Creativity and the Mind Body Connection

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From the time I was a child I dreaded gym class. Gym class was when I had to wear unattractive clothes, get picked on and picked last by the jocks and jockettes, play sports I wasn’t any good at, and ultimately get dirty, sweaty and smelly. As a true child of the arts and humanities (and a bit of a girly girl to measure) gym class seemed to be the opposite of beauty and artistic ideals. Furthermore, as a fairly intelligent kid I tended to (and still do) live in my head quite a bit. My body was there but it was more of a vehicle for my mind and vocal chords. However, as I am getting closer to my mid-twenties with a few too many pounds and a quite a few artistic blocks, I’m finding myself reevaluating the mind-body connection and what it can do for me as an artist.

For centuries in western society people have believed the mind and body were separate and more importantly that the mind was superior to the body (Montgomery). After all, the mind was viewed as the being the center of reason, identity and spirituality while the body was seen as home to untamed emotions and primal urges (Ibid). However recent studies in neuroscience and cognitive science have found that this division is not the case. Mind and body, rather than being like two separate cliques who tolerate each other’s existence, are made to coexist harmoniously. Physical activity can, among other things, boost mood and stimulate brain growth (Siegfried). However, the most exciting discovery is from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience which showed that regular exercise could boost creativity.

At first glance this might sound like bad news for artists and intellectuals who may still have nightmares about gym class. However there are ways that we can exercise to tap into this potential and none of these have to involve getting picked last for volleyball.

1) Dance: This might be the most obvious way to get physical activity for people who love the arts considering dance is an art. You can either find classes or you can do it at home with video instruction. There are several different branches of dance you can choose from (ballroom, ballet, tap, jazz, modern, belly dance, African dance, clogging…). Dance has been found to boost memory, improve balance and flexibility, increase energy, reduce stress and depression, and help the heart (in fact an Italian study found dancing helped people with heart disease improve more than biking or walking on a treadmill) (Knight). Dance can also help to make friends and expand socially (ibid). After all, knowing a few moves can probably do quite a bit to boost your confidence at the next wedding or high school reunion you have to attend. Of course for artists it can also be an opportunity for performance.
2) Walking/Jogging/Bicycling: I included these together because in many ways they are very similar in their benefits though they have their differences as well. All are aerobic exercises meaning that large groups of muscles are active which requires support from the heart and lungs (Lidor). You can either walk/jog/cycle around your neighborhood or if you’re an indoor type you can do them at a gym or at home on a treadmill. They all reduce weight and can prevent various degenerative diseases though cycling puts less stress on joints and thus is often recommended for people who are overweight (Ibid). However, as an artist you might take different approaches. Some (particularly if you are doing this outdoors) might use the time to gain inspiration from your surroundings or as a time to clear your mind. Others might listen to music or an audiobook for inspiration (safety note: if you are outside try to remain aware of your surroundings, especially be mindful of traffic).
3) Yoga: The term Yoga actually refers to a variety of physical, mental and spiritual practices to transform the body and the mind (Wikipedia). The type of Yoga that spread to the west and is most popular in America is a style known as Hatha Yoga (Ibid). However there are many types of Yoga a person can choose from. They range from the very physical styles of Ashtanga and Power Yoga to the more relaxed Iyenger and Hatha (WebMD). Yoga can have many benefits to health including increases in flexibility and strength, better posture, lower blood pressure, and better breathing (Ibid). It’s also been linked to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and better immune system function (Ibid). However Yoga can also have huge benefits in quieting and clearing the mind which can help artists (or anyone for that matter) relieve everyday stresses and perhaps find the inspiration for that next great project (Ibid).
4) Swimming: Swimming is great for those of us that are especially concerned about the icky sweaty factor of exercise (and considering we only have about one more month of summer, now is a good time to take advantage of it). The benefits of swimming are numerous. First, you can work practically all the muscles in the body with a variety of strokes (Luebbers). Additionally it can develop strength, endurance and cardiovascular fitness (Ibid). It’s great for people who are overweight or have joint problems or injuries since it doesn’t involve as much impact stress on the body (Ibid). There can obviously be social benefits (hanging out with friends at the beach or by the pool). However, like yoga, swimming can also allow for meditation which can lead to an artist being able to clear their mind and gain some inspiration.

