Artist's Inspiration

Productive Idleness: Why Play is More Important than Discipline to Creativity


‘It must take so much discipline to be an artist,’ we are often told by well-meaning people who are not artists but wish they were.  What a temptation.  What a seduction.  They’re inviting us to preen before an admiring audience, to act out the image that is so heroic and Spartan-and false.

As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous.  In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for awhile…

The part of us that creates is not a driven, disciplined automaton, functioning from willpower, with a booster of pride to back it up.  This is operating out of self-will.  You know the image: rising at dawn with military precision, saluting the desk, the easel, the drawing board…

Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline.  Enthusiasm is not an emotional state.  It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.

Enthusiasm (from the Greek “filled with God”) is an ongoing energy supply tapped into the flow of life itself.  Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work.  Far from being a brain-numbed solider, our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate.  As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.”- Julia Cameron

Reading this essay last night, I was stunned: didn’t all successful people cite discipline as the number one secret to their success?  As Einstein once assured, “It’s not that I was so smart.  I just stayed with problems longer.”  My whole life I imagined achievement demanded diligence and hard work.  But does art?

Yes and no.

Yes, creativity requires a certain level of self-control, especially considering the autonomous nature of what most of us do.  No one is going to knock on our door and force us to write our screenplay; there’s no boss to report to.  Therefore, we must possess the discipline to turn off our cellphones and sit at our desk for the day.  Like an Olympic runner training for his next marathon, we must log the day’s miles.

But discipline’s usefulness stops there.  Art requires a sense of light-heartedness, a sense of playfulness.  When we adopt a severe, overly serious approach to our creativity, our imagination suffers.  We can’t compose an original metaphor when we’re too concerned with being right, with staying on schedule.  While such rigid, Type-A goal orientation might help us in some endeavors, it is destructive to the creative impulse.

This observation reminds me of a fascinating study I read.  In hopes of understanding the role of rewards in motivation, researchers decided to study the effects of paying students for reading over summer.  The results were staggering.  Though it defies common sense, the students who were paid to read over summer actually read fewer books than those who weren’t paid at all.  Why?  Because paying someone transforms a once fun task into a duty, making it less pleasurable.

So how can we apply this lesson to our creativity?  As Julia Cameron so eloquently argues, we must respect enthusiasm’s centrality to our art.  It’s tragic to reflect on my own artistic habits and see how much I neglect fun: I write the morning pages and I’m not reveling in the joys of an elegant sentence, in an idea aptly phrased; no, I’m obsessing about reaching the page count/time limit like a results-obsessed machine.  I compose a personal essay and I’m not using the opportunity to truly reflect on myself; I’m fixating on publishing the piece, on seeing the final product.

The most devastating thing about being driven is being obsessed with results.  So addicted are we to the thrill of crossing something off our to-do lists, to the intoxicating rush that accompanies completion, that we forget to savor the process.

The result?  Art is no fun at all.  Creativity just becomes another obligation to be over and done.

To create we must quiet our dutiful, goal-oriented side and learn to delight in frivolous- even pointless- fun.  Obsessed with productivity and hyper-efficient, in many ways, fun scares us.  Leisure is so foreign it might as well be written in Chinese.  Have fun for the sake of it?  Relax with no agenda?  Are you crazy?!

However decadent it may seem, we must indulge in the occasional aimless amusement if we are ever to be creative.  After all, creativity necessarily means the suspension of our usual ways of thinking.  Imaginative solutions to once unsolvable problems tend to reveal themselves when we’re relaxed, often doing something else: the perfect title for our film, say, comes to us at the golf course, the natural break between stanzas of our poem hits us while we’re in the shower.

This phenomenon reveals a startling paradox: by working too much, we get nothing done at all.  If we want to write, intense periods of labor must be interspersed with bouts of leisure.

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