I don’t really remember ever being taught how to be creative, how to cultivate creativity, or the general process of creating something out of nothing. In fact, the majority of formal education is a coordinated attempt to quiet the pangs of experimentation, curiosity and discovery. Creativity is innovation in the art of learning. The problem is that nobody really teaches it. Its not difficult to find formal instruction on coding, dancing and piano playing, but what about finding a way to cultivate the process of creation? What about being able to apply that single process to multiple forms of creation? It seems to me that this could be one of the most valuable skills for someone to develop, no matter their goals. Deep understanding of this process could drive innovation, growth and change within projects, industries and lives.
Personally speaking, creativity was largely built on a series of trial and error experiences and unstructured experiments. Each one fed another, until eventually, they produced a confidence to repeat the process and apply it to other genres. I became enamored with the creative process, which led to further investigation, research, reading and conversations with some pretty amazing people.
Good experiments don’t always answer the stated questions immediately.
In fact, they usually generate more questions.
How do some of the most prolific creators go about their business? Does it involve a structured process or is it as free flowing as jazz music? How do they balance inspiration and dedication, while silencing the fear of failure? A pure, creative expression requires elements of vulnerability and uncertainty. Can certain people tolerate these environments better than others? Sometimes the hardest part is actually sitting down and committing to focused, deep work. We have more noise and distractions bombarding our faces today than we ever have in human history. More content is created in a 24 hour period than we can digest in a year.
How do these creators construct environments that protect their time, harness flow and facilitate deep work?
My desire to answer these questions and generate new ones has produced wonderful opportunities to continue an experiment that isn’t even fully defined. I do know that each step on this journey is exciting, mainly because the destination is a series of experiences, rather than an ultimate location or accomplishment.
Last week, I found myself in Castleberry Hill for one such experience.
“The Castleberry Hill Neighborhood, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is Atlanta’s eighth Landmark District, represents the most complete warehouse district still surviving in the City of Atlanta. The area is in the midst of a renaissance, with these old commercial structures being turned into dramatic loft homes for the many people attracted by the prospect of living Downtown.”
“The railway, which defines street and building patterns as it cuts through Castleberry, is as old as Atlanta itself, and Atlanta’s first horse-drawn trolley line served the neighborhood. The Castleberry Hill historic district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. As was typical of the era, laborers, carpenters, saloon keepers, tailors, butchers, blacksmiths and other trades people lived here, within walking distance of work. Castleberry Hill supported most of Atlanta’s growth after the Civil War.”
(Castleberry Hill Historic Arts District)
The creative process is a transfer of energy between two things. It can be an artist and a paintbrush, a musician and a piano, a cinematographer and a camera or a writer and a notebook. When concentrated, some of this energy can stay behind in the buildings and communities where the experience occurred. Often, over time, it translates into a felt but unexplainable presence that serves as a foundational element of the creative process.
Castleberry Hill is certainly one of those communities.
I was there for a session that was part of a program called Channeling the Muse presented by the Atlanta Ad Club.
(Graphic created by Daniel Murphy)
The stage was set wonderfully by Lionstar Films and their dedicated team of thoughtful creators. Their 100 year old building provided a cozy and inspiring purlieu for a chat about imagination and flow as well as structure and discipline. I am grateful that these four friends carved out a precious amount of their 1440 to spend time with me in conversation and exploration.
Meet the crew:
Lennie Gray Mowris – magically disgruntled manifestor
Vek Neal – puzzle-solver who finds the beauty in strangers
Jack Preston – time-traveling music producer
Dov Jacobson – engineer of flow experiences
I thought I would share a few takeaways from our inspiring conversation.
On morning routines …
I wrote about my morning routine in 52Musings Post #2.
It really hasn’t changed since then, and I think its one of my secret weapons. My day normally starts at 5:30AM beginning by downing a warm water, lemon, Himalayan sea salt, apple cider vinegar and turmeric concoction, then 15-20 minutes of meditation, followed by 10 minutes of journaling. Unless something absolutely crazy has happened, those three activities remain pretty sacred. I try to protect the next 90 minutes of my day for tasks that require the most focus, concentration and creativity.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that most of the group had a daily routine that serves as the anchor for them both personally and creatively. There was definitely a common thread of taking care of yourself before approaching the day. Daily meditation, or some form of mindfulness practice plays a significant role in their approach to the day.
