Creativity and taking a break

Have you ever given up on a problem, only to find that the answer miraculously jumps out at you the next day?

Graham Wallas, in his work Art of Thought, published in 1926, presented one of the first models of the creative process. Wallas separated the process into five phases, one of which was incubation. Incubation, to him, was the phase that followed preparation and involved leaving things alone, or ‘sleeping’ on the problem.

Beeftink and Van Erde also found evidence of the positive effects of taking a break. In their experiment, participants were more likely to find solutions to a cryptic problem if they were allowed to take breaks when they chose

They also found that interruption, although less useful in finding answers, was very useful in preventing the feeling of having reached an impasse, or being stuck. (“The Effects of Interruptions and Breaks on Insight and Impasses: Do You Need a Break Right Now?”, Flora Beeftink and Wendelien Van Erde, Creativity Research Journal 20(4), 358-364, 2008).

Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative podcast on PACE also talks about the benefits of taking time to absorb information. Henry points out that creatives spend a lot of time absorbing information, and need to allow extra time to assimilate this information into their thinking.

I gave up smoking five years ago thankfully, but one of the main reasons why I enjoyed cigarettes were their facility to give me a break. No matter how important the work, my nicotine addiction would remind me to step outside for five minutes every hour. Often I would spend my smoking time in contemplation, allowing my work experiences to incubate.

Now a non-smoker, I take far fewer breaks and find I work in a more focused way. After reading Beeftink and Van Erde’s research, I feel inspired to take more time out from work.

Creative but bored?

Did you make a career out of doing what you love, but now find that you’ve lost that original passion? Has it become more about making money than loving what you do?

Todd Henry from The Accidental Creative suggests that commerce may cause a conflict between creating for others and creating for yourself.

In Henry’s podcast interview with “Freeplay” author Stephen Nachmanovitch, they discuss this dynamic. Nachmanovitch reminds us of how hard it can be to balance inspiration with commerce. As artists we have all had to produce something creative on demand that pays the bills, while we’d rather work on our own unpaid labour of love.

Nachmanovitch uses the analogy of the painter, who leaves his inspired canvases with a gallery. One year on, the gallery want more of ‘the yellow ones’ because they sold so well. However, by this time, the artist has moved on. He now has other influences. His Muse is no longer with ‘the yellow ones’ and so recreating them becomes a lifeless enterprise.

So how do we, as creatives, keep it fresh? And is repetition always equivalent to lifelessness?

A good performance artist would say not. My background is in theatre, and one thing I learnt in acting school was the importance of keeping the performance fresh every night. No matter how bored you got with saying the same old lines, you had a duty to the audience as new customers, to give them good value for their money.

There are many techniques to ‘keep it fresh’. One way is to remain present. All live art has the potential to change, and every performance has a slightly different energy and audience every night. By learning to tune into these nuances, a good actor will discover new reasons to speak and act every night, keeping some elements of the performace spontaneous. Perhaps the emotion with which the line is said will change, perhaps the gesture… Either way this involves stepping on stage with an openness to new energies.

This change of perception is available to us all, and may be a skill that artists excel in anyway. Often what we call ‘vision’ is the ability to tune into what most people find boring and make it intersting. Even painting another ‘yellow one’ involves a fresh canvas with its own unique texture; every panel has its own snags and warps, every brushstroke has a different feel.

According to the Zen phrase, life is all about “Chopping wood and carrying water.” This has a very simple meaning. Every day is repetitive. What we must do is perform every action, no matter how insignificant or repetitive, with full life and presence. We must surrender to the activity and become one with it.

How often have you felt that your greatest works have been the ones that ‘just naturally happened’? The art just seemed to flow out of you, or you became completely immersed in your project. You surrendered completely to your work and became one with it. Often, this is what we mean when we say we are ‘inspired’. Perhaps this sense of oneness and the subsequent ease of flow is what we mean by inspiration.

And if the Buddhists are right, then this sense of oneness does not just come and go, but is learned.

So next time you really don’t want to do what you’re doing, try giving it your full attention. Treat it with full respect. Focus on your breathing. Stop pretending you know exactly where this will lead. Allow yourself to have a new sense of wonder.

The truth is that there is no repetition. Every new undertaking, no matter how mundane, can be an adventure.