Let Go and Get on With It
At the risk of sounding pious, I want to start this New Year blog by citing the first of the ten commandments: “You must have no other gods besides me”. In other words, “Do not be owned by anything besides that which is of the most supreme importance”. You might want to fill in your own blank there, but you get the point.
In earthly terms that is about keeping a grip on the right stuff, and if you are anything like me, you are always prone to getting sidetracked and seduced by the next ADOhShiney thing! This is the New Year Challenge! And it is a problem because, at the very least, the things that distract me, keep me away from the main thing and disrupt my focus. These distractions can get me stuck in habits of all kinds that I would be better off without, and worse still, they can make me miserable and unproductive.
This blog is about an imperative telling me not to get snagged or caught up in anything that is not of ultimate importance. As a good friend once said to me: “Keep the main thing the main thing!” The lesser gods have a small ‘g; for a reason. They demand our attention, but ultimately deliver fake rewards and are best avoided.
The point is that in life, especially in creative live, there are traps that are detrimental to one’s work, one’s mental health, one’s productivity and ultimately one’s happiness. These traps, or lesser gods, are what I want to write about here.
There is a very good reason why the first commandment comes first, and that is because it is about priorities. The first priority, if one is to be happy and productive, is to know precisely what the main priority is and to have it firmly held in one’s focus.
I am currently writing an essay about ‘Play as a Creative Strategy’ as part of an MA course in Sound Design. Therein is the inference that if one wants to be successfully creative one might have a strategy. Or put another way; it is possible to be strategic about how one approaches creativity and creative work.
Play on the other hand, infers an ad hoc less guided approach. For this reason play is regarded differently to work because it is not licensed by reference to any external objective. It exists by rights on it’s own terms. It is also considered to be the province of childhood and much of the research done into the subject in done under the heading of pedagogy and child psychology. For that reason, perhaps, the idea of play is disparaged and used as a counterpoint to the idea of work. Hence “Are you doing this seriously (i.e. working) or just playing?”.
Play may be thought of as a permissive activity. There may or not be rules and any rules that do emerge can be made up on the fly. As such play is a domain in which new and surprising discoveries are made. To take a Darwinian slant, there can be no evolution without play. Play, permits chance variation, or mutation, without which, all we have is a reiteration of a previous outcomes. For something to be considered new, and therefore created or the product of creative activity, it must represent a break or evolution from the past. That is not to say that new outcomes cannot be based upon new combinations of old ideas and formulations. Such is the nature of progress in that it has its roots in the past. But play is a very serious matter and a necessary process and activity that facilitates forward trajectory. It should not be trivialised. Here we are juxtaposing the ideas of work, play, creativity and productivity and strategy.
So what of the title at the top: “Letting go”? What’s the point?
The point is, that one’s formulations and strategies in creative work, are ultimately only successful if you can let go of distractions. To do it well, you need to know what the game is, and the game is to get to the meaningful stuff by the quickest and most direct route available. And there we have another idea: meaning, linked to priorities and focus.
Victor Frankel said that love was the highest purpose of man and that without love, life is meaningless. I would say the same is true for any creator. Work without love is meaningless.
In the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, ’Without love I am a clanging gong’.
Art is about expressing joy, (I think). It is the hallmark of human culture. Joy is inextricable from any idea of ‘play’. Play is meant to be joyful, as it is also meant to be playful i.e. fun, permissive, unedited, spontaneous. It may be measured as productive by what it brings to your heart and soul. Information may come to the mind after one has reflected upon the outcome of one’s playful experience. But ultimately, if there is no joy or bounce in one’s play, then it will not be play at all. It will just be a dull, monotone chore of an activity.
And here are bracketed together the ideas of love, play and joy. Suddenly this sounds like I might also be talking about sex! - but I am not talking about sex here, I am talking about Art, although I am sure the same principles apply. Maybe that is a subject for another blog! Enough confusion for one day!
Another very old friend of mine (all my friends are old) said to me, ‘How does one experience love? Do we experience love by giving or receiving it?” The answer is obvious.
I believe the same is true in Art. If we cannot create with love, then ultimately we will run dry. It is what we bring to it that counts. John Cage talked of chasing the energy. Without energy all is as flat as a fizzy drink with no fizz. Without fizz, what is the point?
For work to have fizz, it must come from a full place. An empty place can only produce echoes and reverberations.
This blog is about the things that steal our fizz.
If I am distracted, or creating work through some sense of obligation, if I am anxious, or doing it for money or because I think this is what people will buy, I am subtracting from that energy by degrees. Ultimately the pot runs dry. That’s why we talk of first love, and regaining the passion of one’s youth. Somehow it all gets overgrown and weeded over.
“Do not be owned by anything”, means being true to one’s original instinct. Not being tempted, like Pinnochio, to run off to the circus at every whim.
And why am I telling this story? Well, it has become apparent that I am not presently painting - anything! I think it may be a matter of confidence, but it may also be a lack of reward or a curiosity about my new passion which entails Sound Design and music production. It’s true to say, that if you love something, the only way to really let it go is to love something else more, and I do love what I am doing now. I think that in this flush of new discovery, I will ultimately regain my steady feet at the painting wall in my studio. Two years of covid, a difficult market and a brush with serious illness have all had their part to play. I am indeed privileged that I can take the course that I am currently on, and indulge myself to the point of just being able to go wherever my creative interest takes me. I remain proactive and busy as ever, and I am preoccupied with my ‘work’ all the time. As an artist, you cannot ever really just park your work and walk away from it, except by deliberate intention, so one is obliged to love it or be miserable. It follows you around all the time. But I do find I need time away from the work to process, to let the juices ferment, and to be able to come back to the it again and re-evaluate. Sometimes to rework, sometimes to preserve the initial gesture. I have lost all my best pieces by working over them. Sometimes it just works first time. Usually the first marks or notes of the day are the best. One should not be too quick to paint over the initial gesture.
Time is a great tool. The thing is to know how to navigate it, and work sometimes takes years to find it’s right place in the archive of one’s fabricated oeuvre. And it finds it’s place just by being left alone.
So what about you? What are your weeds and snares? What are your tangles? And what do you love?
You might want time to take a minute’s pause here to try and think your way through that, so I am going leave the next couple of paragraphs blank….
If your well is dry, and you have not tended to the tributaries of your enthusiasm, it is time to get back to the joy of your first experience and remember how it was when you first fell in love with your chosen medium or metier. The part where you were so taken up with the freshness of it all and so excited that you didn’t stop to think about where it was taking you or what others might think. You were propelled forwards at a rate of knots by your naive enthusiasm. That is the kind of pure energy that makes great work. It might appear strange at first, but without that sense of novelty and excitement, the work is flat and meaningless.
We each have to find our own meaning. It can’t be given to you. And if you take meaning from any of those lesser gods which we mentioned here in passing, you will not own the work in its truest sense. You will not be its author. Your work will be authored by a third party or a deferred and deflected source. It must come from the heart, or else I’m afraid it probably won’t cut it. So get the other gods out of the way and love what you do because you love it. THE END.
[Photo credit: the author. An island in the Weddell Sea]