Idea Sex = Idea Babies
I'm Megan J. Robinson, and this is Creative\\Proofing, a space to think, feel, and design out loud. Every Thursday I'll send you a newsletter exploring the intersection of creativity, spirituality, and productivity, and what that looks like for each of us. In each issue of Creative\\Proofing, I’ll dig into various questions, ideas, and topics by sharing what other thinkers, feelers, and doers have said, followed by my take, and then, what it do and what it mean for us going forward. I’ll also try to throw in reader feedback, recommendations, and maybe something I’m enjoying that week. I can't wait for you to join me.
Every so often, a meme floats around the internet about the creative process; you may have seen it. It goes something like this:
This is awesome. This is hard. This is shit. I’m shit. This might be okay. This is awesome!
Those who spend a lot of time in creative spaces probably laugh in recognition at this meme, and those who find themselves responsible for any sort of production at all probably also feel a sense of familiarity at this regular journey through love, hate, perseverance, and joy.
When we talk about creativity, the idea often evokes the response, “Oh, I’m not creative.” But let’s think about that some more. We've looked at creativity in previous issues of Creative\\Proofing, and introduced the idea that creativity is as much a way of seeing the world and generating new possibilities as it is anything we produce. But, creativity needs both seeing and saying; understanding and expressing; learning and doing. So it's worth exploring how creative expression manifests in our lives. Does it spontaneously happen, or is it something we can cultivate?
A Quick Note
I work from within the Christian tradition, and understand the Divine as the Trinity of father, son, holy spirit. That said, I know we all have different ways of understanding the Divine, so if you wish to insert [Other] when I use that phrase, please feel free to do so.
What Others Say
I'm going to reference several people talking about art here, but don't be scared! Everything that becomes "art" started as someone's creative exploration. So if you want to substitute "creative stuff" in place of art, I support you.
First, let's get rid of the stereotype of the mad creator waiting on "the muse." The muse is an unreliable and vain little snot, and what she requires of our energy in groveling, we could give to our creating. Inspiration is passive, unpredictable; we constantly feel as though we're waiting around for it to knock, then end up scrambling to answer the door in a bathrobe and face mask. Instead, let's take as a guide the words of Thomas Edison, who (supposedly) said that "genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." (Again, substitute "creative stuff" for genius here.) Which is not to say that inspiration can't or won't strike — just that waiting around for it to show up before doing anything will shrink your creative muscles faster than you can snap your fingers.
The idea of creativity suggests play, self-expression, or exploration, not to mention innovation and change. But, like a musician practices to play an instrument, a cook a recipe, or an athlete a sport, creativity is both fun and discipline: that spontaneous, momentary inspiration compels us to clarify and understand the possible meanings available within that moment. I first learned the phrase "idea sex" from Ness Labs, and though I'd love to come up with a better phrase, this one's pretty colorful. I mean, idea sex leads to idea babies which, with the right care and feeding, grow up to be really cool new ideas that you want to get to know. In other words, if you pay attention, take notes, play tetris with your ideas, and design a reliable system for doing that over and over again...well, the muse of inspiration will eat your dust. Or at least be very jealous of your babies.
The way to make idea babies lies in creating notes — lots and lots of notes. Wait...notes? Simple little notes? Yep: notes. Productivity expert Tiago Forte emphasizes that once
a piece of information has been interpreted through your lens, curated according to your taste, translated into your own words, or drawn from your life experience, and stored somewhere outside your head, then it’s a note.
A note can be anything: words on an index card, lines of code in a software program, musical notes in Sibelius, choreography steps on video, welded metal in a sculpture. Just as we learn a new vocabulary for different languages, so that we can communicate back and forth with others, taking regular, specific, personal notes become our vocabulary, forming the basis of practices that enable us to generate our own creative expressions. The key factor here is that it must — as in, must — get out of your head and into some form that you can interact with again.
In The Achievement Habit, Bernard Roth suggests that achievement is "a muscle, and once you learn to flex it, there's no end to what you can accomplish." And how do we build muscle? With practice, repetition, and lots of perspiration. Learning to generate creative expression in our lives can feel overwhelming, intimidating, or downright scary. It means risking something that matters to us, and has meaning in our lives. If writing a novel or learning to play Bach's Partita in D minor feels like an insurmountable achievement, what about committing to three tangible notes a day? writing five hundred words before breakfast? or practicing your playing for 30 minutes at lunch each day? Sure, the repetition is boring, but eventually, you gain your muscle memory, and one day, the characters of your next story walk into your life and start talking to you.
As Alexa Hazel observes, "Far from depriving us of life, [such simple practices] can serve as scaffolding for life-affirming activity. The security of our identities can depend on these self-set scaffolds." Here's the thing: if you never start, you'll never arrive. Pretty profound, huh? And how do we ever arrive anywhere? By taking one step at a time. Or maybe a two-step. Or maybe some key strokes. So make a commitment to practicing — just that. A little practice here, a little practice there. And soon you'll find yourself with cute, fuzzy little idea babies all over the place.
What I Say
I know I rode the idea baby metaphor pretty hard earlier, but I'm not mad about it. When we produce new things (like babies, human or otherwise), we participate in the world in a real and significant way. I mean, we literally add to the world more than we receive from it. But that's scary. Taking care of something so that it can go out into the world feels like a big deal. What if no one pays attention? What if no one likes it? What if...? The "what-ifs" are endless, and will stop us before we ever begin. Take your next step anyway.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp writes, “When I walk into the white room, I am alone, but I am alone with my body, ambitions, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, fears. These ten items are at the heart of who I am.” The white room, for Tharp, signifies the space she enters as she gets ready to create, but clearly, it’s not an empty space.
As we approach the blank canvas, the empty stage, the blinking cursor, or the open notebook, it can signal potential, possibility, paralysis, panic. Because the canvas, the stage, the cursor, and the notebook are never just blank or empty: they already hold the sum of who we are and want to become. Sometimes that sum is greater than we can bear; sometimes we create to become more than it suggests.
Put more back into the world.
Portions of this issue are excerpted from Human Be(com)ing: Identity Construction through the Arts within Faith Communities, my 2018 capstone thesis written for Queens University of Charlotte.
What's It All Mean?
The beginning of the work is not the same thing as beginning the work.
I know, this sounds like something Obi-Wan Kenobi or Mr. Miyagi might say. Too often, we think we need to start at the beginning of the piece and work through the middle till we get to the end. Our ideas may not arrive in such a linear fashion, though. Tharp’s advice? “If you’re at a dead end, take a deep breath, stamp your foot, and shout “Begin!”
And take notes.
Got a question, feedback, or something to share? All you have to do is reply to this email and write me! (Be sure to let me know if you want to remain anonymous, or if it's ok to use your first name.)
While we're on the subject of notes, here's some tools I really like for physical notes: