resulted in a forced choice, you probably committed to a bad idea just to get the project launched. Now, you feel regret but no inspiration. No excitement. You made it to the altar, but you married the wrong person.
Block #1“Deadline Paralysis”
As you enter this evaluation stage, one of the first things you measure is how much time you have left to make any necessary changes. This block is the panic that strikes when it becomes clear that the clock’s ticking and nothing is happening. It doesn’t matter whether the deadline is for a class project, or entry into an exhibit, or completion for a private client. Everything has ground to a halt.
There is a myth that the pressure of time is necessary for inspiration to kick in. Yes, time is necessary to allow ideas to perk below the surface before they manifest. But that stage has long passed. There is ZERO advantage in ignoring the passage of time at this point. So, let’s call it what it is: You are officially engaged in procrastination. Procrastination is triggered by panic. Panic is triggered by the knowledge that evaluation is around the corner. Think it’s something else? Answer this question: “If you knew, in advance, you would not fail, how fast would you get to work?” All procrastination gets you is an excuse: “It’s not what I really wanted to do, but I ran out of time.” Procrastination is a time-management deficit skill, triggered by crushingperfectionism. This perpetual questioning of artistic ability leads us to self-sabotage creative dreams. Everybody misses a deadline now and then. But if your normalpattern is working under the gun, turning in less-than-satisfying work — or you turn in work you’re proud of, but too late to be accepted — then you are too comfortable with letting yourself down. You’re choosing familiar behavior (for the security of a predictable outcome), rather than risk putting yourself out there. It takes courage to create. Would you rather be “right” (I knew I’d screw up!) or, would you rather be an artist?
Block #2 “Perfectionism”
Each opportunity to show the world how creative you are is also an opportunity to reveal to the world your lack of talent and skill. Artists, who believe they could survive such a thing, will do whatever they can to procrastinate. They panic, erasing joy from what is one of life’s greatest experiences: creating meaningful work. Perfectionists are overly focused on outcome as the singular measure of success. Every opportunity presents only two options: success or failure. For perfectionists, the process of creating art becomes an agonizing internal contest long before their work ever enters the highly-competitive market.
There will ALWAYS be a gap between what we intend to create and what is created. The search for the perfect project is impossible, because our marvelous brain can conjure up images and words in combinations so surreal that they’re impossible to capture. The best we can do is cobble together some scraps from a dream or trap a little gossip whispered in our ear as we awaken. So, we have to accept that images, movements, even sounds, that appear to us as floating ideas will rarely fully translate to real life. The best we’re able to do can still feel … disappointing. Long after we release our work, we keep imagining how to improve it: a tweak here, an addition there, perhaps erasing that and subbing this. We agonize over a superior idea that arrives long after the piece is gone. Don’t torture yourself. Nothing personal. It happens to all of us. All the time.
Instead of the perfectionist’s “all-or-nothing” perspective, begin defining “success” on acontinuum of personal satisfaction, without reference to perfection. Shift your focus up and down between process and outcome: Can you remember projects that resulted in work that was accepted but not praised, yet you truly enjoyed the risky challenge of trying new materials? Can you remember a project that was met with positive feedback, but was technique-driven, resulting in work with little personal meaning? Redefine“success” in a more fluid, inclusive way and you will tap into a whole new world
Questions for Evaluating Your Own Work
1. What am I doing here that I never tried before?
2. Where & how does innovation show?
3. How does this work compare to my previous efforts?
4. Is there anything “cliché” within this work?
5. What could I change that would nudge/push this work to a higher level?
1. How big is the gap between my intention and the work produced?
2. What would I have to re-think in order to reach a wider audience?
3. What’s blocking what I want to communicate with this piece?
4. What inspired this intention? Why now?
5. What’s the opposite effect I’m trying to get?
6. Is this piece making a statement or asking a question? What is it?
1. Where is the evidence that I’m working at the level of my potential?
2. Where is the evidence I’m struggling with unfamiliar material(s)?
3. Where is the evidence I fully committed to this challenge?
4. Where is it obvious technique is an issue?
5. What do I need to practice before making modifications?
1. In what way does this work appear amateur? Professional?
2. In what way does this work show whether I care?
3. How will I know when it is DONE?
4. Is there already evidence of being overworked? Where? How?
1. How do I feel toward this work? (Not how do I feel about myself as the artist.)
2. Do I need to change my relationship to it, in order to serve it better? In what way?
3. In what way do I feel bonded to this piece?
4. What will letting go of this require of me?
5. How has this work changed me?