The word routine is often used with a negative connotation. Many identify having a routine with being stuck in a rut. My daily routine has led to more focus, less stress, more energy and more control over my approach to the day. While their creative outputs are unique, these four creators follow a structured process to start their days.
On prolific creators …
Dov mentioned Ben Franklin.
Franklin epitomizes thematic interconnectedness and transdisciplinary creation. His pension for innovation was spirited and drive for invention was unparalleled. He ran a print shop, which eventually provided the financial independence necessary to fully focus on his more creative endeavors. Outside of playing the part of a founding father of the United States, he invented a flexible urinary catheter to replace the rigid metal tubes that were used in his day. He engineered the US postal system, he developed the first odometer and invented bifocals. He also built a musical instrument that Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss incorporated into their compositions. The glass armonica was embraced in performance halls throughout Europe and the United States.
Vek cited Norman Rockwell and his unique methods to bring images to canvas. While he wasn’t the first to use photography as the basis of his paintings, the photographs allowed him to see the finer details that are more difficult to capture if you are sketching a scene.
Known for his slice of life and realism, this technique was a valuable tool for creation.
(Photograph by: Gene Pelham and Montage by: Ron Schick)
Jack brought up J Dilla.
James Dewitt Yancey was a foundational cornerstone in the history of hip-hop. From Slum Village, The Roots and D’Angelo to A Tribe Called Quest and Common, J Dilla’s sound infiltrated all of hip-hop. A copious creator until the end of his life, which was cut short by a rare blood disorder, he produced the timeless record, Donuts from his hospital bed.
On resistance …
This was an interesting topic. I brought up resistance from the standpoint of an obstacle in the way of the creative process. Dov presented the obstacle as the way. In his mind, “resistance is fertile”. Its almost a necessary partner to creation. While in the deep throws of innovation or inspiration, having an opposing force to push back against keeps you driving forward. The nature of the universe is symbiotic as is the creative process, and friction can make you more stable. Friction is the force that held this pencil in my hand with pressure against the paper of my first draft. Maybe a little resistance isn’t so bad after all.
On teaching creativity …
Lennie presented a beautifully succinct, three word answer to teaching creativity.
PLAY – Experimentation without expectation, laugh, have fun, mess up and don’t worry.
PRACTICE – Getting good at anything requires practice and dedication.
PIVOT – Know when to change directions when something isn’t working.
On distractions and time management …
The entire group acknowledged the challenge of balancing deep work with administrative activities and personal communication. We referenced the idea of MAKER time and MANAGER time, and everyone had some rules of the road to limit distractions and maximize deep work. They use social media curfews, email filters and they hold windows of time sacred for creation.
On less than inspiring projects …
Not every project can be a passion, but you can find passion within any project if you have the right mindset. Even with that positive outlook, we can often find ourselves involved in less than inspiring work. Hopefully as we progress, we are able to select projects that bring us the most joy. Vek mentioned the idea of creating boundaries between projects. Each project is a puzzle to solve. You separate and solve each project for the puzzle that is presented. The larger puzzle is how the necessary projects and personally fulfilling projects fit in together. Either way, always have a project that feeds your soul.
On starting out …
One of the questions from the audience sparked a spirited exchange about how new artists can balance building a resume with paying the bills. We all agreed that there are no short-cuts or replacements for hard work. The act of performing your craft and producing amazing work is the basis for any creative endeavor. While working hard and earning opportunities, we encouraged more mutually-beneficial relationships between the up and coming artists and the clients with a slim to none budget. Even non-paying gigs should be viewed as a transaction, and sometimes money isn’t the most valuable means of payment. If the client is happy, ask for a referral, an introduction or an opportunity to present your work at an event they are holding. If you are delivering great work, the opportunities will come.
Our session lasted about 90 minutes …
We could have talked for another two hours.
I can see myself making a habit of experiences like this one.
Thanks again to Lennie, Vek, Jack and Dov for indulging my request.
I hope you enjoyed the breakdown.