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Cooking for the Creative Beast
Matt Wood | Aug 15 2008
Earlier this summer, I was in the kitchen, trying to cook dinner. I had a pot on the stove and a fire going on the grill outside. I was fumbling with a bag of frozen peas when my three-year-old started shouting at me to fix one of his toys. “Hold on a second, son,” I said. “I can’t do two things at once.” He looked me, dead serious, and said, “But you have two hands, Daddy.”
Too Many Pots on the Stove
My life usually feels like this. I set out to do make something nice, and I end up with a scorched side dish, charred burgers, and crunchy peas. The output barely resembles that delicious-looking picture in Cooking Light, but hey, the toy trains are running on time!
My immediate solution has been to limit the inputs and not try to do so much at once. If I can’t cook a nice meal with a preschooler underfoot, then I won’t even try. Chicken nuggets and grilled cheese for everyone, and you’ll like it, thank you very much. While this approach to dinner fulfills various statutes regarding child neglect, it’s also not very satisfying. Apply this approach to work and it certainly creates more time to do Important Things, but it makes for soggy, microwaved output as well.
For example, around the same time my son was questioning my competency with opposable thumbs, I was going through a phase where I had stripped by my daily routine down to the bare bones. I wasn’t happy with my word count, and I blamed it on the internet. I unsubscribed from RSS feeds right and left. I shuttered my blog. I quit visiting forums. I stopped following half the people on my Twitter list. And it worked, for a while. In the first few weeks of this monastic regimen, I wrote a 20-page essay—with footnotes—about my childhood baseball hero that was accepted by the first publication to which I sent it. Score. I thought I was on to something.
Then my ideas ran out.
My creative beast is restless and hungry, and I’ve learned that if I starve it by arbitrarily limiting its routine, it’s not happy. It’s all well and good to cut the fat out of your life to make time for what’s important, but you can take it too far. By turning off the internet, I turned off my source of inspiration. I was trying to write in a vacuum.
Apparently this works for some people. I was in a workshop recently with a guy who has a cabin in the New Mexico desert where he holes up with four dogs, smokes pot, and writes novels. He said it was the only way he could get any work done, but that wouldn’t work for me. Not yet.
I’m learning, slowly, that creative work requires both inspiration and a certain amount of warm up. Fooling around online gets my creative juices flowing and helps jump start more important work. The benefit doesn’t come from the sheer volume of information I consume; it comes from redirecting some of that stream and trying to synthesize it into a blog post or a pithy comment, none of which may be things I’ll put on my CV at the end of the day. But one-off, frivolous activities like that keep my brain working, and help me warm up to create things that will make me proud. I’ve cautiously reintroduced some of my old online haunts back into the routine since the summer drought, and sure enough it’s helped shake more ideas loose.
To torture another metaphor, it’s like baseball players taking batting practice. It’s fun for them to crank balls into the cheap seats to make the crowd ooh and ahh. It doesn’t count in the standings, and yet it’s serious work. They’re sharpening their eye, loosening muscles, working on hitting balls to the opposite field. If they went a week without launching a few crowd-pleasers into the stands, their performance in the real games would suffer because they’d be wasting their first few at bats working out the kinks that should have been worked out in practice.
The same goes for writing, or any other creative work. You need to let yourself practice with blogging, journals, or throwaway poems and work under less than perfect circumstances, the same way a guitarist noodles around with chords while watching TV, or an artist scribbles on a sketchpad while riding the bus. You can’t be too precious with your words or your notes or your brushstrokes. Believe me, someone will be there to trash your work anyway, no matter how long you petted it and brushed its hair. It’s more important to keep your brain switched on than trying to preserve every last bit of inspiration.
Distraction as a Role Player
Blaming your failures on wide distractions like the internet is just an advanced form of procrastination anyway. I’d gotten so used to blaming the amount of time I spent online for why I couldn’t get anything done that it became an all-or-nothing proposition: work or the internet. Dedication or distraction. The distraction became an excuse for why I avoided putting in time on things that matter.
But the trick isn’t cutting out that distraction completely, it’s acknowledging it, admitting its power over you, then drawing lines and finding its proper role in your life. There is a big difference between surrendering your attention to the demands of someone else and simply letting your brain wander off and play on the swings for a while.
Your boogeyman may be Guitar Hero, or fantasy football, or long phone conversations with your friends. This isn’t permission to mainline RSS feeds or wire Wikipedia straight into your brain. We all know where that leads. But you’ll find that in responsible portions, your creative side feeds off those rejuvenating distractions. It can’t live on chicken nuggets and grilled cheese for long.
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