Dunning vs. Environment
I’ve been struggling recently with where to begin, with some of the things about which I have been thinking. And when I find myself struggling in this particular way, it often means that I’m simply sitting in the wrong room.
I’m not very good at routines. Or at repetitive tasks. Or any job, really, that allows me to remove my brain from the process of accomplishing it.
I excel, and feel better about myself, when I am constantly varying my life schedule and improvising. Naturally I am not a planner, per se, much to the frustration and chagrin of my very loving (and patient) partner.
What I have often found is that I can only recognize what sort of environment I need to be in to write, at any given moment, on that day.
Or even just in that hour. And it can change at a moment’s notice.
This week I experienced two very clear moments when the environment in which I was writing simply no longer was helping me to create.
Fortunately, I have become much better at attuning myself to how I am feeling in those moments, and was able to identify that I had lost my “flow” before I sacrificed too much time at the altar of The Internet.
To me, and for my creative brain(such as it is), the ability to recognize what my brain wants at any one moment has begun to be vitally important in my creative process.
An important part of this process has been an attempt to relax my brain’s need to only push myself.
Throughout my 8 years of military service, I learned a single speed of operating: As Fast As Possible. Results should be delivered… immediately. If not sooner.
This is a valuable work rate to learn, within the understanding that the tasks during which this workrate is employed are usually a) finite, b) brawn-heavy rather than brain-heavy, and c) performance-oriented.
Digging foxholes, for example(in the modern military, not an oft-employed skill, but one that most people can understand, regardless of background).
After my 8 years of service, I then began work in various aspects of the fitness industry for several years.
Again, when considering one’s fitness, it is often necessary to Do Things at speed.
Any trained professional would counter that it isn’t always necessary to do things quickly, and in fact often more beneficial in the long run to perform them slowly, to which I would respond, “You’re right, and 32-year-old me wishes that 26-year-old me had learned that lesson.”
(Fitness is a difficult example to use here, because you can’t transfer your fitness environment, necessarily. The gym is the gym. And thanks to the way the industry works, you generally pay for the one gym and just go there until you die. But bear with me.)
The sum of the majority of my professional experience, therefore, is that success, in life, is about speed.
Sometime around the first half of 2015, I found myself sitting on a bench in Copley Square in Boston, MA, with a good friend of mine. We’ll call him Sean.
Sean is a very talented musician in his own right, and has done a lot of work in his own field, all while balancing a very busy schedule also in the fitness industry.
His work rate and drive and determination is impressive. As someone who was taught that speed and focus are the two most important aspects of being an adult, I looked up to him a great deal.
We sat on this park bench and I told him I was considering leaving my job to go pursue composition full-time at New England Conservatory.
He looked at me genuinely puzzled, and asked why I needed to leave my job in order to go and do that. In his mind, the environment he was in was already conducive to the creation of his own art, and he was consistently productive.
The fact that I might find that identical environment frustrating or inhibitive simply could not make sense to him.
And, to be honest, that comment stuck with my for a very long time. I felt like I must be less of an artist if I need a different environment.
Why couldn’t I just create, exactly where I was? What was wrong with my ability to write and find inspiration in my daily life just as it was at that time?
I couldn’t answer at the time, and I left that conversation angry and frustrated with both myself and Sean. He was very forceful with his opinion and challenged my thought process incessantly.
The real difficulty with this conversation, is that it is based on the presumption that creative work happens similarly for everyone. Obviously this is not the case, and to be honest, not one single thing in life happens in identical ways for different people.
Why art might be different is beyond me. In my opinion, the confusion arises in the fact that the only quantitative measurement for art is simply that: quantity.
How much Stuff do you Make? By this measurement, he had me beat by MILES. Luckily – for all of us – quality has more than one dimension.
I recently had a conversation with my partner and a few friends about environment, as part of my thought process for this blog.
My question to them, and to you, is: did you find your environment, or did it find you? Both approaches are valid, and there are many fine examples of artists in both camps.
I am someone who tends to try to find the environment I want to be in, in a pretty proactive way. Even my current situation, while influenced by the realities of life, is the result of a choice I made to create this situation.
I knew that I needed change, and drastically, so I found the place that met both that need along with my limitations. I still consider that a choice, informed by my growing understanding of what my creative impulses need in order to grow.
And this, to me, is one of the biggest and most important points of all: creativity might require something new from an artist.
If we ask the Muse to help us to produce a new idea, doesn’t it also follow that perhaps we need to give It(Her? Him? Them?) new ideas in the first place?
I have found myself listening to my brain more and more, and allowing it to tell me when it isn’t functioning.
The result has been a change in the manner in which I write, the time spent writing, and the resultant moods in which the writing process then leaves me.
Anyone who’s spent time either as or with a creative person, knows that there are days where your/their creative process leaves you/them MISERABLE.
We doubt ourselves, we beg the Muse for ideas or inspiration, we rail against the clock and against our inability to just stay focused.
I say this not to absolve anyone in a creative field of the responsibility for maintaining productivity. On the contrary, my point is that we need to be aware of how we are reacting to the stimuli around us.
Our brains are constantly informing us of how it feels, if we can take the time to listen. The age-old adage of just putting your head down and tunneling through the tough days is only partly applicable, really.
Sometimes you do, in fact, just need to do the %@$#ing work.
However, in a normal day-to-day setting, maybe the problem isn’t that you can’t write. Maybe the problem is that you haven’t found the place that stimulates you to write.
Not having ideas isn’t the main problem with not having ideas. Not being in a place (mentally, spiritually, but really just physically) that allows you to explore your own thoughts and scour the corners of your life experience might be more of a problem than anything else.
The end of the above story is this. I discovered, in returning to school, an environment wherein I was stimulated to write.
As a result, I wrote. I learned, and I discovered, and I developed, and I learned some more. There is no shame in the fact that I needed that environment in order to re-discover a creative habit.
There shouldn’t be shame in realizing that, on some days, our butts are just in the wrong seats.
Maybe what we need to spend more time doing is finding the seat that faces us in the correct direction, instead of stubbornly beating ourselves to death by simply sitting in the wrong room.