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Attention & Ambiguity: The Non-Paradox of Creative Work

Psychology Today: The Creative Personality

[via delicious.com/huxant, w/a reminder by Jack Shedd]

Some days, I can't decide how I feel about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say: "chick SENT me high"). He's written some great stuff, but, sometimes, he mixes Big-Word academicspeak with anecdotal observation in a way that smells a little hokey to me.

So, although I'm trying not to audibly roll my eyes at a pop-psychology Top 10 list about creativity's "dialectical tension," I definitely am interested in one of his observations about the "paradox" of creative people.

Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility

This is a theme that comes up again and again when professional artists and writers talk about how they approach their work. I'm thinking in particular of things I've read recently by Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and Twyla Tharp.

Most all makers with longevity talk about a process that involves regular, scheduled work periods that allow generous time for warmups and getting into what Csikszentmihalyi himself has called, "Flow." For as long as he or she can stay in that Flow state, a good artist is capable of synthesizing unbelievably disparate material and ideas in a way that's often satisfying and productive. For those who cannot, it means another morning of video games, Facebook, and binge eating.

Artists who are in the early draft stage of a given project tend to adopt a generative attitude about capturing and accepting whatever shows up without judgment or self-editing -- having a gentle attitude about imperfection that gives "bad" or "incomplete" ideas the same wide berth as the the apparently-great ones.

This is not stressful for the gifted artist who knows the dirty little secret that nobody shits a masterpiece; it's all about editing, re-writing, and shaping the raw materials into something that will eventually become whole, polished, and cohesive. Eventually. But, first, you have to get something down. And that's where that supposed "paradox" sure comes in handy.

My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Selfe, introduced the concept of the paradox by saying it was something that "contradicts itself...or seems to contradict itself." I recall my 14-year-old self thinking both my teacher and this recursive concept were very profound and deep. But, really, that second part is entirely appropriate here.

The artistic combining of "playfulness and discipline" only seems contradictory to the aspiring artist who believes creativity means buying a beret and playing a Miles Davis record while you shoot black-tar heroin. The truth is that creativity is much more about combining the self-discipline to tolerate ambiguity with the will to transform the results into something meaningful. It's not really contradictory; it's largely an issue of intentionality and attention.

If you can find a regular time and place where you feel safe to let all your ideas sit naked for a while, you're much more likely to produce work you can be proud of. Granted, in the editing process, you'll adopt a schizophrenic alternation between openness and judgment, but it's still not really a paradox at all -- no more than "heads" and "tails" make a coin paradoxical.

Sure: you can call this, "dialectical tension" if you like. But, from a tactical standpoint, this stuff comes down to basic attention management -- finding a way to shut out everything that's not the thing that requires your focus to get made.

And, yeah, "talent" doesn't hurt either, but there's no way to even discover if you have talent until you've made a lot of crap and an occasional good thing, and find a way for that all to be okay. Plus, anyone can tell you, "talent" is like having a nice ass or a rich father; it helps open doors, but the actual work on the other side of the door is all on you.

Donate your beret to Goodwill, clear a Saturday morning, and maybe brew a pot of coffee. You have a lot of work to do, and the paradox is that you can't work on it while you're reading about the non-paradox of creative paradoxes.

How you like that one, Mr. Selfe?

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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