Over the past five years or so, I spent a lot of time worrying that I wasn’t creative enough, or that the ways in which I was trying to express my creativity were inadequate, misguided, too safe, or too reckless. I was afraid that the creative instincts on which I had relied throughout school and the beginnings of my career were fraudulent, and that if I wanted to get better, I would have to reinvent my creativity from the ground up. After reading Kyna Leski’s The Storm of Creativity, I can see that what I was going through was not a crisis of creativity; in fact, I was deep in the throes of the creative process itself and ready for the next step, if I would allow it.
Leski divides the creative process into nine stages, some of which I instantly began to recognize in my own practice:
gathering and tracking,
perceiving and conceiving,
According to Leski, creativity is less linear and more like the swirling, repeating, and self-feeding patterns of a raging storm. This non-recipe book on creativity is actually a map to help us understand and manage the patterns in our own creativity.
Being a Gatherer
I imagine that every creative person is strong in certain parts of this process and less strong in others. I, for one, really resonate with the gathering phase. About halfway through my freshman year of college, I made a conscious decision to be an empty sponge, to suck up as much knowledge from as many different sources as I could—teachers, recordings, my peers. From the rich compost of all that collected knowledge, I could assemble my own artistic voice. It was this open gathering mindset that carried me like a wave to a lot of success early on.
But I learned after a while that locking into the gathering phase is not sustainable. Three years into my bachelor’s degree, I was beginning to burn out from so many hours of playing, learning, and working, but I didn’t want to stop. If the gathering phase had served me well this far, why not continue? I became obsessed with building a spreadsheet, for example, in which I would collect and track every conceivable aspect of my trumpet fundamentals. I was determined to find a system through which I could calculate the perfect phrase shape of every piece of music I played.
Bit by bit, my playing was declining, but I pushed harder. I played for more and more people and bought more books on theory and musicianship, studying harder than I ever had before. Why was I getting feedback that my playing sounded stiff and unmusical? Why wasn’t all the data I continued to gather working anymore? I became depressed and developed a serious case of imposter syndrome that took years to work through.
What that experience taught me, and what I’ve since consciously integrated into my creative practice, is the value of pausing. Mental gluttony was clogging my creative digestion, and instead of giving myself a much-needed interval between meals, I just kept “eating,” certain that I was missing something crucial, that my mind was not open enough and that if I just kept looking and gathering, I would find answers I craved. It blew my mind to read one of Leski’s next points: having an open mind is not just about welcoming new ideas; it’s also about “a readiness to have no ideas.”
It wasn’t until just over a year ago that I slipped into my first intentional pause at an Introduction to Meditation class in Miami Beach, and I have since integrated that intention into my creative practice. During meditation, I can give myself permission to have “no ideas” at all, to clear space. One needs that space, after all, to collect new ideas and solve new problems. The pause of meditation before I open the trumpet case or sit down to write allows me to digest and unlearn all the ideas I’ve gathered since my last practice session and let go of the things that no longer serve me.
“Creativity is about that which does not exist,” says Leski, which means that the blank canvas, not our preconceptions, is where creativity really begins. The question is never whether you are creative enough, or even whether your individual creativity is conventional enough. The question is whether or not you will accept the doubt, uncertainty, and unanswered questions of being creative. It’s whether you will allow yourself to gather and to be blank, to be open to possibilities and non-possibilities.
If you’re encountering writer’s block, or if practicing your instrument feels like grinding your head into a wall, or if the pressure to make something special frightens you away from trying at all, try this:
- Before you do anything, pause. Close your eyes. Breathe. Listen.
- Be attentive to everything—ideas, thoughts, sensations. What are you aware of right now? Your body, your mind? Judgment? Excitement? Fear?
- What are you planning to make today? A portrait? A sonata? It’s okay if you don’t know, or if you don’t know how you will finish it, or even if you don’t know where to begin. In fact, that’s exactly where you should be.
- Rest in that uncertainty for a moment. You may want to push it away, but just for a few seconds, breathe into it. Accept it and embrace it. See how it feels, and see if it changes.
- After a moment or two, open your eyes. Deep breath. As you were, soldier.
Make no mistake, the vast plains of “I-don’t-know” can be terrifying, especially if it’s your first time visiting. There’s nowhere to hide, and the ground tends to wobble. But with time and with practice, you may find that it is in this world that the truly exciting ideas are waiting, the real gathering can begin, and the only rule is play.