Monday, November 14, 2011

Zoe

I first read Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit (2003) several years ago, and it's a book I like to return to every few years, to help me think about what creativity is, what it means, and how to sustain it.

Tharp is a firm believer in the fact that inspiration--and creativity--are "habits," a conception that runs counter to the idea that artists are always transcendental geniuses whose ideas arise (spontaneously, miraculously) out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to astound us all.

On the contrary, Tharp argues. Artists work. They do so daily and consistently, and often without inspiration. But always they do so with a sense of purpose and always with a sense that, when they are working, they are doing precisely what they should be doing--in effect, what they feel they were "meant" to do.

I have always liked Tharp's book, because so many people conceive of art as something breezy and inspirational--picked up, put down, automatically executed with brilliance and ultimately reducible to its final products. Her argument is a healthy reminder that art is equally about process, and processes are often, if not inevitably, messy and riddled with mis-starts and mistakes.

And the results of those messy processes are not always even "good," let alone brilliant. It's not always an inspired undertaking. You have to produce all kinds of potentially bad creations if you want to increase your chances of creating something potentially passable.

I think of the creative process as a merger of the ephemeral (that which is fleeting) with the tangible (that which is time-bound and concrete). Tharp offers the contrast between zoe and bios --between indiscriminate life and life in its lived details. Different artists are drawn to different perspectives and the great artists are the rare few who can capture both.

But I wonder whether artistic creation, when viewed from the perspective of the artist her- or himself, is always a constant adjustment of focus, a tweaking of the details and the indiscriminate--zooming in on bios only to then pan back on zoe --in an ongoing effort to communicate what would otherwise exist only in the artist's soul and psyche.

Artists work constantly and ceaselessly to give us the gift that they envision.

I think it's easy to declare oneself an artist, a gift-giver. It's much more difficult to live as one. I'm not referring simply to the lack of an income or the need to take an unrelated job and carve out time for one's work, to "suffer" for one's creation.

I'm thinking of the discipline required in coming up with an idea when you simply don't have one--or any, really. Or the discipline required to acknowledge that the project you've worked on so lovingly and laboriously is...well, crap.

And conversely, the willingness to realize that there is no perfection and that the repeated decision to declare everything one produces "crap" and refuse to offer it to the world's gaze is not a sign of artistic discipline, it's the symptom of a lack of resolve and a failure of courage.

The French intellectual and polymath Henri Poincare used his innate curiosity about--and eventual expertise in--a wide range of fields and interests to generate a vast body of scientific work without frittering away his time on dead-ends or distractions.

In his journals, Poincare would describe arriving at an impasse in a particular project or mathematical problem. Instead of doing what most of us would do, however, and continuing to beat his head against the wall and demand a solution, Poincare would move on to another project, often something completely unrelated or occasionally a project that had reached a similar impasse at an earlier point in time.

Poincare describes how, having set the problematic project aside, he would suddenly arrive at--perhaps not a "solution," per se, but an idea that would advance his thinking. Often, he claims, this would happen while getting into a carriage or engaging in some otherwise mundane activity unrelated to his intellectual endeavors.

He possessed the ability to live with his stumbling blocks and stopping points, instead of becoming consumed by them or prematurely branding them as "failures." In effect, Poincare's analysis of his own thinking process suggests that, while he was focused on something else, his brain was slowly but steadily continuing to work on the problem, somewhere just below the threshold of conscious activity.

The shift in perspective would eventually offer the insight he needed to rethink the dilemma. This ability to shift focus, frame and attitude is the hallmark of a productive and agile mind. I remember reading about how the teen tennis phenom Martina Hingis used to love to play sports other than tennis and how, contrary to the advice of most tennis pros, she refused to spend vast amounts of time simply playing tennis.

Instead, she felt that her time spent playing soccer taught her new things about her footwork on the tennis court. Likewise, her love of horseback riding taught her different ways of thinking about the landscape in front of her and adjusting to changes in perspective and momentum.

It was a kind of self-imposed regimen of neuroplasticity. I think this is the essence of any kind of mastery--whether physical or intellectual: an ongoing and innate willingness to render one's perspective simutaneously supple and attentive.

To see the bios in zoe , and then ... to look again, both elsewhere and otherwise.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."