Perhaps I have failed. Six months on the far side of graduation and I am unemployed. Aside from brief jobs here or there, I have nearly unlimited free time. I am looking for creative work, but also seeking a better mindset for creativity. I’m learning not to define myself by my occupation. From this void of schedule I have made way for whole days of reading, writing, art making, and driving across the country. Still, I wonder if this is not enough.
During my vast free time, I have been meditating on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Circles. This is an important part of my creative process; I cannot create unless I am fueled intellectually. Emerson writes about unselfconsciousness saying: “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment.” As I read Circles, the concept of unselfconsciousness grew in my mind. This idea of drawing a new circle has captivated me. For Emerson, to draw a new circle is to expand the boundaries that once constrained the mind in order to create something new. To do this, one must become unselfconscious. One can only draw a new circle through forgetting oneself. Over the past several months, I have been thinking about how drawing a new circle involves the creative process.
This process of forgetting oneself opens a way for creating earnestly. To become lost in imagination the way a child is lost in play is to create unselfconsciously; it is to create with authenticity. Unselfconsciousness sets aside the inner critic and recognizes when critique enters the creative process too soon. This is not to say that there is no need for critique in the creative process, but that it is important to learn discernment between a time of creation and a time of evaluation. When these phases are conflated, creativity is sacrificed.
This reservation of critique is demonstrated during improvisation. While creating spontaneously, one loses inhibitions and the inner critic is muted. As an expert on the subject, Dr. Charles Limb works as a professor at Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology as well as at the Peabody Conservatory of Music as a faculty member. He studies the way that the brain processes and creates music. In the midst of his explorations into brain function, Dr. Limb became curious about the brain’s creative processes during jazz improvisation.
Dr. Limb set up an experiment in which he asked jazz pianists to play pre-written compositions in one condition and to improvise in another condition, all while being scanned by an fMRI machine. The results showed that during improvisation, the brain displayed reduced activity in areas responsible for inhibition and self-monitoring, while regions linked with self-expression appeared as hubs of heightened activity.
This experiment provided insight into the enigma of creativity. It seems that when the brain is not involved in improvisational activities, it can stifle its own creativity through activation of areas associated with inhibition. This self-censorship is sometimes useful, helping the mind to filter ideas during a conversation and recognize socially inappropriate behaviors. The question for artists, then, is how does one get beyond that self-monitoring during the creative process and release one’s creativity?
Unfortunately, it does not come naturally to turn off this inhibition. Fear is always an element in the creative process. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, reflects on fear and the creative process during her interview with Guy Raz in the TED Radio Hour. Gilbert says, “I don’t believe in fearlessness and I don’t advise it. […] I make a lot of space to coexist with fear.” She encourages creatives (and believes all people to be creatives) to embrace the inevitability of fear and not to let it be controlling. It’s about recognizing that creativity deals with a lot of unknowns, and that uncertainty is always scary. Unselfconsciousness is not the denial of fear, but rather refusing to let it make decisions in your art.
Fear can be paralyzing, causing the artist to overthink and become indecisive. “I’m a big fan of thinking while you’re making stuff.” This is illustrator Kate-Bingaman Burt. She has made a successful career drawing and teaching at the school of Art+Design at Portland State University. In her recent interview with The Jealous Curator’s podcast “Art for Your Ear”, Bingaman-Burt describes how she urges her students to “make piles of crap.”
Interesting advice, but perhaps there is some wisdom here. Bingaman-Burt says that as a teacher she gets her students “into the headspace of making piles of stuff and then just sorting it out later.” This is dividing creation and critique into two separate processes. Thinking while one is “making stuff” is a form of unselfconsciousness because the hands move continually and mindlessly. Artists have a tendency to overthink, but when the hands are moving, creativity is flowing. This helps to silence the inner critic, the inner skeptic. It allows the ideas to breathe before they are judged. Making piles of bad art is part of the process. But from the movement of creating that pile of crap, a good idea will come.
I have been taking this advice seriously in my unemployment. This time has been about making many side projects, and letting them take over until they are no longer on the side of anything. I won’t claim to have a perfect discipline or that there are not large groupings of days where I go without cracking open my sketchbook. Nevertheless, I have been creating – and isn’t that the goal? Unemployment has not meant a time without work, but rather I have been using my free time to develop a work habit which does not depend on a letter grade or a paycheck. To graduate and not fall into a habit of Netflix and sleeping in, but rather to continue to create, isn’t that a success? Perhaps I have not failed at all, but instead come a little closer to drawing a new circle.
Don’t get trapped in the lie of inspiration. It is the idea that if one waits, a good idea will come, and from there the work will flow effortlessly. There is not effortless art; it will take work. Show up everyday and do the work; inspiration must find the artist with busy hands. It means creating a sacred space where the rules are simple: No judgement, just keep moving. Use all the pages. Rip things out, paste bits in. Make something ugly, make lists, repeat yourself.
This movement is the practice that turns off that self-monitoring inner critic. It takes practice to get into this mindset of creative freedom, but little by little, one can enter a place of unselfconsciousness.
Emerson assures that “if the soul is quick and strong it bursts over that boundary on all sides and expands another orbit on the great deep.” Make your soul quick, strong, and unselfconscious and draw a new circle.