I offer a challenge to my fellow artists; let’s get off the couch or up from our desks and truly explore our mind-body connections. Let’s dance, walk, jog, cycle, swim, do yoga, or do something else entirely if none of those work for you. In finding our mind-body connection we can be lead to a better understanding of ourselves as artists. Thus we can become more creative, productive, and can truly live up to our artistic ideals (even if we are a little sweaty).

Bibliography and Works Cited
Chan, Amanda L. “Regular Exercise Could Boost Creativity.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Colzato, Lorenza S., Ayca Szapora, Justine N. Pannekoek, and Bernhard Hommel. “The Impact of Physical Exercise on Convergent and Divergent Thinking.” Frontiers. N.p., 02 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Davis, Jeffrey, M.A. “Science of Creativity Moves Into the Body.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 07 Nov. 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Dean, Jeremy. “20 Wonderful Effects Exercise Has on the Mind.” PsyBlog RSS. N.p., 09 Oct. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Knight, Madeline. “9 Health Benefits of Dance.” EverydayHealth.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Lidor, David. “Running Vs Cycling – The Similarities and the Differences.” Running Vs Cycling – The Similarities and the Differences. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Luebbers, Mat. “What Are the Health Benefits of Being a Swimmer?” About.com Swimming. N.p., 02 June 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Montgomery, John, Ph.D. “The Body in the Mind.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Siegfried, Juliette, MPH. “How Exercise Affects the Brain.” How Exercise Affects the Brain. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
“Yoga Health Benefits: Flexibility, Strength, Posture, and More.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.
“Yoga.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Jan. 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .

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Navigating the Creative U-Turn

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I haven’t written on this blog in about two weeks and I’ve had trouble picking up the guitar. It’s made me feel some guilt as I do tend to have a bit of a work/success oriented nature i.e. sometimes I feel my value as a person comes from what I produce or what I am doing with my life. However I’ve felt a slight sense of panic too. For most of my life, if not my whole life, I’ve wanted to be an artist in some sense and for the past few weeks I’ve suddenly been questioning myself about whether I have what it takes and whether I even want to be an artist anymore. In short I’ve been experiencing a creative U-turn (or perhaps in my case it’s more of a crossroads).

The Creative U-Turn is a term that was coined by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. It can be defined as a point when an artist stops pursuing a creative goal or project; generally as a result of fear, negativity, or pain. Creative U-turns can take different forms depending on the type of art and the artists involved. Cameron notes many examples of this; the painter who picks a fight with the gallery owner at his first group show, the musicians who record a demo that gets an enthusiastic response and then stop working together, the screenwriter who doesn’t make any changes on his script for an agent are all examples of creative U-turns (Cameron,155). However, while U-Turns can take different forms Cameron theorizes they are usually a result of some sort of fear.

How should an artist deal with a U-turn? Well, according to Cameron, we should extend ourselves some sympathy and compassion (Cameron, 156). Creativity can be scary and in fact life itself is scary (Ibid). It helps to remember that artists are not the only ones to struggle with U-turns and various forms of self sabotage (Ibid). Lawyers, Doctors, Office Workers, and Retail Workers struggle with their own forms of self sabotage too. Cameron also notes that Creative U-Turns and failures are often a part of successful creative careers. She notes the story of Blake Edwards who spent seven years in a self-imposed exile in Switzerland following being fired from one of his own films (Ibid, 157). He returned to directing after deciding that using his creativity would be a better way to heal then sitting on the sidelines and he became aggressively productive with his main regret being the time it took for him to get to that point (Ibid). 

