10. How to create an enjoyable creative practice with the ‘Art of No Idea’? (04-05.08.2020)

I started these ‘Creative Practice Notes’ (or blog) with a post called ‘How to start the creative practice’ on 24 April 2020. Now, it is three months later and the creative practice remains problematic – How to start? How to find ideas? How to build confidence and continue to practice? How to make it enjoyable?.. It is easy to falter at the first hurdle – the start of the practice, then return to easier everyday tasks and then avoid returning altogether. Thereby, building constructive creative habits is key. The goal might be creativity, but first this requires building new habits of being and new ways of thinking.

There is nothing new in this pursuit of creativity and creative ideas. My definition of creativity is simply problem-solving, and this kind of creativity is useful for everyone and for most tasks. It also encompasses the biological/evolutionary need to resolve problems to thrive. People from all fields have developed procedures to foster best creative practice including the mathematician Henri Poincaré, who was fascinated by his propensity to have epiphanies at odd moments, such as getting onto a bus. His procedure is:

  1. Production (or information collection)
  2. Incubation
  3. Inspiration
  4. Verification

Poincaré came up with this structure in the early 1950s yet these elements remain useful and can be mapped onto later concepts and developments. Of particular interest is the ‘incubation’ phase where one allows work or the information to cognitively stew and does something different (like take the bus). This ‘incubation’ stage can be observed in various personal intuitive practices – painter Cy Twombly would sit and stare at his paintings for long periods before lifting his brushes, cartoonist Charles Schulz would similarly stare out of the window and felt that this was essential for generating ideas,

‘…it’s hard to convince people when you’re just staring out of the window that you’re doing the hardest work of the day…’ (cited in Brunetti 2011: 68).

This ‘incubation’ phase is the focus of Laurence Shorter’s coaching experiment ‘The Art of No Idea’, where a group of twenty of us have committed ourselves to taking 10-20 minutes to do nothing each day with a view to developing creativity in August 2020. Shorter’s emailed procedure follows:

“1. Set an intention

As you begin your summer challenge, ask yourself what is the deepest or most satisfying outcome you could expect as a result of committing even further to your creativity and connection. Write this down.

2. Make a commitment

Commit yourself to taking 10-20 mins each day to do nothing; set a timer, remove distractions, lie down or sit comfortably, and let go of the need to achieve anything (including meditating) for a very short time. This is not a task, it is the opposite. You can’t get it wrong. It can happen at a regular time of day or any time you like.

3. Choose a creative project

Write down 3 or 4 projects you’ve been waiting for the right moment to commit to, or feeling stuck on. These can be anything, from reading to playing piano to building a new flower bed. It could be a trip or an adventure, a novel or learning how to cook a favourite dish. Anything that inspires you. Select one to commit to this month, and then decide how much time every day (or every week) is reasonable and practical to make for it. 10 mins could be enough, or 2 hours. It’s up to you. Write this down”.

Personally, I found the setting of ‘intention’ problematic because of the wish for the desired outcome to come from the non-doing rather than beforehand. As a result, I followed another member Christopher’s plan to do a few ‘non-doing’ sessions to see what ‘bubbled up.’ What ‘bubbled up’ for me eventually was the need to condense some of the complex ideas within this procedure into a comic strip:

I particularly liked the water metaphor here that draws on influences from participant Christopher and also Katie who said she was excited about ‘sinking into’ the work. The references to water also reminded me of J.K. Rowling’s creative practice that involves her going to her imaginary house next to a lake and concentrating on the lake as a source of ideas. Sometimes the lake offers ideas and sometimes not – and Rowling indicated that this needed to be respected (cited on the radio show ‘Museum of Curiosity’, Radio 4, 31/12/2019).

To return to the importance of ‘intention’ for a moment, it is clear that ‘doing nothing’ requires intention to be constructive. Universities of Harvard and Waterloo psychology researchers Seli et al. (2016) suggest that this kind of non-doing ‘mind wandering’ is constructive only if it is intentional and organised as a cognitive break after doing preliminary work. Preliminary work is redolent of Poincaré’s first stage of preparation (or information collection), whereas in Shorter’s procedure the commitment to the work is the final stage. However, his process is a cycle designed for creative work which builds from ‘intention’ to ‘non-doing’ to creative ‘commitment’.

