Great creative acts often provoke feelings of inevitability, as if they make so much sense that the only reason you didn’t do it yourself is because someone else got to it first.
There are many ways to lose yourself to uselessness. To outwit the demons, tell yourself that your goals matter, and that no matter what they may be whispering in your ear, those demonic distractors really aren’t as interesting in learning how to live intentionally in the first place
Preparation is all about learning how to listen to our senses to figure out what we want to do, and then asking them to step aside for a while so that we can think clearly. Preparation is the difference between practice and improvisation. Preparation is the invisible shield held by pros.
Fully alive, we see the world in a stage of constant changing, and if we give into that eternal state of change, we begin to understand that the present doesn’t exist at all. There can only be what came before and what’s yet to happen.
Everyone has stuff to do, but if you’re the kind of person who regards his or her daily efforts as creative expressions rather than simply lists of tasks, there’s something different about the endless punch list you need to complete. Those tasks aren’t just annoying or distracting. They’re relentless.
On a recent family road trip we stopped to visit the high school my mother attended in the 1950's. Located in the crumbling outskirts of Newark, New Jersey, Weequahic High School stands as a testament to the one universal truth: everything changes.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, Weequahic was regarded as one of the 10 best public high schools in the entire country. Philip Roth went there; Albert Einstein lectured there; the curriculum taught Chinese and Swahili there before most Americans ever thought there would be a reason to learn things other than Romance languages.
Everything changes. Located amid the depressing ruins of what used to be one of the nation's great cities, the front of the school faces Chancellor Avenue now like the broken friezes at Abu Simbel face the Egyptian desert. Inside the front door, the proud, inspiring post-modernist murals that met the historically extraordinary student body decades ago hide now behind cheap plexiglass shields to forestall abuse and degradation. The hallways show cracks and off-kilter locker doors. The lighting sputters and flickers for want of fresh bulbs. The paint peels. The sentiment that immediately floods a visitor is one of sadness, of lost opportunities, of societies beat up and beat down.
Students still attend.
My mother still speaks of her days there with reverence and respect. The aging alumni with whom she's still in contact--and they are a spectacularly accomplished bunch--still hold up the image of the place as if it were a light in the darkness of a descended city. They still talk about obligations to the future, and responsibilities for the past, and deep values locked in the DNA of a great idea.
Why write about this for a blog that purports to be about creativity? After visiting this remarkable, uniquely American place-- sharing stories, listening to legends, considering the implications-- a deeply resonant thrum begins to flood in. Those feelings yield to thinking. Thinking turns to cognition.
To wit: good ideas are not enough. The history of civilization, from its technological advances to its cultural inventions to its wide and endlessly surprising art, all spring from good ideas. But plenty of good ideas have come to naught. The great civilizations of middle America in the last millennium routinely slaughtered endless lives as human sacrifices even as they turned back the jungle and fed hundreds of thousands, building astounding cities and mathematical frameworks and orderly societies.
How many screenplays have rattled around people's heads without finding enough traction to make it to completion? How many paintings and dances and poems have simply crumbled beneath the realities of making those works whole, of bringing resources of time and clarity and money to bear on their completion? The continuity of good, profound ideas sometimes does not overcome the inertial forces of desert sands grinding those ideas down.
Even great civilizations crumble.
But ideas endure. Those murals still exist inside the front atrium of Weequahic High School. There are inspirations still embedded in the fading paint, capable of inspiring new students. That is, the potential for inspiration still obtains if the power of good ideas can be nurtured and cultivated, supported and reinvigorated.
Things always change. If we adopt this as a true statement, then we also open the potential for great things to rise from seemingly irretrievable pieces. Sometimes things change for the better.
We should therefore commit to engaging the world in an endless process of creation.
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Physicists say that time is a dimension. Even if we understand this intellectually, it's somewhat outside of our ordinary human experiences. Time moves invisible, even as it surrounds us, and shapes every aspect of our days. Now more than ever, we are attuned to time's relentless march than we ever have been through history.
Time has always been a component of human civilization. Agrarian societies knew time as a function of seasons, counted in days divided by nights. Modern societies developed calendars to keep track of the passage of the year. Days of the week broke it down even further; sundials and the introduction of mechanical clocks made time even more divisible. But now we are surrounded by the tick-tock of endless devices that keep track of time, usually by electronic means. Yet one thing hasn't changed. The flow of time is governed most of all by our own perceptions of it. There is no amount of mechanical nor other logical record-keeping that matters so much as how we relate emotionally to the passage of time.
Consider this experiment. Sit quietly for five minutes doing very little, if anything at all. (Tell you what: make it 10 minutes. Five minutes of peace and quiet is now a welcome respite for most of us in the modern world! But I digress…) Sit quietly for 10 minutes, doing very little. The passage of time feels slow, lethargic, for many people even endless. Then try the alternative. The next time you're facing a deadline, say some project, or an appointment you have to make, or a date that you've been looking forward to, 10 minutes feel like a wolf at your heels. Time races forward; it's leaves the world like water evaporating from a hot surface.
Perhaps the physicists are onto something when they say that time is another dimension, but time in fact is really a magician. We know the magician is doing a trick for us, and yet we willingly give ourselves over to the act. It's the same with time. Just as we know that 10 minutes spent sitting quietly takes precisely the same number of seconds as a frantic effort to get that Fed-ex package to the pick-up location before it closes.
Recently, parts of the 1AU production team were working on location in a busy urban setting and we didn't have much time left to get the remaining shots of our day. It's not that they were hard, per se; it's that with limited time available the press to complete each one started to take on a breathlessness borne simply from a growing awareness that there would be no other chance once the day ended. I looked over at Vicky fiddling with a tripod a few feet away, and smiled, fully aware of the pressure suddenly on her shoulders. If you work in media or performance of any kind, this is an ordinary experience. You even come to rely on the buzz as a trusted companion. But as I consider the situation, it's ordinary for anybody doing something with the clock against them. That's most of us. Everyone knows the feeling. Time is the arbiter of all things. And like an arbiter, it's best addressed with a level head, a rational argument, and his sense of humor. Time is not a judge for whom anger or false argument is ever successful.
But lest this all appear as some sort of bleak capitulation, the mature creative person, or ambitious professional, or smart parent juggling multiple schedules of kids and jobs and commutes and getting the laundry done, knows that time is the ultimate tool for focusing the mind. Without a deadline, there's no pressure to pursue quality, because there's little motivation to get something done well before time runs out.