Sometimes a U-Turn might even be necessary. In this case I’m thinking about author Liz Gilbert. After the major success of her book Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert suddenly found herself with millions of readers eagerly awaiting her next project. Over the next year she wrote a first draft of what would eventually become Committed. However after completing the manuscript she realized that something wasn’t right. In her words, “The voice didn’t sound like me. The voice didn’t sound like anybody. The voice sounded like something coming through a megaphone, mistranslated.” Gilbert put that manuscript away turned her attention to her garden and other pursuits (Gilbert, xiv). She wrote, “…this was not exactly a crisis, that period when I could not…figure out how to write naturally…I even started wondering if maybe I was finished as a writer. Not being a writer didn’t seem like the worst fate in the world…but I honestly couldn’t tell yet. I had to spend a lot more hours in the tomato patch…before I could sort this thing out” (Ibid). Ultimately Gilbert’s U-Turn ended when she realized that while she couldn’t promise that her next book would satisfy millions of readers, she could write something that she needed to write (Ibid). She limited the audience in her mind from the millions of expectant fans to twenty seven important women in her life and wrote the book for them (Ibid, xv). Committed was published in 2010 and since then Gilbert has continued her successful career publishing her recent novel The Signature of All Things in 2013.

Recovering from a creative U-turn can require a great deal of compassion and patience. According to Cameron, the first step is admitting it. You have to say to say to yourself “Yes, I did react negatively towards fear and pain. Yes, I do need help” (Cameron, 157). The next step is to figure out what obstacles are the most intimidating. In Cameron’s words, “An agent jump may frighten you more then a workshop jump. A review jump may be okay while a rewrite jump scares your talent to death” (Ibid). Often at this stage Cameron advises looking for help from other successful artists i.e. asking them how they have done successful rewrites, gotten agents, recovered from bad reviews or conquered whatever challenge that you are currently facing (Ibid). Self reflection is a key piece too. Cameron notes that before any project it’s a good idea to ask yourself questions that remove any blocks between yourself and the work (Ibid, 159). These questions are as follows.

1) What am I angry about? The goal is to make a list about any anger you have related to the project at hand. Examples could be anything from resentment about being the second artist asked to do a show, to anger at an editor or director who constantly nitpicks your work (Cameron, 159).

2) What am I afraid of? The goal with this question is to identify any and all fears about the project or people connected to it (Ibid). You might say in this case, “I’m afraid of people not liking my work,” “I’m afraid of not being able to live up to my past projects,” or “I’m afraid that the only reason I got the part was my competitor had a falling out with the director and now everyone will compare me to him.”

3) Have I left anything out? With this question you are supposed to ask yourself if your current issues are all there is. Have you left out any anger or fear that seems inconsequential or trivial (Ibid)? This might be the part where you say “Ok…I am somewhat afraid of seeing that one musician/writer/director/etc. that’s always so condescending when he talks to me at any events.”

4)What do I stand to gain by not doing this project? With this question you need to find out exactly how you benefit from any self sabotage. The most common example might be “Well if I don’t perform/write this piece no one can criticize it or me.” This is by no means the only example though; others might be “I can criticize others from a less vulnerable position ” or “My editor/mother/significant other/ex will worry about me” (Ibid).

Once you have asked these questions and identified all your angers and fears you can then be more able to let them go. At this point Cameron advises making a deal with your creative force and saying “You take care of the quality and I’ll take care of the quantity” (Ibid, 160). Ultimately, whether we reflect and make our deals with the universe or simply follow Blake Edwards’ example of going back to work and picking up where we left off, navigating our creative U-turns is a challenging but often valuable part of our journey as artists. I hope that you will share some of your own creative U-turns and recoveries in the comments section. As for me, I might just go pick up the guitar.

Bibliography and Works Cited

“Biography.” Official Website for Best Selling Author Elizabeth Gilbert. Dave Cahill/River Net Computers, 2013. Web. 16 May 2014. <http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/&gt;.

