I love this description by Neil Gaiman of his experience of imposter syndrome early in his career, quoted in Presence by Amy Cuddy:

I would have this recurring fantasy in which there would be a knock on the door, and I would go down, and there would be somebody wearing a suit not an expensive suit, just the kind of suit that showed they had a job and they would be holding a clipboard, and they’d have paper on the clipboard, and I’d open the door and they’d say, “Hello, excuse me, I’m afraid I am here on official business. Are you Neil Gaiman?” And I would say yes. “Well, it says here that you are a writer, and that you don’t have to get up in the morning at any particular time, that you just write each day as much as you want.” And I’d go, “That’s right.” “And that you enjoy writing. And it says here that all the books you want they are just sent to you and that you don’t have to buy them. And films: it says here that you just go to see films. If you want to see them you just call up the person who runs the films.” And I say, “Yes, that’s right.” “And that people like what you do and they give you money for just writing things down.” And I’d say yes. And he’d say, “Well, I’m afraid we are on to you. We’ve caught up with you. And I’m afraid you are now going to have to go out and get a proper job.” At which point in my fantasy my heart would always sink, and I’d go, “Okay,” and I’d go and buy a cheap suit and I’d start applying to real jobs. Because once they’ve caught up with you, you can’t argue with this: they’ve caught up with you. So that was the thing in my head.

I just came across this series of videos in which Aesop Rock explains the backstory to his album Skelethon. I’m struck by the thought that there’s no piece of creative work I care about that wouldn’t leave me interested to hear such a story about it. Particularly when it has this degree of granularity, offering an account of the work as a whole through stories about its component parts.

On a slightly mundane level, it gives context to the things I get stuck in my mind. As with this lyric from Crows 1, which I’ve had reveberating around my brain for the last few days for reasons I didn’t completely understand:

Now let me slow this whole shit down for all you half-goat cowards
I’ll even grit my teeth for you
I am so completely off the god-damn grid it’s not a question of addressing me
It’s “what do these symbols under the dresser mean

http://genius.com/Aesop-rock-crows-1-lyrics

I still don’t completely understand the lyrics. But the account in the video has deepened my appreciation of them in a way I find interesting. It’s given them depth through providing a context that was lacking. I understand what Crows 1 is about as a whole and this fleshes out the song in a way which enhances rather than detracts from the resonance which has continually drawn my attention back to the lyrics in recent days.

The RSA surveyed their fellows in higher education about challenges to creativity within the sector. Though I’d certainly like more information (n=???) the responses they received paint an increasingly familiar picture of how the accelerated academy corrodes the impulse towards creativity of those working within it:

Structure:

The biggest barriers seemed to be structural, with the majority of the respondents stating that existing structures limited the development of creativity within their institutions. Rigidity in curriculum design was a common complaint, with many feeling that courses had no space for creativity, or that there was an inbuilt ‘knowledge bias’ that kept creative ideas off the table. Others felt that institutional structures were to blame and spoke about a ‘silo’ mentality that drew too strict a divide between subjects traditionally viewed as ‘creative’ and those that aren’t.

Perceived value:

A significant minority of those we surveyed felt that the perception that creativity lacks value is a key barrier to its development. Many respondents felt that there was an increasing drive towards employability as a key performance indicator for universities. There was a concern that pursing creativity over employability might hinder a university’s place in national or international rankings. They also felt that subjects that are seen as traditionally creative suffered because they were unable to bring in funding or secure prestigious grants.

Time, funding and expertise:

A general lack of time, funding and expertise within teaching staff also seems to present a stumbling block to creativity. Several of those surveyed felt that the need for undergraduates to fund their studies through part-time work would undermine attempts at creative curricula, as they would lack the time to fully engage with it. Similarly, while many recognised that there was a lack of creative expertise among university staff, it was also felt that without additional funding or staff time its development would not be a priority.

https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2015/03/overcoming-daemons-the-better-angels-of-creativity-in-higher-education/

For the last couple of days, I was in Edinburgh taking part in Time Without Time. It was a great event and I’ll probably blog more about it next week. The second day was very different from the usual academic events I go to. This picture probably conveys how this is so:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.55.12

The experience left me thinking about ‘creativity’ in the broadest sense. These are the two thoughts I’m playing with:

  1. Creativity can usefully be understood as incorporating an apophatic dimension: involving “removing obstacles (mainly thinking, decision-making processes) which prevent the spontaneous emergence” of novelty.
  2. Creativity relies on non-linearity even if the process of creation itself might incorporate some linear elements.

