the creative process

On the Joys of Making Bad Art

Since the crash, my fiction writing has been hit or miss. Drawing, however, has become a daily habit.

I’ve never been exceptionally gifted – or, indeed, gifted at all – in drawing. I’ve also never been particularly skilled at it, because I have so rarely practiced. And during the period of my life in which I got interested enough to practice daily, I also encountered an art teacher who announced loudly, while “fixing” one of my projects to suit herself, “You really can’t draw!”

I regret the literal decades in which I did not practice drawing, thanks to those four words. (Though I did write that teacher a nice poem a few years later, which appeared in the Muskegon River Review.)

Since the crash, words have been hard. Hard enough that even with my lack of practice or skill, drawing has appealed to me as a more accessible and expressive language for my situation.

It’s still not good. In fact, I often make fun of my nightly drawings in the same journal in which I am drawing them. A drawing of my soap and washcloth, one day after a shower (a Herculean feat when one has only one weight-bearing limb), is captioned “Am I improving yet?”

This morning, I decided to practice shading – the particular skill my long-ago art teacher was criticizing when she announced I “really can’t draw.” It is, of course, still bad some 25 years later.

Those intervening 25 years and a successful writing career, however, have taught me things about the nature of bad art.

Image: Colored pencils arranged to form a heart, surrounding the blog post title and URL.

Bad art is inevitable, at least at the beginning.

Bad art is necessary; it teaches us how to make good art.

Bad art is fun. It’s a free space. There’s no standard the art has to live up to; the art is a success merely because it exists, no matter how bad it is.

This morning, I realized: Bad art is also a gift to my future self.

I’m drawing now because it’s helping me express ideas and feelings that, as Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “the words don’t reach.” But I’m also drawing for my future self, the one who has better drawing skills than I do today because I did the work to draw today.

I’m looking forward to looking back at these drawings in a year, or five years, or 25 years. I want to see how far I’ve come. I want to see how far regular practice will take me.

Maybe the answer is “not far.” Maybe in five years, the response to my drawings will still be “you really can’t draw!” I don’t care.

My art teacher made several mistakes in telling thirteen year old me that I could not draw. Of them, the biggest mistake was assuming that I drew for any audience other than myself. She assumed, wrongly, that her opinion mattered.

At 13, I also assumed, wrongly, that her opinion mattered. I went on assuming that for a long time. Fortunately, the intervening 25 years have also taught me to discern whose opinions matter – especially when it comes to something so personal and so freeing as making bad art.


Make bad art. Buy me a coffee. Share this post. ❤

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neurodivergence, the creative process

“Too Lazy”? Try Not Lazy Enough.

While writing an article for Medium earlier today, I discussed the importance of rebooting after the hard work of creating.

Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal calls this phase “breathing in.” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to it as “sharpening the saw.” I think of it as “rebooting.”

Whatever you decide to call it, the fact is that if the quality and/or quantity of your output is declining, it’s probably not because you’re too lazy. It’s probably because you’re not lazy enough.

Image: Blog post title image with post title, URL, and a student resting on top of a tall pile of books.

We All Work Too Much

Yes, of course I’d say that. I’m a confessed workaholic whose addiction has nearly killed me more than once. But here’s the thing: It’s not just me.

Remember the 40-hour workweek? For most US adults, it’s more like 47 hours, according to one Gallup poll. Millennials are particularly bad about overworking, being more likely to agree to take on even more work or to refuse to step away from work entirely even for short periods.

A 2010 LexisNexus study found that many workers reported being on the verge of “breakdown” under the onslaught of information they handled at their jobs each day. In 2010! When the total worldwide data created was 2 zettabytes, compared to 74 zettabytes today!

If the information overload feels like it’s getting worse, that’s because it is. And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by how we treat the value of staying busy.

We treat the state of being constantly busy as a virtue, as if it proves that we’re valuable or our lives have meaning. There is, I suspect, a good reason for this behavior beyond assuaging our own egos as to our worth: Constant downsizing and job loss through automation have proven to two entire generations now that if we’re not constantly doing work, we’re communicating that we can be and should be replaced.