Cameron, Julia. “Recovering A Sense Of Compassion.” The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992, 2002. 154-60. Print.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. “A Note to the Reader.” Introduction. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. New York: Viking, 2010. Xiv-vi. Print.

 

 

The Science of Selling Out

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Artists are people that don’t tend to have many rules (or at the very least are somewhat flexible with them). However there is one rule that seems to be taken very seriously and that is never ever ever “sell out.”

This rule can mean different things depending on the type of artist you are. If you’re a musician it might mean never trying to go on “American Idol” or singing certain songs or genres. If you’re a writer it might mean constantly pursuing the great American novel as opposed to trying to write the next “Twilight.” Directors and actors might try to make small art-house films instead of Michael Bay blockbusters. Whatever kind of artist you are, you are probably familiar with a code of sorts about what constitutes authentic art. These codes can be seen in our media and culture. In “Rent” the main characters, a group of artists and musicians, clash with their former friend who married into a wealthy family and wants to build a state of the art studio in the middle of their bohemian neighborhood. In “School Of Rock” Dewey Finn chastises his former band members, who kicked him out in favor of another guitar player exclaiming “You’ve been focused so hard on making it you forgot about one little thing; it’s called the MUSIC!” He leaves the practice space stating “I don’t wanna hang out with a bunch of wannabe corporate sellouts.” We all might know someone (or even be the person) who seems to be constantly saying things along the lines of “Oh I liked so & so until they went mainstream.”

For years I’ve had my own codes I’ve been determined to play in an original rock band. I balked at the idea of going on shows like “Idol”. I loved those characters that rebelled and never gave in. However over the past few years many things have happened that have made me question these stances. Since I don’t want to go into potentially endless details it should suffice to say that a lot has happened that has made me wonder if being the suffering artist who never sells out is really making me a better artist or any happier. In both cases I’m not sure this is true. It is hard for me to be a productive artist when I’m having trouble writing songs, finding an audience, etc. Furthermore, while I’m willing to work for my art should I have to suffer for it? Shouldn’t I enjoy it? I remember my professor in college quoting Xavier Cugat who stated, “I would rather play ‘Chiquita Banana’ and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.” At the time I thought the very idea was horrendous, even somewhat blasphemous. However after two years of hard knocks I’ve started long for the swimming pool.

Another reason I’ve had many of these thoughts is I came across yet another Cracked article, that pointed out that even my heroes The Beatles had changed many aspects about themselves to become…well The Beatles. Among the changes were switching from jeans and leather jackets to trousers, getting those now famous matching haircuts, and no longer doing any inappropriate behaviors onstage (eating, drinking and swearing). Of course, as the article points out and fans of The Beatles realize, making these changes didn’t exactly stifle the creativity of the band. It might be worth asking whether The Beatles would have made it as far if they’d said to hell with Epstein’s ideas and stayed in Liverpool. Would we even be talking about them today?

There is a big part of me that hates the fact I’m writing this (heck even the fact I’ve been having these thoughts). I always swore that I’d never be that person who caved in to “bourgeois ideals” and other seemingly corrupting influences. This being said I still have enough idealism in me that I wouldn’t want to become some Gordon Gekko like character who’s only concern is what’s going to be the next hit or how much will an album sell. When I think about that day in my professor’s class when he quoted Xavier Cugat I remember my response was “Why does it have to be one or the other?” Maybe that’s the trick. You make compromises where you have to, you wear the costume or sing the occasional song through gritted teeth but you try to stay true to yourself on the big things. You pick the battles instead of waging what might be an endless unwinnable war.

