A couple months ago, in an attempt to bring more art into my life, I bought a 100 page sketchbook for daily drawing practice.
Today, as we near the two-month mark, it has a total of 3 drawings in it.
Two of them are incomplete.
It’s not that I don’t like my new sketchbook. I’m actually really excited about it. It’s just that drawing in a sketchbook seems so… permanent. My drawing skills are rather rudimentary. When I sit down to draw, it’s pretty much a toss up as to whether my attempt will result in something recognizable or… a cacophony of malformed shapes and mangled creations.
The last thing I need is for my sketchbook to mock me with my inadequacy.
So, until I feel worthy of my $11.99 sketchbook, I’m sticking with random sheets of paper that I can stash away to be viewed with nostalgic amusement once I’m rich and famous. Or… that I can crumple up, toss in the trashcan, and set on fire.
Before you say it… I know, I know, sketchbooks are for practice. The whole idea of practicing to be good enough to practice is preposterous.
It’s just that I have this secret fantasy of carrying around a sketchbook jam packed with spectacular drawings of all sorts of amazing and imaginative things. One that I’d be super excited to show off to other people.
But in one of those humble “oh, this old thing? It’s nothing, just my sketchbook.” kind of ways.
Naming the Madness
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron devotes an entire section to this mental condition:
Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right… nothing to do with fixing things… nothing to do with standards.
Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity…
The perfectionist fixes one line of a poem over and over — until no lines are right… The perfectionist writes so many versions of scene one that she never gets to the rest of the play. The perfectionist writes, paints, creates with one eye on her audience. Instead of enjoying the process, the perfectionist is constantly grading the results… There are no first drafts, rough sketches, warm up exercises. Every draft is meant to be final, perfect, set in stone…
To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it is egotism.Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
That was 27 years ago. I wonder what she’d say today, with our #instaculture constantly reminding us that everything we do — even our private, practice sketches — should be picture perfect ready to share with the world. #nobigdeal
Is it just me?
I tried seeing what others are doing by searching instagram for #sketch…
Wait. Doesn’t “sketch“ mean rough? Is this what your sketches look like too?? It makes me wonder, “Why bother? What could I possibly add when such perfection already exists?”
Then my ego kicks in and I waste hours attempting to draw things with perfect technical precision. In the process, I forget that my purpose for drawing was to create art. Not to become a human xerox machine.
Somewhere along the way, my creativity got lost.
The latest business lore is the great god of Data. Don’t make any assumptions or waste any time going in the wrong direction. Test everything. What does the Data tell us?
That’s great and all except for the fact that the Data can only tell us what’s already working. It can only tell us to keep doing more of the same.
We get so excited that we’ve uncovered the right answer that we build out technology to automate it. To ensure that people are now able to “get it right” every time.
Somewhere along the way, we all end up striving to say and do things “perfectly,” which, in a world of perfect information, means “the same.” Marching us down the path to a data-driven dystopia where creativity is stomped out. Where we become an #instaperfect society of mind-numbingly dull perfect clones.
No thank you.
(3 Steps to Re-Claiming Your Creativity)
If you don’t want to hop on board the “me too!” train, then it’s time to (re-)claim your creativity.
Step 1: Shut the front door
Drastic times call for drastic measures. Can you spend an entire week without reading?
Think of it like a social media detox on steroids. So, no social media, obviously. Also, no websites, no news apps, no books, magazines or newspapers. The goal is to go an entire week without taking in anyone else’s content. No TV. No podcasts. No YouTube.
I know. It’s completely crazy, right? Bonkers town.
This is one of the assignments you’ll need to complete if you go through Julia Cameron’s 12 week course for unblocking your creativity. She calls it “reading deprivation.” The idea is that once you run out of things to distract yourself with (doing your laundry, organizing your sock drawer, etc.) you’ll begin to fill that void with your own voice and ideas.
The idea was radical when she proposed it in 1992. And that was before there was the web and smartphones and podcasts and youtube and social media feeding you a non-stop 24/7 stream of other people’s ideas. Today it seems completely impossible. And yet, for the same reasons, so much more necessary.
“But I can’t do my job without the web.” Are you so sure about that? What did people do in 1992 when their jobs, undoubtedly, consisted of some low-tech means of reading? Can you get creative?
Step 2: Do Scary Stuff
The flip side to creating a void of outside thoughts, ideas, and opinions is to fill the void by expanding your own experiences. I don’t mean reading a book on a new topic or listening to a different podcast than you normally would. I mean doing things where you’re actively participating and forming your own ideas, rather than passively listening to others tell you theirs.
If creativity and art are about expressing yourself, then first you need to work on yourself. On having things within you that are worth expressing.
It’s only by getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that are uncharacteristic that you can expand who you are and what you have to draw on for creativity.
What’s something you’d love to try but have never allowed yourself the luxury of doing?
Step Whatever: Create a Mess
As a perfectionist-in-recovery, this one is the hardest for me: If you really want to get creative, you’ve got to allow yourself to get messy.
Creativity isn’t about the ability to create flawless works of art. It’s about trying new things when you have no idea whether or not they’ll work. It’s about allowing yourself to be an inexperienced beginner again and again and again.
Creativity is about letting yourself be a gloriously imperfect mess. Most of all, it’s about ignoring that part of your brain that tries to stop you every few minutes the moment you start getting creative. “Wait. Stop what you’re doing. This diverges from what you know to be ‘right’ and so it must therefore be wrong. Not another step, Mister/Missy until you correct this.”
You may have been taught that this is the voice of reason and responsibility. I call it the Creativity Police.
What’s something you can create for the shear joy of the creative process? With no concerns for what others might think. Or be impressed by. Or be horrified by…
Here’s the trick: No one is allowed to see your mess except for you. No one even has to know what you’re doing. In fact, better if they don’t.
And, this is important — NO EDITING.
Go old school — pen and paper. Create a sketch on a napkin with a ballpoint pen from your junk drawer. No, the lines won’t be straight. The circles will be wobbly. You’ll have lines you laid down rediculously off the mark with no way to erase them.
Bask in that. Relish how REAL it is in a world where even “hand drawn” creations like those whiteboard animation videos are slights of hand — technology built to create perfect imperfections.
Pick up a 50 cent spiral notebook — the kind you used to use in school. Turn off your phone. Step away from your computer. Find a peaceful, relaxing spot where you can sit uninterrupted for 20 minutes. Settle in and write three pages of whatever comes to mind.
No editing allowed. No stopping mid-way to read back through it and re-evaluate (read: judge) it. No pausing to look up a fact or some bit of information on the Internet. If you don’t remember the exact specifics of something, write it as best as you remember. Or make something up. I give you full permission to write things that are completely and totally wrong.
As Julia Cameron would say,
Art is not about thinking things up. It’s about the opposite — getting them down.
Allow yourself to get your ideas down about something that’s interesting to you. And then, put the notebook down and walk away.
If you’d like, come back in a few weeks to read it over — when you can view it with the objectivity that’s impossible in the moment of creation, and the full appreciation of it’s messiness. Or don’t come back to it at all if you don’t want to. The act of writing alone will shake loose so many ideas and get your brain continuing the interesting threads long after.
Do this enough times, especially combined with occasional reading deprivation and doing scary stuff, and you’re sure to surface new insights.
And THAT is creativity.