With the exception of the Digital Sociology conference in New York last month, I can’t remember ever having come away from an event so full of ideas. Hence my desire to understand why spending the day (literally) playing has had this effect.

My initial impressions of Bernard Stiegler were far from positive, largely ensuing from the sheer incomprehensibility of his writing. However this essay by Mark Featherstone (HT Emma Head) has reminded me why I bought Stiegler’s books in the first place after a few people explained the themes he addresses in his work. Featherstone is concerned with Stiegler’s work as a resource to help illuminate a way out of our being “lost in a hyper-functional technological world” in which “the masturbatory logic that supports, for example, the Apple universe” leads me to “become my own other”. His point here concerns the deliberate eroticisation of these products, coupled with the designed inevitability of their obsolesce. The iPhone, so sleek and seductive, encourages us to invest ourselves in it while the commercial system upon which we depend to attain it strenuously works to preclude the sustainability of that investment:

The effect of this reliance is that we escape our lack through the object. Of course, the additional problem of the technological object today is that, unlike the transitional object — such as the ageing teddy or the old blanket, which grow with us — the evolution of the modern technological object is organised around planned obsolescence. Where we are meant to outgrow the transitional object, the technological gadget outgrows us. It moves on — the iPhone 3 becomes the 3G, the 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 5C. As Steve Jobs famously said before the unveiling of Apple’s latest gadget, “one more thing.” Following the logic of Marxist commodity fetishism, there is always “one more thing . . .” that indicates to us that we always lack.

http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=728

His argument makes me think back to an exhibition I saw at the Tate Modern earlier in the summer. It involved a dark room, into which people entered and were assailed by fleeting apparitions projected onto the walls. But the contents of the exhibition itself were largely irrelevant. What struck me was how utterly the efficacy of it depended upon the jarring impact of entering a pitch black space and how manifestly this failed because the majority of those entering the room immediately reached for a smart phone to pierce the darkness, in many cases subsequently clutching it protectively even after they had ceased to depend upon the reassurance of its light to acclimatise themselves to the installation. My initial reaction to this was irritation, followed by curiosity and then paroxysms of reflexive doubt when I realised that the immediate expression of my internal realisation (“isn’t it weird and interesting that people do this with their iPhones?”) was to reach for my own iPhone and open Twitter.

To a cynic this might sound like an awfully long winded way of saying that our consumer objects bring us comfort. I think there’s more to it though. Featherstone’s point in contrasting ‘my smartphone’ to a transitional object is that we come to outgrow the latter. It serves to facilitate a transition from the unmediated dependency of early natality through to our individuation within a network of relations in which we gradually come to negotiate this need without ever entirely overcoming it: it’s the consistency of this dependency throughout the life course, depending on others throughout even if dependency on a particular other is fleeting, which is repudiated within the culture of late capitalism. Others recognise us in a way that disowns our dependency, with ‘co-dependency’ widely seen as pathological, in turn encouraging us to disown it in others. Where dependency is acknowledged it is sequestered in specialised institutions, constituting a way in which modernity itself mitigates against our learning to live with dependency. If it is acknowledged, it is framed as something which is overcome through childhood and which cannot be overcome in old age. This confusion becomes particularly pronounced if we consider that one way of reading the findings of the emerging adulthood literature is that the extent of dependency in late adolescence is expanding rather than shrinking, at least in the industrial west.