There might be those of you reading that absolutely hate what I’m saying. You might feel that just by contemplating these ideas I’m turning my back on true art and simply becoming another hack. To that I say ok. Honestly I hope you’re right and I wish you well on your artistic journey. I hope you can go out and do things that I can’t. I hope you knock down walls and create a path for yourself. I hope that you never have to contemplate the choices I’ve been finding myself making and that you can find success without having to make a sacrifice that would violate your artistic integrity.
However maybe there are others of you who identify with what I’m saying. To you I say let’s try to redefine what makes us a “true artist.” Let’s pick our battles where we can. Let’s carve our own paths where whatever choices we make are the ones that are right for us and not ones that we are pressured to make by the idea of what an artist should be. In short, let’s not give up but maybe every so often give in.

Bibliography
“The Beatles.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. .
“Chiquita Quotes and Sayings Quotes about Chiquita.” Chiquita Quotes and Sayings. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. .
Iannone, Jason. “5 Artistic Geniuses Who Only Became Great After Selling Out.” Cracked.com. N.p., 08 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. .
“Rent (musical).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. .
School of Rock. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Jack Black. Paramount, 2003. DVD.

Learning To Fail

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When I was in college my music history professor assigned our class a project which was in essence decoding medieval music notation. To say it was a challenge would be an understatement. However, the most memorable moment to me was when my group presented our project and one of my classmates asked a question regarding the music that we had not anticipated. I tried to answer the question with the knowledge I had but he persisted on a certain point. To this day the emotions come rushing back; the room getting warmer even seeming to spin, my annoyance at my fellow group members—why in hell were they not at least trying to help—and my own panic at feeling completely lost. When class was over my professor took me aside and said “You know, it really is ok if you don’t know the answer.” While I still remember and value her words I struggle every day with their application.
Not knowing the answer, failing, losing–call it what you will has never been something that I’m altogether comfortable with. In fact while I had the idea of this piece around the time I started this blog it took me another four weeks to actually write it. Judging by that I might have more issues with failure then I realized.
Part of my issue is due to my perfectionism which I’m fairly certain I have all on my own. It’s not that my family didn’t have high standards but eventually I became my own worst critic. I was also a procrastinator too which understandably confused my parents and teachers. After all why would someone who is such a high achiever wait until the last minute to practice or finish projects and risk the negative consequences? It wasn’t until much later that someone (and sadly I’m not even sure who) told me it was actually perfectly understandable because as it turns out perfectionism and procrastination are symbiotic. Perfectionism makes you afraid to put out any kind of work that’s less than perfect which triggers procrastination—to put it off “for later” when perhaps subconsciously you are putting it off until you can do it perfectly (which more often than not doesn’t tend to happen).
I suppose I’ve been thinking about these issues lately because lately I’ve honestly felt like a failure in my own life. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that pursuing music would be challenging. However as I look at myself—almost twenty-five, working retail with a bad case of (song) writer’s block—I’ve been questioning the choices I’ve made and wondering if I can’t become rich and/or famous what path would provide me with enough of a feeling of success to make me happy. The fact that I’m having trouble answering that question fills me with just as much angst as my not having the answer for my classmate during that presentation. Yet I still hear my professor as well, “…it really is ok if you don’t know the answer.”
For the past few years I have been trying to learn to fail. When I say this I don’t mean that I’m not trying to achieve goals or intentionally trying to mess up my life as much as possible (though some days it feels like it) but rather that I’m trying to accept and learn from failure when it happens. There is a value in failing. Failure can allow us to reexamine our lives and priorities so that we can find out what went wrong and be better prepared for the journey ahead. As the great Thomas Edison said of his several failed experiments to create the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Ultimately though, the main reason I’m trying to learn to fail is because the only thing that’s worse than failing is being fearful and not trying. If anything allowing fear to take control is the real failure–to not perform, to not write, to be paralyzed with inaction because of a fear of what “others” will think. Franklin D. Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” How many of us don’t do something because we fear failure and then wonder what could have been? It is true that if we don’t put our talents out into the world no one can reject us or criticize us but no one will ever praise us either.
With all this being said I am still learning not to have all the answers and to accept and learn from failure. I hope that in doing so I can find a path as an artist and as a human being that will bring me greater happiness and success—in short that by learning to fail I can learn to fly.