#rawthought: The Garden Effect and Bowie-ing it Up – Lessons from a Friend
This past week I was privileged to meet with dear old friends in the beautiful land that is the U.K. I culminated my part business / part pleasure trip in Manchester, where I spent a few days traipsing gleefully with Jeffrey (a California expat who has known me since I was 14) and Kimmo ( a lovely Finn who I met in France during a college trip). Jeffrey is a musician and music producer and comes complete with a cool studio in the heart of the North Quarter (I’m describing as if he is a Ken doll). We spent some down time drinking champagne and feasting on strawberries with pepper (highly recommended!) in his suburban home whilst he casually strummed his guitar and sang bits of 80’s New Wave in delightfully acoustic way.
As with all people I meet (not just those formally in the “creative” industries), I wanted to find out more about Jeffrey’s creative process.
Little did I know he would say something poignant as we wandered outside to view the garden….
When the winter comes, he shares, all the flowers are covered in snow and ice and, of course, barely perceptible.
This used to bother him, he admits, until he realized
Creativity works like a garden
“There’s a time to put your head down and work…and a time to flower”
Perhaps more importantly, Jeffrey reminded me,
“You don’t have to flower all the time”
This is a valuable lesson, because I think in our society we are obsessed with productivity...with rapid generation of ideas and work. Whoever makes more or makes it faster or first (not necessarily better) wins the day. There is a grain of truth to that of course – if you publish a song or a thought or an artwork first and my similar piece comes along, yours will invariably be more “legitimate” due to its seniority. But of course we must remember that all creativity is derivative, and that remix (not copy – but true transformation based on existing elements), often makes for more enticing work.
This statement reminds me of something Commander Chris Hadfield said about practice being disproportionate to “doing”…that
much of what we do is just build up
We practice our craft, take baby steps towards a lofty goal (like space travel!), and hone our skills until we can shine for a brief moment – like that lovely purple perennial flower. Jazz musicians call this “shedding” after a famous story about Charlie Parker retreating to a woodshed in the mountains to practice solo and develop a unique style after a particularly humiliating experience on stage.
Who wouldn’t love being a flower?
..making beautiful things that cause delight in people… that make them stop and take you and/or your work into a account. But the lesson here is that it’s ok to flower only on a rare occasion – it’s indeed worth it if you are only around for a short season, or succeed in moving only one passer-by. Understanding that most of the creative process will be a winter of sorts, where you will need to sequester yourself, work out the mechanics or even the “why” of your work, is imperative to your psyche.
…and then it will be time to bloom
Another interesting thing came up when we were discussing Jeffrey’s recent project, in which he created a “persona” for himself. One day he started a new Facebook with a catchy name and told close friends this was who he was going to “be” on his upcoming music tour of China. In fact, this new identity was 20 years younger (he looks young to begin with so it’s pretty believable). The main thing he learned from this was that
letting go of one’s identity freed up one’s creativity
He claimed to write and play songs differently – more pop-like than his usual style. He felt liberated to experiment and play. Even his singing altered a bit. Of course this reminded us of David Bowie. Artists like Madonna and Prince cleverly switched up styles through the years, but Bowie truly embraced alternate identities, even giving them a backstory. ( check out more examples of musicians’ alter egos here).
So I wonder, can we slip into a mindset that would allow for this sense of freedom without going to the extreme of assuming an alter ego? Might we use self-talk or imagination to think of ourselves in a different way in order to spur creativity? Actually, yes. In a fascinating experiment with the “stereotype effect” researchers claimed that people who imagined themselves to be “an eccentric poet” rather than a “rigid librarian” scored better on creativity tests in both fluency and originality.
Whenever I’m feeling self-conscious about a creative choice or piece of work, I try to step out of my Amy Burvall mode and privately assume another sense of self- perhaps even my four year old self with crayons surrounding me, I’m not sure. But it works as long as I can do it.
I think the main point is not taking yourself too seriously. Allow yourself to have fun and goof up. Think of the magic that developed with Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp”…without that carefully crafted character the “every day” Mr. Chaplin might not have been so bold.
Thank you Jeffrey for these little insights, and I will remember to loosen the binds of my own ego and work hard in the winters of creativity so I can bloom even for a moment.