Against this background the iPhone becomes a strangely overloaded object. As the people in the Tate modern installation showed, it is literally a torch we can use to pierce the darkness. It allows us to absent ourselves from social situations, escaping from others and their recalcitrant disinclination to cater to the dispositions we are often only dimly aware we posses. It leaves the knowledge system at our fingers, in the process allowing us to evade the limitations of our capacity to remember and our willingness to even try. It is our entire network, all those we know and all those we might wish to know, compressed into the palm of our hands. The latent capacity of the object is bewildering and overwhelming: in allowing us to say whatever we want to whomever we want to, it obscures the question of why we would want to do these things. Stripped of the horizons imposed by scarcity, we struggle to orientate ourselves to the endless possibilities it affords. The iPhone comes to represent everything we could do and could be but are not. It helps us repudiate our dependency (“I don’t need them, there’s no end to the things I could do”) without making us independent – in fact it undermines this because the simultaneous expansion of possibility and contraction of grounds upon which to choose can easily engender compulsivity (i.e. never exhausting the novelty in my hand and having no grounds upon which to choose between novelties leads to mindless repetition and inertia). This is how I understand the lack that Featherstone discusses and I’d be interested to know if my understanding is substantively different to what I assume to be the Lacanian notion he invokes or if I’m just rearticulating it in a different theoretical jargon. It’s the relationship between our being and becoming: the possibility of becoming some other being that precludes the self-subsistence of our present being. We can never just be because we are always in the process of becoming and we always have some evaluative orientation to the possible selves we (fallibly) see ahead of us. It matters to us what kind of person we might become. The ‘masturbatory logic’ suggested by Featherstone is, on my reading, the tendency of these devices and the ‘ecosystems’ within which they exist to leave us mired in what I see as an existential gap between what we are and what we could become rather than a ‘lack’ that characterises our being.

In this sense, we can see the iPhone as an object both reassuring and destabilising. It induces a sense of autonomy but at a cost of undercutting our capacity to sustain meaningful commitments in a life structured around its omnipresence. It helps us symbolically overcome our dependence but detracts from our capacity to meaningfully enter into new relations with all the capacity for dependency they herald: why commit to these people when I can so easily meet those people? What I’m trying to get at is the relationship between a technological artefact like the iPhone and our capacity to live with what Ian Craib calls ‘disappointment’:

Why disappointment? In common usage, and in the dictionary, we talk about disappointment as what happens, what we feel, when something we expect, intend, or hope for or desire does not materialise. One of the difficulties of living in our world is that it is perhaps increasingly less clear exactly what we might expect or hope for or desire. In fact, these words mean different things. The most basic is desire: it carries connotations of needing urgently, yearning, to the point almost of trying to will something into existence. Sometimes we desire something so completely that we revert to our infant selves and scream, metaphorically or in reality, in the hope that our desire may be realised – just as, if we were lucky, the milk used to appear in response to our screams from the cot.

Ian Craib, The Importance of Disappointment, Pg 3

In fact I’d go as far as to venture that the iPhone is the most potent artefact ever constructed for escaping disappointment. Our desire to get out of the mess of life finds expression in this shiny implement for which we pay so much and from which we expect so much. It serves this practical function (distraction, connection, escape) but it also comes to represent our capacity to float free of others, wriggling free of the bonds of dependency in which we are all irrevocably entwined. However it is a fleeting object, soon to be obsolete, offering a chimerical sense of autonomy generative more of compulsion than purposiveness. This is precisely what Featherstone’s essay has persuaded me that Stiegler actually does have a lot of insight into, in spite of the latter’s atrocious writing style. I was also interested to find that Stiegler’s prescriptions parallel my own:

Stiegler tells us that we must fight for the right to the future. Like Prometheus, the original rebel with a cause, we must struggle to save the possibility of hope. We must struggle to save our openness to change, which is, of course, based in our humanity, which is, in turn, rooted in our fundamental lack — our default.

Stiegler argues that we must find time and space in life for otium, or studious leisure, which is today absolutely subordinate to negotium, or calculation and necessity. [70] Fundamentally, he explains that this is not about supporting the importance of the pleasure principle, but rather a defence of art, craft, and the value of cultural discipline, because this is how we insert ourselves into a world and co-individuate ourselves through communication with others. In this sense, he is critical of Foucault, who he argues advances a one-dimensional view of the idea of discipline, a view that ignores the importance of discipline in suturing people into social symbolic systems that allows them to become human and elevate themselves beyond mere bestial necessity. This is why he thinks we need valuable objects that can enable us to create historical fictions — realisable fictions based in the past that can act as guides to the present and help us to think about moving forward into the future. These good fictions, or fictions of the good, are essentially utopias, narratives necessary to escape the horror of our contemporary un-world and which we can only create on the basis of the care, attention, and discipline we learn through immersion in culture. This is why Stiegler writes in Taking Care of Youth and Generations about the culture industries and what he calls the “battle for intelligence,” because it is here, in the psychopolitical struggle for available brain time, that the possibility of care, attention, and discipline is destroyed in the emergence of hyper-attention and drive-based culture characterised by a complete lack of focus. [71] Stiegler is scathing of consumer culture because there is no know-how or craft in the channel or web surfer who says I want this, that, and the other, and I want it now.