Rest Makes Us More Productive

For centuries, people scoffed at the idea that rest could be productive on its own, let alone make workers more productive. The US’s current work ethic is largely an artifact of our earliest Puritan ancestors, who firmly believed in the rectifying power of constant labor. (The fact that a good portion of them died of starvation during their first two winters in New England may have had something to do with their obsession.) During the Industrial Revolution, “work houses” were created for people too poor to support themselves, on the grounds that they were poor only because they were indolent and a good 16 hours a day of picking tar out of old bits of rope in exchange for three bowls of gruel and a bed of straw would fix them.

The idea that hard work is a virtue and rest a vice is well ingrained into our culture. The more we study rest and work, however, the more it becomes clear that we have our morals exactly backwards.

Research indicates, for instance, that taking adequate rest periods allows us to get more done in a shorter time frame. For example, when Basecamp decided to move to a four-day workweek, the company found that its staff actually got more done in four weeks than they were getting done in five. Researchers who examine the brains of occupied and idle individuals via MRI and similar scanning tools have also discovered that the brain is “working” even when it’s not engaged in a task – and that, in fact, the brain’s “idle time” is essential to its ability to focus on tasks.

The longer I’m in control of my own schedule, the bigger a proponent I am of work time that allows each worker to manage the ebb and flow of their own energy.

I, for instance, tend to work in intense three- to five-hour bursts – and then spend the rest of the day rebooting. In those bursts, I get work done that the market seems to think I’d need eight to ten hours of a workday to do. At least, that’s the impression I get from all the recruiters who want me to apply for jobs that pay exactly what I’m making now, but that demand I be physically present for 40 hours a week instead of 10.

So far, so good. But “productivity” is a virtue generated by our social expectations, particularly in the US. It’s not necessarily a personal virtue – and when applied to personal work, “productivity” can be a real inspiration-killer.

Your personal work needs you to rest, too. Because:

Boredom is Good for Creativity

In a 2014 study published in Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman tested the effects of boredom on a particular type of creativity known as “divergent thinking.” It’s the kind that helps you do things like, say, generate a bunch of new uses for an ordinary household item.

Mann and Cadman began by splitting research subjects into two groups. Both groups were asked to generate as many ideas as they could for using a pair of plastic cups. Before this task, however, one group was asked to copy numbers out of the phone book; the other was given no such mind-numbing activity.

The phone book copiers ended up generating significantly more uses for the cups than the control group, however. It was as if being a little bored first made the creative mind restless, so it jumped at the chance to do something creative like play with cup ideas.

Mann and Cadman then repeated the study, but with a twist. To see whether degree of boredom made a difference, they created a study with three groups. One group served as a control group. One group copied numbers out of the phone book, as before. The third group was assigned merely to read the phone book. Then, all three worked on finding creative uses for plastic cups.

Once again, boredom helped generate new ideas. And more boredom seemed to do more. The phone book readers came up with the most cup-related ideas, followed by the phone book copiers; both groups outperformed the control group.

You Deserve To Live

If nothing else, take this from someone who actually did nearly die four different times from overwork: You deserve to rest because you deserve to live.


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the creative process

Can Quarantine Boost Your Creativity?

One of the most frequent questions I see on Quora is how to be more creative, or how to have more ideas, or how authors and artists generate their ideas.

My stock advice has always been to get bored. My famous ten-step creative process begins with it.

I recommend it because it works for me. My brain-monkey absolutely cannot sit still for more than a few minutes before it starts screeching and flinging the stinky, sticky poop of boredom to fertilize my idea garden.

Quarantine is an Aegean stable of boredom. Boredom is stacked to the ceiling. You’d need two rivers to clear out all the boredom. If there were ever a time grow some first-class ideas from a pile of boredom manure, now is that time.

But just because I think something is a good idea – and even recommend it on Quora! – is no proof it’s actually a good idea. I can’t be trusted for advice on what to do in quarantine. I cut my own bangs last week.

So I did a little Googling. Here’s what to know about boredom and creativity.

quarantine creativity

The human brain needs boredom to function optimally.

