Friday, June 24, 2011

Compartmental 



Barry Michaels and Phil Stutz ask their clients to visualize being completely destroyed by falling into the sun and being shot back back out as a powerful beam of light. I imagine it like this solar storm captured by NASA.

One of the stories which caught my attention is about something that I’ve either read, heard or seen a lot lately is really about compartmentalization. The Rabiolab podcast called Me, Myself, and Muse talks about how some authors have dealt with their writer blocks. One way, that seems surprisingly common has been for the artist to make deals with their creativity. Put another way, their creativity isn’t a personal trait or a talent, or even another part of themselves but another person entirely. This idea, of course, goes back to the ancient Greeks and the goddess Muse (those Greeks, is their anything they didn’t think up?) The modern version of this probably has a fancy schmancy psychological term that I’ll call compartmentalization.

It doesn’t seem that different from cognitive dissonance. That thing we do when we think cows have cute dewy eyes, but eat a slab of steak. We disconnect the steak from the animal. One minute it’s a cow, then it’s meat. Can we disconnect ourselves? The Radiolab podcast makes that suggestion. One part of you is fine, another is that weak jerk that can’t quit smoking or the brilliant artist who shows up only at the worst times (striking in the middle of the night or when you’re stuck in traffic).

There’s definitely a state of mind when creativity is ripest. Usually when you’re most relaxed and engaged in a simple mindless activity such as during a shower or when doing the dishes. When I worked from home, I enjoyed the luxury of being able to lie down if I wanted a nap. Many times if I was stuck on a problem or just defunct of ideas, I would sit on the sofa in the studio, flip through a stack of books or magazines with no real intention. Then I would lie back and drift off. Sometimes I would fall asleep. Other times I would just close my eyes. Inevitably I would get up with a handful of ideas and quickly sketch them out. So many times I’ve heard the way to work through a mental block is to just keep working until something clicks. Personal experience has been the opposite. There. Now you know my secret. All my good ideas come from naps or simply idle day dreaming. If you you can trigger that mindset then you’ll always have ideas.

That’s not really the crux of these interviews and articles. They suggest that you can have a healthy and professional creative career by sort of “outsourcing” your creativity. In a way, objectifying it and making a deal with it. You also should pair that with the notion of dealing with the part of your personality that nullifies creativity. The negative fear of failure. Therapists Barry Michaels and Phil Stutz treat writers and actors to visualize the worst possible outcome. One exercise asks the participant to visualize being completely destroyed by falling into the sun and being shot back back out as a powerful beam of light.

Sounds a little loopy to me, but others think that by preparing yourself for the worst possible outcome you will lessen the effects of any perceived failings. Then the artist can move on, their creativity by their side, to their next project. I think it’s David Rakoff, a pessimist who thinks positive thinking is a load of crap, who talked about the idea of negative thinking being very detailed oriented so it’s useful and not something to rid yourself of. In the New Yorker article about Michaels’ and Stutz’s therapy seems to suggest that. You have to address possibly bad outcomes so as not to be floored by them. You also have to make peace with your creative self in order to get the most out of it. This is very similar to the Radiolab piece and reinforced by Elizabeth Gilbert in her TedTalk. As the author of Eat, Pray, Love she figured that book was the pinnacle of her success, and that it was unlikely to ever have that kind of success in terms of sales, readership, etc ever again. That can be devastating or you can come to terms with it, make a deal with your creative self and move on. Gilbert tells the story of Tom Waits being stuck in horrendous traffic one afternoon when a song came to him. He had no way of recording it or writing it down and he was miles away from home or the studio. Apparently, he looked skyward and said something like, “Look, you could have given me this when I was at the piano, or at my desk but you do it now. Screw off. I can’t deal with this right now. If you want to do this, do it when I’m working, not just whenever you want.” He was yelling at his Muse. Deal making with his creativity.

Me. I’ll stick with the occasional nap and a bit of day dreaming.

Mentioned in this post:
New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear “Hollywood Shadows”

KCRW podcast interview with Barry Michaels and Phil Stutz:
Hollywood’s Unconvential therapists

Radiolab podcast, Me, Myself and Muse

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TedTalk

Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with David Rakoff, who is fed up with positive thinking.

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