Thursday, September 07, 2017

Creativity Killjoy 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge probably thinking about opium, image via The Times

Kubla Khan
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! … [knock on door]

that deep romantic… [knock on door, harder now]

chasm that flowed, crap, no… Chasm which [more knocking on door]

Oh for FU… “HANG ON!”

There is a story, most likely apocryphal, that Samuel Coleridge had many more stanzas of his famous poem in mind but was disturbed from his reverie by an insurance salesman knocking on the door. It’s probably more likely that Coleridge’s opium high dissipated, thus ending a soaring stanza-generating drug fuelled high. Downer, man.

I get it. I’ve been working on an incessantly boring project that is simultaneously difficult, puzzling and tedious. But, lo and behold it’s one of the those enigmas wrapped in riddles inside a puzzle shrouded in a New York Times crossword that reveals itself in a word jumble so obvious a child could see it. What I mean is occasionally I understand it just enough to gain insight and understanding that only comes from staring out the window for an inordinately long time, or from sitting on the toilet or standing in a shower (or maybe when standing on a toilet or sitting in a shower?) Basically, I “get it” and I have to capitalize on that passing knowledge and re-arrange and sketch an idea that finally makes sense (until the next revelation). Stopping during at that precise moment to answer the phone can be really devastating.

Apparently, so the story goes, old Coleridge took some time to get rid of the salesman, then immediately tried getting super high again to continue writing, but alas, try as he might, no matter how baked he got, the Muse had left. Gone in the air like a puff of opium smoke. Unfortunately, I don’t have a stash of opiates at my desk and besides my office's opium den/chill zone is also a smoke free area so even if I did I couldn’t exactly light up a pipe on the chaise lounge anyway. For some stupid reason, I answered my phone while synaptic fires were burning. Perhaps I was feeling cocky and thought "I've got this thing figured out. I can handle this." "Would I like to answer a survey?" She said. "Sure," I said. "It will only take eight minutes," she said. "Ok!" I said I've got eight minutes now that I've saved myself from days of drudgery by figuring out this oh so difficult problem.

Eight minutes later.

"Now where was I? What was I doing? Oh dear god." It was gone. Even quicker than Coleridge's smoke no doubt.

The rest of the day was lost in a miasma of the afternoon office funk. I did the digital version of shuffling papers until I went home. The next day seemed to start before the previous one had ended and I spent it mostly in an attempt to work without inspiration. Then after a good night's sleep the Muse returned. Or at the least I encouraged it to return by retracing my mental steps until there it was, like a missing set of keys found by checking every pocket and crevice. How does inspiration work? I don't know for sure but I do know a few tricks. Warning: This is about to sound a bit "new-agey" but remember when therapeutic cannabis and LSD were only for tripping at outdoor music venues? Now look at them… weed is about to become a legal appetite enhancer, used to combat PTSD or chronic pain and LSD is being studied to fight addiction or in Silicon Valley, micro-dosing LSD is seen as a creativity stimulant and as a way to experience cubicles joyfully. So what follows are my tips. Take them as you will.

1. Relax: Find a comfortable spot, empty your mind, quiet the laughing monkey in your head and wait. Do not underestimate the power of sitting on a park bench, a brisk walk around the block or staring out a window. I have no idea of how to bill for staring blankly out a window; perhaps roll it into "client meetings" or something. This is sometimes confused with napping but I nap at home. At work I "power-ideate" with my eyes closed.

2. Brute force: Spend many hours sitting at your desk working, monk-like with your head down and, eventually, statistically even, you are bound to happen to be at your desk when the wave lengths of your brain align with the act of doing work with your hands. It ain't pretty but it does work — eventually.

3. Seek and ye shall find: Purposefully clear your schedule, set aside 15, 20 or 30 minutes and glide through any media you enjoy like music or a website or a magazine or a film or whatever. Simply absorb it with an open mind. This is probably the excuse every designer gives for having a unnecessarily large hoard of books, music and films. Again, this is sometimes confused with "goofing off". Let the plebeians with Nerf guns goof off; you are looking for good ideas to steal. I call it steal-spiration.

Like tumblers of a combination lock any mix of these techniques will fall into place for you to open a vault of ideas, wicked and good, tired and new, simple or complex. It may not be the right idea, or your best idea or even a practical idea but it may be the seed of something great. And you will have done it without the use of highly addictive opiates. Oh and maybe turn off your phone because the Muse rarely calls or texts and she never leaves voicemail.

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