The concepts of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ were mentioned in our ‘Art of No Idea’ discussion as two eastern concepts that illustrate two mindsets. Yin is traditionally associated with feminine, dark, and quiet qualities. It is a mindset of non-doing (and a place of self-care and mindful noticing) – yang is its opposite – masculine, bright, and loud. It is a mindset of purposefulness, of striving to get things done. Mostly work tends to adhere to a yang approach in the UK, where well-being is suspended for stress and achievement. This is highly useful for achieving and completing tasks, but people need both yin and yang for innovative, original work, and also for well-being and happiness.

The ‘incubation’ or stewing of ideas in ‘non-doing’ fosters an open mind to possibilities. It is important to hold the space open for ‘no idea’ to enable creative possibilities. It also does not matter if nothing comes – the fact that one puts the time into this cognitive space means that eventually ideas will appear. This last suggestion comes from comedian John Cleese in his talk:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb5oIIPO62g (accessed 30/07/2020)

This is an old mini-lecture of Cleese on creativity from perhaps the 1980s, but he also has a book coming out in October 2020, so this is a subject that has long held his research interests.

Cleese’s ideas map onto other concepts, when he describes a ‘closed mind’ he could be describing the ‘yang’ approach with terms such as ‘the usual mode for work with stress, striving and much to do’. He gives this closed yang approach the qualities of active, anxious, impatient, stressed and even manic. This sounds much like my memory of work and Shorter’s description of yang. Cleese declares that creativity cannot happen in the ‘closed’ mode. Shorter similarly remarked that ‘you can’t think your way into creativity with a spade’ (30/07/2020).

Cleese’s ‘open mode’ maps onto yin almost directly with relaxed, expansive, spacious thinking, and no pressure to get anything done. Cleese underlines that we need to switch between these two modes to accomplish tasks creatively. Of course, the sociocultural trouble is that we do not foster habits for ‘open mode’, we do not allow ‘yin time’ of non-doing. Many of us are hurtling into health problems and serious burnout (I am currently post-hurtle!) because we exist in the active ‘closed’ mode. In this situation of closed burnout, one strives desperately for a solution but comes up short, perhaps because it is not possible to hear the quiet creative answers that yin might offer. Eventually we have to return to yin – our broken health takes us there and we have the opportunity to begin to listen and change our lives.

In May 2020, I had the good fortune to hear Thomas van Berkel relay his extreme experience of collapse after something snapped during a reiki massage session. In his twenties, he was incredibly ambitious, determined, driven and wanted success, power and money. Then his body shut down suddenly – he could not tolerate light (no daylight or Netflix), his system could not tolerate certain foods (he still misses beer), and he could not tolerate high heat (no baths). It is interesting to note that eventually the dark quiet of ‘yin’ happened with the physical collapse of the body that needed this so badly. Van Berkel noted that everything he wanted was gone, including even temporary comforts of TV, beer, and baths.  He explained that he has lived in this ‘world of yin’ now for 7 years and he was still working on returning to the ‘world of yang’. He also noted that this was not just happening to him but was happening on a global scale with the pandemic and economic chaos – “The world is learning to let go of what it wants.” These days, he says he is grateful for the yin time and learning a new way of being where,

‘If you let go, then you can live from your heart, it becomes your compass’.

Perhaps the heart provides the best directions and it is best heard in the quiet of yin time.

Cleese’s research suggests the following five elements are needed for creativity (he later suggests another element of ‘friends’ which I have added):

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence (to experiment, to play, to be silly, and to be wrong)
  5. Humour (to be playful and to have an open mind)
  6. Friends (funny, positive, and open)

Time is not included twice to be humorous but because this has two different meanings. Firstly, ‘time’ needs to be in specific timed blocks of play (he suggests 1 ½ hours). He suggests this because the first ½ hour is largely wasted getting into an open mindset to play and this leaves an hour. It also needs to have constraints because ‘play’ is a special time. If Cleese added a third meaning of ‘time’, he could add the expansive time of ‘doing nothing’ of emptying oneself of ideas, intentions and plans to see what alternatives might arise. If this were added, this might be a constructive way to get into the open mindset without time wasting or possible frustration.

Cleese’s second meaning for ‘time’ is as ‘an oasis of quiet’ to sit with a problem and play – he suggests allowing maximum pondering time, where one goes beyond the obvious solution to something really original. The challenge of this is to devote the time while accepting the anxiety of desiring to solve the problem. This version of ‘time’ hints at ‘incubation’ and ‘yin,’ ‘non-doing’ time, but has a little too much drive.  This is perhaps using the spade to dig the way to a solution the hard way.