http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=728

The capacity of this technology to consume is paralleled by a capacity to create. In fact the mobility of the technology allows us to build a life around creation, turning the interstices of late modernity into sites for a renewed craft – if only we can cultivate an attentiveness that is sufficiently durable to avoid being diluted by compulsivity.

the industrial economy seduced us into believing is that the deal was simple: You work your day doing something you’re not proud of, and you decompress at night with television and whisky, and on weekends you can go for a run. Right? Do that forever, and forty years from now you’re dead — that’s the deal. And we sold that deal to a lot of people.

– Seth Godin interviewed here

Can this be reduced to ‘neoliberal governmentality’? I don’t think so and yet I find myself extremely uncomfortable with the degree to which this extract personally resonated with me and the fact my first inclination was to post it in the ‘craft’ rather than theory section of my blog.

Nonetheless, I find it an inspiring sentiment: embracing creativity and embracing uncertainty go hand-in-hand, the impulse towards security is inevitably sclerotic, postponing creative fulfilment in the interests of material comfort is likely to prove deadening etc. There’s also a sense in which this accords with my understanding of buddhism i.e. we believe that if we work to arrange the pieces of our life into the ‘correct’ order then we will achieve a lasting happiness, however in doing so we further ensnare ourselves within illusory beliefs about the permanence of things and the permanence of our selves.

But I also can’t get away from how perfectly the ethos expressed fits the structural demands of the contemporary creative industries. No job security? Fine, it will just deaden your creative impulse anyway! Declining real wages? Who needs money anyway, if it constitutes a retreat from authenticity! The need to be continually flexible and to adapt to changing circumstances and demands? Great, it will help you be more alive.

I’m not happy with the idea of reducing this ethos to ‘neoliberal governmentality’ but I’m equally unhappy to accept it on its own terms. I’ve been reading an interesting book on Digital Labour recently, inspired by Autonomist Marxism, which seems well attuned to this dilemma but I’m not convinced they’ve resolved it. Their purported refusal to dismiss the ‘pleasures’ of digital labour while critiquing it seems little more than notional.

From this Brainpickings article:

  1. Detachment and commitment. A willingness to divorce oneself from the obvious is surely a prerequisite for the fresh combinatorial act that produces effective surprise. there must be as a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition a detachment from the forms as they exist… But it is a detachment of commitment. For there is about it a caring, a deep need to understand something, to master a technique, to render a meaning. So while the poet, the mathematician, the scientist must each achieve detachment, they do it in the interest of commitment. And at one stroke they, the creative ones, are disengaged from that which exists conventionally and are engaged deeply in what they construct to replace it.
  2. Passion and decorum. By passion I understand a willingness and ability to let one’s impulses express themselves in one’s life through one’s work… Passion, like discriminating taste, grows on its use. You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action… But again a paradox: it is not all urgent vitality. There is decorum in creative activity: a love of form, an etiquette toward the object of our efforts, a respect for materials… So both are necessary and there must surely be a subtle matter of timing involved — when the impulse, when the taming.
  3. Freedom to be dominated by the object. You begin to write a poem. Before long it, the poem, begins to develop metrical, stanzaic,symbolical requirements. You, as the writer of the poem, are serving it — it seems. or you may be pursuing the task of building a formal model to represent the known properties of single nerve fibers and their synapses: soon the model takes over… There is something odd about the phenomenon. We externalize an object, a product of our thoughts, treat it as “out there.” Freud remarked, commenting on projection, that human beings seem better able to deal with stimuli from the outside than from within. So it is with the externalizing of a creative work, permitting it to develop its own being, its own autonomy coming to serve it. It is as if it were easier to cope with there, as if this arrangement permitted the emergence of more unconscious impulse, more material not readily accessible…To be dominated by an object of one’s own creation — perhaps its extreme is Pygmalion dominated by Galatea — is to be free of the defenses that keep us hidden from ourselves.

