Reflections on creativity, flow, and the not-always-gentle art of unlearning.
Invitations – via courses, retreats and workshops – to “learn how to be in creative flow” are as ubiquitous as those promising “breakthrough experiences of awakening”. I’ve been around both ballparks long enough to have become very sceptical of these claims and promises. Red herrings are strong swimmers and prolific breeders. Especially when their favourite tucker – yummy money – is flowing.
Can creativity be taught? Can “awakening” ever be an experience? These questions are intimately related but I’ll focus on the first one, since this blog is primarily about art and creativity.
My experience, both within my own practice and as a teacher of visual language, constantly confirms that genuine creativity can unfold only when there’s an abandonment of everything one has learned about it.
I am trying to check my habits of seeing,
to counter them for the sake of greater freshness.
I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.
– John Cage
It seems to me there are two types of “flow”, but only one is truly creative. One occurs when I’ve slipped into an eddy of old patterns and processes – those that brought me pleasure and profit in the past. I know where I’m going; it’s easy. It might even make me feel satisfied that I’ve had a good day in the studio – for a while. I call this type “phony-flow” for obvious reasons.
Then there’s the other kind of “flow”, the kind that’s hard to write about because you weren’t there when it was underway. It involves encounters and experiences with the Unknown, and a kind of gracious movement that is closer to stream-ing. When you look at what was created during the movement – whatever your mode of expression might be – what you see astonishes you. You know without a shadow of doubt that you didn’t do it. And yet you recognize that this is your most authentic work.
I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones.
Rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me,
because they put me in touch with the unknown.
It’s then that I begin to work…
when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty.
– Robert Rauchenberg
Creativity, by definition, implies a leap from the known to the unknown. It is not the same as innovation, which has its feet firmly planted in the familiar. Nor is it the same as invention, which implies a desired outcome or end product. It has no pedagogy or curriculum. There are no maps of the territory. The only strategy we can employ, if we are earnest enough, is that of finding out what sabotages its natural expression.*
Whatever I know how to do, I’ve already done.
Therefore I do what I do not know how to do.
– Eduardo Chillida
I am always doing that which I cannot do,
in order that I may learn how to do it.
– Pablo Picasso
So my personal reaction to courses claiming to cultivate skills to access creative flow isn’t an enthusiastic one. I’m just not interested in exploring notions others might have (no matter what their pedigree) of ways to free my inner artist. If anything is called for on my via creativa it’s the exile of that artist-ego with its accumulation of ideas, certainties, and its insatiable need for recognition.
Using the metaphor of a stream, it’s easy to understand that “flow” only moves downstream. And as everyone knows, the source is always upstream. Floating along in the flow is fine; it’s recreational and maybe allows a brief escape from stress – witness the huge popularity of doodle-books and colouring-in books. There’s a place for this, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves that we’re being genuinely creative.
Remember, a dead fish can float down a stream,
but it takes a live one to swim upstream.
– W.C. Fields
If you ache for the authenticity, the unknowable and artist-vaporising creativity of the Source, forget about flow. Abandon the “how-to” red herrings.
Adopt salmon-mind. Make your way upstream. You know the way – it’s imprinted in your cells.
Leap those rapids. Outwit those hungry bears.
My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful,
the more narrowly I limit my field of action
and the more I surround myself with obstacles.
– Richard Diebenkorn
How do we fuel our quest upstream? By dismissing irrelevancies (as Buckminster Fuller advised); by finding the questions that have no rational answers yet haunt us nevertheless. By spending a great deal of time in solitude and silence watching the mind’s desperate and insistent groping for certainty, affirmation, context. By the way of unlearning; by abandonment of our pet theories and preferences. Our courage in this quest will inevitably deliver us to the sweet dark pool of ultimate unknowing, and, worn out from the challenges to our sureties, we’ll drop our eggs. We’ll sink. The Source will reclaim its own.
Our eggs will hatch, some of them, and be swept downstream to spread the news: it is possible! It is possible to return to the Source and leave the old life there. It is possible to dissolve into the stream as it makes its way to the Ocean; to rest in and as its stream-ing, as its authentic expression, without any concern for or notion of, whether we’re “being creative” or not. (If that question is still arising… keep swimming upstream.)
Then we can speak of “flow” – because we’ve experienced that it’s exactly what we are. The one who thought they could (or couldn’t) find it, could tap it for artistic purposes, could promote it or become an expert and sell it – that one was the saboteur all along.
Until salmon-mind set it free.
I find my paintings by working on them…
…it is through the making of the paintings that I have many discoveries
which are different from ideas.
Painting is a long road.
The beauty to me is in the not knowing where one is going.
Perhaps we do not need to understand it all.
– Lawrence Carroll
* My series of e-books empty canvas – wondering mind was compiled with this mission in mind.
Image: Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910
From the bookshelf: Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson
Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world.
The last word.