Boredom may not feel pleasant, but it’s essential for proper brain function. Engaging with external stimuli, without a break, can result in cognitive overload, which has a negative effect on memory, mood, and executive function (the ability to plan, predict, and execute your own daily tasks), say Erin Walsh and David Walsh in an article for Psychology Today.

Many people think that creativity is their personal dump stat, only to surprise themselves with their ability to generate ideas under the right conditions. A lack of creativity may actually be a lack of available brain power – because it’s all being spent on staying busy.

You can be “productive” while you’re bored.

One of the reasons boredom has fallen by the wayside in so many lives is that, culturally, we in the US prize being busy. We’re skeptical of anyone who has the time to get bored. We associate happiness with productivity, so we strive to be productive, or at least occupied. Staying busy has even become an American status symbol, according to one study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The drive to stay busy – whether for status, to make ends meet, to avoid dealing with other psychological issues, or as an end in itself – can become so overwhelming that it causes serious health problems. It can also be an extremely difficult habit to break.

Even if you’re not in a workaholic frame of mind, you may find it difficult to sit alone with your thoughts. If so, you’re not alone. In one 2014 study, researchers gave participants the choice of sitting alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes, or enduring a mild electric shock. Many of the participants chose the electric shock.

“Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the researchers wrote.

Fortunately, you don’t have to flip the switch from “constantly busy” to “doing nothing.”

In a 2014 study in the Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman asked participants to generate possible uses for a pair of plastic cups. Participants were divided into three groups. One group was simply asked to think about the cups question. The second group was first asked to copy numbers from the telephone book, then asked about the cups. The third group was asked to read the phone book, then asked about the cups.

The participants in the third group – reading the phone book – outperformed those in the second group, who in turn outperformed the first group. By experiencing boredom, the participants’ minds seemed to become more eager for a way out, generating ideas more readily as a result.

Undemanding tasks like taking a shower or going for a walk can help incubate more creative solutions to problems. These tasks can convince your inner critic that you’re “doing something productive,” allowing your mind to wander more freely and creatively.

You are doing something productive when you embrace idleness. Your brain may just take a little convincing.

Too much boredom, however, is a bad thing.

Some boredom – enough to give your brain the “elbow room” it needs to daydream – can boost creativity. Chronic, unrelieved boredom, however, is linked to a number of health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, as well as to a propensity to crave high-fat, high-sugar foods. It may even be linked to an increased risk of premature death, particularly when combined with other factors like a sedentary lifestyle.

Often, this type of boredom isn’t linked to a lack of things to do, but the feeling that what needs to be done lacks meaning or purpose. Unlike the “approach” state boredom that engenders creative thinking, chronic boredom becomes an “avoidance” state that has a negative impact on innovation.

What boredom does for you might depend on who you are.

While many studies have found that boredom has a creativity-boosting effect generally, not everyone appears to respond in the same way to boredom.

In a 2019 study in the Academy of Management Discoveries, researchers Guihyun Park, Beng-Chong Lim and Hui Si Oh studied the effects of boredom in the workplace.

The researchers found that “boredom did not universally increase creativity for a product development task.” That is, not all the participants saw creativity-boosting benefits from being placed in a state of boredom.

Rather, the participants whose creativity benefited most from boredom all shared a set of common traits. They were more likely than their peers to have a high learning goal orientation, a high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and a high internal locus of control.

In other words, people may be more likely to find that boredom helps them generate ideas if they’re already active learners, curious about the world, and inclined to seek solutions within themselves.

Boredom isn’t the only emotional state that boosts creativity.

While some boredom can be productive, boredom isn’t the only emotional state that can help you generate ideas.

In a May 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood found that when people felt either bored or elated, they produced more creative mental associations than when they were distressed or relaxed.

What’s interesting about these results is that both elation and boredom are classified as “approach” states, or states in which the person is ready to engage with something. By contrast, distress and relaxation are “avoidance” states, or states in which the person retreats from engagement. It appears that we’re more likely to think of something new when we’re already in the mood to engage.

If there seems to be no room in your head for anything except the concerns of the day, it may be time to take ten minutes and let your mind wander. If even the concerns of the day can’t seem to concern you, however, the problem may be too much boredom – or your brain telling you that you’re on the wrong path.


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