    As the object takes over and demands to be completed “in its own terms,” there is a new opportunity to express a style and an individuality. Likely as not, it is so partly because we are rid of the internal juggling of possibilities, because we have represented them “out there” where we can look at them, consider them.

  4. Deferral and immediacy. There is an immediacy to creating anything, a sense of direction, an objective, a general idea, a feeling. Yet the immediacy is anything but a quick orgasm of completion. Completion is deferred…Having read a good many journals and diaries by writers I have come to the tentative conclusion that the principal guard against precocious completion, in writing at least, is boredom. I have little doubt that the same protection avails the scientist. It is the boredom of conflict, knowing deep down what one wishes to say and knowing that one has not said it. one acts on the impulse to exploit an idea, to begin. One also acts on the impulse of boredom, to defer. Thus Virginia Woolf, trying to finish Orlando in February 1928: “Always, always, the last chapter slips out of my hands. One gets bored. One whips oneself up. I still hope for a fresh wind and don’t very much bother, except that I miss the fun that was so tremendously lively all October, November, and December.
  5. The internal drama. There is within each person his own cast of characters* — an ascetic, and perhaps a glutton, a prig, a frightened child, a little man, even an onlooker, sometimes a Renaissance man. The great works of the theater are decompositions of such a cast, the rendering into external drama of the internal one, the conversion of the internal cast into dramatis personae…As in the drama, so too a life can be described as a script, constantly rewritten, guiding the unfolding internal drama. It surely does not do to limit the drama to the stiff characters of the Freudian morality play — the undaunted ego, the brutish id, the censorious and punitive superego. Is the internal cast a reflection of the identifications to which we have been committed? I do not think it is as simple as that. It is a way of grouping our internal demands and there are idealized models over and beyond those with whom we have special identification — figures in myth, in life, in the comics, in history, creations of fantasy…

    It is the working out of conflict and coalition within the set of identities that compose the person that one finds the source of many of the richest and most surprising combinations. It is not merely the artist and the writer, but the inventor too who is the beneficiary.

  6. The dilemma of abilities. What shall we say of energy, of combinatorial zest, of intelligence, of alertness, of perseverance? I shall say nothing about them. They are obviously important but, from a deeper point of view, they are also trivial. For at any level of energy or intelligence there can be more or less of creating in our sense. Stupid people create for each other as well as benefiting from what comes from afar. So too do slothful and torpid people. I have been speaking of creativity, not of genius.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/04/21/jerome-bruner-on-knowing-left-hand-creativity/

really like Steve Fuller’s arguments about ‘improvisation’. He rehearsed them yesterday in a post for Sociological Imagination about the originality of conference keynotes:

For about ten years now, I’ve been arguing about the benefits of improvisational performance in academia, not simply as an experience for the audience but more importantly as a way of getting ‘experts’ and ‘luminaries’ to speak unguardedly on what they think about a topic on which they have established a reputation. Indeed, this is how I believe that academics might earn some entitlement to being called ‘intellectuals’. But increasingly I also think that this skill might be vital to the future of the university as a clearly branded institution in a world where just about anything is a ‘knowledge producer’ by default.

More specifically, public academic speaking might serve as a living moment of intellectual experimentation, not simply a reproduction of past thoughts. This means that improvisation should be taught to aspiring academics – and if you think that ‘teaching improvisation’ is an oxymoron, then you know nothing about performance, regardless of all the Judith Butler you’ve been force-fed. (Maybe I’m wrong but invocations of ‘performativity’ in an academic talk’s title is usually a dead zone for intellectual engagement – unless you like to hear about non-humans ‘performing’!)

http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/15219

It reminded me of this experience I had a couple of years ago. I had a talk planned for a conference (albeit only some bullet points in notes on my iPhone I wrote on the train to London) but decided to talk about something else because the talk prior to mine was so thought provoking. I’m not sure about the quality of the presentation but, at least subjectively, it was peculiarly enjoyable to get up and elaborate a line of thought on the fly:

I really dislike using slides. If someone has invited me to talk then I feel obliged to use slides. Much of my antipathy towards slides (beyond the fact that I’m bad at producing them) stems from how difficult I find it to improvise with them. I enjoy presenting most when I have the equivalent of index cards on my iPad – a short series of grouped bullet points. This reminds me what I’m intending to say but usually means I improvise about how and when I say it. On some occasions, it doesn’t work. If someone has gone a bit wrong prior to the event then the lack of planned structure amplifies my situational anxieties and incapacities. But when it does work, I’m a much better speaker if I just stand up and chat.