To avoid this, Cleese has the next element of ‘humour’ where he suggests that you keep your mind gently around the subject and that the subconscious will reward you at some point if you have put in the pondering time. For Cleese, humour is essential for problem-solving (i.e. creativity) as ‘it gets us to the open mode quicker than anything else’. He advocates ‘giggling in your oasis’ and also suggests trusted friends for sharing and throwing around ideas freely (this becomes his sixth unplanned element). It is interesting to note that my mentor, cartoonist Simone Lia’s biggest concern for my cartooning work was that I seemed to be surrounded by depressed and serious friends. I have given this some thought and realised that my previous approach to friendship has been as some kind of empathic helper. My role has been to listen to their problems and to help – this is perhaps partly the influence of my professional roles as a teacher and life coach, but also the sociocultural influence of women’s primary role as carers. My social life had become an extension of work really (which is probably why I like to be alone at home so much). This is also something that my plastic brain is remoulding with the reminder that the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of friend is ‘a mutual affection’ (and not a binding work contract to provide endless emotional support). For future, I am looking forward to fostering and focussing on my friends that are funny – just think of the fun and laughs ahead (and also ideas for cartoons).

Over the past days, I have been experimenting a little with the previous procedures and structures and made some personal tweaks. It may be that each person needs to build their own procedure to creativity, yet there are clear points in common from this stew of ideas:

a) Creativity needs both in-action and action – or yin and yang.

b) ‘Yin time,’ ‘non-doing’ or ‘incubation’ is more constructive with an intention for constructive mind wandering, where the intention (or problem to resolve) is kept lightly at the edges of the mind

c) Yin time needs to be a specific block of time (10-20 minutes)

d) Open mode (yin) is playful, experimental, free, and humorous. It needs a limit of 60-90 minutes.

If everyone needs to adapt the procedure for their own personal needs, then this is a draft of mine to revisit:

  1. PhD journal writing of thoughts, tasks, moods, intentions…
  2. Yin ‘non-doing’ time of 10-20 (10 if many small creative tasks)
  3. Revisit intention and tasks in journal – amend if needed (note that these often seem to change!)
  4. Play with problem or task for limited time of 1 hour – do this in an ‘oasis of quiet’ with confidence and humour.

In relation to my own experiments with creative practice, my ‘yin time’ is highly enjoyable – it is delicious and restorative to have this quiet safe time. I look forward to this time and it is becoming fascinating to notice what ideas and thoughts arrive in this time. Often these ideas come easily and even if they are beyond plans for the day, I note them down for future.

Building a playful approach was much trickier and I felt a bit lost here. This is hardly surprising considering the many decades that have passed since I last played without purpose. Initially, this did not happen – I basically returned instantly to serious concentrated tasks after non-doing time such as designing breakdowns and inking. These tasks worked reasonably well but tended to be difficult and end with mardy frustration. It has taken a little thought to begin to build ways to play and these still need practice – again the plastic brain needs to be remoulded and the play muscle to be developed. It helps me to loosen up into play with a number of quick movements and exercises, e.g:

  • Dancing (to ‘Hallelujah’ by Oh Wonder worked well today)
  • Juggling
  • Jumping
  • Making sounds / singing and humming to myself
  • Doing laughter therapy exercises by Katan Mataria

I also think that drumming would help and perhaps reading a joke and laughing…

It could also be useful to remember the 9/10 rule (9 ideas will be rubbish) and write for the bin freely, to remember to ‘surprise yourself’, to channel a carefree mind that is subversive, surreal and enjoys utter rubbish and its possibilities.

At the moment, I have many creative tasks, so it helps to write in my PhD journal – it calms my mind (like a brain dump!), keeps me on track, keeps me reasonable and breaks down tasks, and it is a sort of a friend or mentor to organise my thoughts, and to console and replan when things go wrong. I note also that I often need to return to 10 minutes of yin with a new creative problem or task (and wonder if it’s a good idea to do this before all and any creative task..?).

Now, for a quick conclusion to a long post – I sense that this blog post could develop into a chapter in my PhD work!

In summary, I notice that if I take time to write in the journal and to enjoy ‘yin time’ – I am more energetic, happy and productive. This is no quick fix however, this is serious physiotherapy for the brain plastic – it takes much time to rebuild flabby muscles and this can only happen by building habits with kindness and understanding. I have not enjoyed play time since primary school, so this is nearly 4 decades of neglect. Creativity cannot (or at least shouldn’t) be forced – ideas need to be nurtured into existence within the kind humorous play of yin time. A good rule of thumb is that if you are not enjoying yourself, you are not in flow. Stop. Do yin practice. Or do something else. But stop.

Mostly, enjoy yourself – play, have fun, and delight in the ideas that are coming!