Coming Up Empty

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It is at this time of year that I tend to feel especially tired and overwhelmed.  Various projects and work commitments seem to move at lightning speed, and everyone I know (including myself) seems to be in some show  or hosting some event at opposite ends of the city that make it impossible for me to attend all of them. Meanwhile, the holiday season approaches at breakneck speed, and as usual, promises to be both a lovely, yet hectic time of year. I find that my thoughts have left the present, jumped to the encroaching New Year, and before I know it, I’ve convinced myself that the year is over and I haven’t done half of the things I meant to do.

This, of course, is not true. Many, many, many days are left in the year – many days that can be used productively or leisurely, as I deem appropriate.  In my life, I find that it is my creative endeavors that suffer the most when I become overwhelmed and over-booked. As a “sometimes” choreographer, my motivation lacks at these times and inspiration seems hard to find.  Even as I thought about what to write this week for this blog, I found myself coming up empty, distracted by other commitments and worries.

What I try to remind myself at these times is the importance of ritual and practice in the creative process. Research has long shown that talent alone does not produce the best work. The most successful artists of any genre excel in their field due to discipline and the constant rigor of trial and error, in addition their natural talents and inspiration. Creativity is a practice that needs exercise to blossom.

The next book on my reading list is Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Curry. Curry spent over six years compiling information on the daily habits of the world’s most successful artists, composers, and writers.  In an article for Slate, Curry writes:

“This doesn’t mean that inspiration doesn’t exist, or that some work is not more inspired than others. It merely means that you should work each day regardless of whether you feel the urge to; it is the process of working itself that will give rise to new ideas. And with steady application, you can expect to hit inspired patches from time to time.”

When I was going through the MBD teacher training and first setting up a regular yoga practice and study patterns, one of the most striking changes I felt in my life was the upswing of creative, critical, and connected thinking.  The rituals of practicing, writing, and weekend sessions somehow allowed the varied facets of my life to fall under one umbrella that felt more connected and therefore, more fruitful.  After all, a literal translation of “yoga” in Sanskrit can mean “union” or “yoke”.

I understand the teachings of yoga to be just as much a creative pursuit as writing, choreographing, composing, and similar endeavors. The yoga practice allows us to make connections between our bodies and our minds, between nature and art, between science and the shape of our hands on the mat. It has been said that good art is art that makes connections between ideas we wouldn’t normally expect. While yoga isn’t “art” in the sense that we don’t end up with a finished product, I think that the creative thinking involved is closely aligned with the artistic process.  Practicing and teaching yoga gives us the ritualized time and space to think creatively about the world and make connections about our experience in it.

I think where I’m going with this is that those moments of feeling empty and uninspired, especially when we’re snowed under with other work, are perfect opportunities for more practice, and that practice will yield creative thought. Yes, sometimes we have to take a break, step away, and return to our work refreshed, but sometimes we can use that emptiness, that writer’s block, to our advantage. For any trainees out there who are feeling overwhelmed with all the things you think you don’t know, for any teachers who are feeling uninspired, take some time to really be in that void of not knowing. Take yourself back to being a truly empty cup. Get to know that place and then, infuse it with practice.

I think I’ll leave off with one of my favorite quotes by Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

– Katherine Moore

Comments
3 Responses to “Coming Up Empty”
  1. Brianna Goodman says:

    I love this! I stumbled across Daily Rituals at a bookstore not too long ago and was fascinated with the schedules/processes that each artist had maintained for his or herself. This also recalls Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, which I found to be incredibly eye-opening. It confirms that creativity is not something that appears at a whim or falls into our laps, but is something that is harnessed, practiced, and disciplined with time. This is a great reminder for me, as I currently am not devoting enough time to the practice of creativity… perhaps it is time for me to revisit Tharp’s book. The Ira Glass quote included here is so insightful. Especially in a time where we want to see instant results and instant success, it is good to be reminded that many things take time, patience, and hard work before they blossom into what we hope them to be. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Jonathan Matthews says:

    It’s amazing you mention the Mason Curry book. I read a few excerpts online a while back, as well as another article that described in a similar way the rituals of famous philosophers. I remember being surprised by the pairings of person to routine, as many seemed very counterintuitive to how I’ve come to know whichever figure…In this sense, just as it is important in teh first place to have these routines and know when to take time off, it’s just as important that whatever process one chooses is a good fit (even finding this may spark some of the trail and error Glass speaks of in simply creating). Whenever I read about the noteworthy habits of people I admire I feel COMPELLED to adopt them as my own…if I like what they do, and I do what they did to make that, I WILL MAKE SOMETHING JUST AS GOOD being the rationale which is anything but rational. After I come back to my senses, I am always amazed at how the idea of creativity is like a chemical reaction that yields an entirely different result with every possible combination…it’s also incredibly genetic in that sense of how individuated each process is to each person.

  3. Brandi-lea says:

    Wow! your post and the Ira Glass quote you shared have been haunting me since I read this a week ago! Thanks for this wonderful reminder that doing our work each day is such an essential factor in creating the kind of work that we hope to. This brings to mind another book I love, “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. He’s a novelist and the book focuses mainly on writing, but can be applied to any creative endeavors.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

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