Blogging represents another form of improvisation. I thought earlier “I want to write something in response to Steve’s post yesterday”. I didn’t know until I started writing exactly what I would find myself writing. Reflecting on it, it’s not a particular surprise in this case. The influence of Fuller’s concept of ‘improvisation’ on me has largely been about public speaking, so it’s not unexpected that a blog post about it has turned into one considering public speaking. But many blog posts are a surprise. I discover a new idea or a new theme when writing. Or I find a new way of looking at a familiar idea. In this sense, I see ‘improvisation’ as intrinsically linked to what I think of as ‘non-linear creativity’:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outine, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

So while I think Fuller’s argument could sound trivial to someone determined to be critical of it, such that it’s concerned primarily with entertaining audiences, it’s actually much more significant than that. There’s immense creative importance in the capacity to think on your feet or, as Nietzsche might put it, to write on your feet

Not with my hand alone I write:
My foot wants to participate.
Firm and free and bold, my feet
Run across the field – and sheet.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude in Rhymes: 52

I don’t think ‘improvisation’ and ‘creativity’ are co-extensive. But I do think that an intellectual environment hostile to improvisation will tend to constraint creativity. If we don’t have space to experiment, to improvise on the spot, it’s unlikely that we’ll have much space for creativity. We may be perfectly free to create but the forms we produce will be familiar and routine. If we have room to improvise then we’ll be better able to cope with what Howard Becker describes as the ‘chaos’ involved in writing:

You can’t deal with the welter of thoughts that flash through your head when you sit at your keyboard trying to think where to begin. No one can. The fear of that chaos is one reason for the rituals that the students in my seminar described. First one thing, then another, comes into your head. By the time you have thought the fourth thought, the first one is gone. For all you know, the fifth thought is the same as the first. In a short time, certainly, you have gone through your whole repetoire. How many thoughts can we have on one topic?

Howard Becker, Writing for Social Scientists, Pg 55

Improvisation makes this chaos into a virtue. It licenses us to jump headfirst into the flux and see what has happened to us once we emerge from it. In the absence of improvisation, the creative flux becomes a problem. It becomes something to discipline through routine and repress through ritual. It means the most live moments of creative production are approached in a way which, to paraphrase Les Back, seeks to assassinate the life within them.

How do you find time to write? I’ve become fascinated by this question in recent months. Implicit within it is an understanding of ‘writing’ which I’m coming to see as deeply problematic. It treats the creative activity of writing as a matter of temporal budgeting. But how much time does writing take? It obviously depends on what we mean by ‘writing’. According to the typing test I just took, my typing speed is 120 words per minute, which is pretty fast in population terms but not exceptionable for someone who has been touch typing for a long time. At this rate I could type an 80,000 word thesis in around 11 hours. Except I obviously can’t and not just because of the debilitating RSI that would no doubt ensue. In the touch typing test I’m transcribing from on screen text into an on screen text box. In my writing I’m creating something new. So what does that act of creation require? At its best, it relies on inspiration:

The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Hommo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

I feel like this sometimes when blogging. In the past I’ve described it as thinking-through-writingAs I put it last summerthere’s a certain experience of immediacy and urgency in writing which has always been one of my most valued creative experiences: when an inchoate idea is at the forefront of your mind and the process of rendering and externalising it feels like one of the most natural (and important) things in the world. But this only seems to happen if I blog immediately. I grasp at the ‘feel of an idea’ and immediately begin to try and elaborate upon it, drawing out the form incipient within it (or less pretentiously: I put it into words straight away). This is when blogging is really fun. It’s also fast. When in the habit of doing this, I often find I can write a 1000+ word post in 30-45 minutes. But it’s the role of the habit here that I don’t entirely understand. Partly I think it’s a matter of routine. There’s something about immediately grasping an idea and giving it form which will tend to engender the experience of inspiration. Hearing and taking, rather than searching and asking. So perhaps it’s getting into the routine of responding to ideas in this way as and when you encounter them.

Last summer my enthusiasm for blogging suddenly and surprisingly deepened. I say ‘surprising’ because I’ve been blogging in one guise or another for over a decade. But I’d always seen it as a useful and interesting diversion, whereas I suddenly found it began to matter to me as a form of creative expression that I found intensely liberating, as I began to acclimatise myself to pursuing a career in the academy after an experiment in full time web editing that made me realise that being anything other than a sociologist would bore the shit out of me in the medium or long term. Blogging was a release from all the structural pressures corroding the creative impulse that had led me to wonder if I actually did want to be an academic. Embracing the lack of constraint attached to this blog (for me) and making it my main vehicle for intellectual exploration, which I guess it had been becoming anyway, helped me make my peace with the jumping through hoops that a modern academic career unavoidably entails. If I can write whatever the hell I want here then I come to feel better about subjugating what I want to write to instrumental considerations elsewhere.

In terms of more formal writing I’m an archetypal binge writer. Until recently, I’ve tended not to write for weeks at a time and then write flat out for one or two days. For a brief period of time I become utterly engrossed by what I’m writing. This absolute immersion in the task at hand tends to eliminate any propensity to self-censorship and I usually find I can write a great deal, often articulating new ideas and drawing out new connections, in a very short space of time. This worked hand-in-hand with a technique I picked up from a Bertrand Russell book years ago:

My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigour and intensity is put into it. most of the unconscious consists of what were once highly emotional conscious thoughts, which have now become buried. It is possible to do this process of burying deliberately, and in this way, the unconscious can be led to do a lot of useful work. I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity – the greatest intensity of which I am capable – for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered his technique, I used to to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress: I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, Pg 49-50

So until recently I’d found writing largely unproblematic. I read, I blogged, I talked and every now and again a few thousand words would pour out of my brain in a way that was often quite enjoyable. Deadlines helped but they weren’t essential to this. The problem began when the process of trying to squeeze too much into the rest of my working life (particularly a full time job, commuting from the midlands to london and setting up a training business) led to the rapid disintegration of this comfortable, albeit occasionally manic, routine of creative production. I made very little progress on my PhD for six months and struggled to get back into a writing groove, not least of all because I had to deal with my masses of data, which in a way I’m still not back into. Binge writing is unreliable: it’s a little scary how much time can elapse before you realise that you’ve not had a serious session of writing for a long time.

It’s because of this PhD delay, as well as my impending deadline, that I’ve been trying to force myself into a daily writing routine. Frankly, I hate it. It makes me self-critical about the intellectual content of my writing in a way I have never been before. Largely because I previously edited my work but didn’t assess it. I’d read it through, note points that needed developing or consider ones that should be removed. But these considerations were post hoc and practical, immediately feeding into the next stage or the next project, rather than leading me to say “this is shit” to myself. Forcing myself to sit down and write for a set amount of time every day completely takes the fun out of it. It leads me to try and write when the ideas aren’t ready to come out. The only occasional experience of inspiration I’ve had in this period has been when I’m working intensively, over and above the daily goal, to meet a deadline I’ve agreed with my supervisor.

So I can see that I’ve bounced from one writing extreme to the other. A complete draft of my PhD is days away (if that). I’ve then got a bit of work to turn a complete draft into a finished draft. After that I want to find some middle ground between my unreliably organic binge writing and this stultifying imperative to sit down and write every single day. But I’m not sure where that middle ground is. It involves inspiration. But does it involve habit? Or is what I’ve been thinking of as ‘habit’ actually a matter of attentiveness, recognising the potential emergence of inspiration and responding to in a way which gives it maximal expression? Perhaps it’s also a matter of cultivating the conditions necessary for this attentiveness? But what are they?

Edit to add: this post was an example of the experience I’m talking about. I’ve had these thoughts spilling around in my head all day. So when I sat down to articulate them, it took well under an hour. Whereas if I sit down for my ‘minimum of two hours daily work on my PhD’ it could easily take me twice as long to write half as much.

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outine, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

Does this describe your own creative process? It certainly resonates with me. I generally start writing and, as I continue, I gradually start to realise what it is that I’m writing. Though I’ve often tended to assume that this was a fault i.e. that my reticence about planning and structuring was symptomatic of an underlying laziness.