By Kate Maria Pennell
Why you should stop trying to produce a bestseller.
Whether we are an entrepreneur, a writer, or a documentary filmmaker, these titles can seem the very badge of honor that we aspire to with our work. Yes, aiming high can help us apply ourselves to our chosen art, but there is a shadowy side to going for such specific targets and being motivated by bestowed prestige. And it’s probably not what you think. I’d like to share with you three keys that contribute to sustainable creativity and, in due course, success.
Key 1: Being in Your Right Mind
I’ve written before about writing drunk and editing sober; writing fully intoxicated with our ideas as they fill up our senses and then soberly editing them in the cool light of day to refine them. These are two distinct parts of the active creative process and, I would say, something for which we use two very different parts of our mind.
The cool, critical mind allows us to select and choose and change our work in order to improve it. It is vital and plays an important role in us producing our creative work to a high standard. Unfortunately, it’s good friends with Ego. It is also pretty obsessed with order, full of its own self-importance, and focuses on the product, rather than the process, as the defining criteria in order to assign value to our work.
Quotes such as, “We are instruments, more than authors, of our work,” from the beautiful soul of Julia Cameron, will cause it to start to sweat and hyperventilate. Control and quantifiable productivity are its preferred modus operandi.
The artist-mind is a very different landscape. In the quantum space of the subconscious mind, ideas collide and spark. It is the land of questions and curiosity, of experience and connection. The spiced aroma of adventure can be scented on the breeze. The game is afoot. There is order, as in all areas of creation, but there are also organic growth and surprises. In this creative mind-scape, work happens. Just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic or The War of Art by Steven Pressfield to learn more about that.
But the work is different. Stripped of obligation and pressure, the work takes on the dynamic of applied forward-moving energy. There is discipline, but there is also expansion, there is synergy. Julia Cameron, once again, puts it beautifully: “Focused on our process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on the product, the same creative life can feel foolish and barren.”
I would go further to say that fixing our focus purely on our product is a sure way to create
undue stress in our lives. Add to that working under the criteria of external merit, in the form of a bestseller or prestige awarded by others, and the pressure of that will crush our creative space. In response, we will cease to work from our creative minds and could move solely into the rational mind, which isn’t designed in the same way for creative output.
We must work as a whole, with both parts—the artist mind and the critical mind—playing their roles.
Martin Ritt (director and actor) tells us that “Cerebriation is the enemy of originality in art.” Ritt may be right; I would also say that cerebriation is the enemy of sustainable productivity. Our rational mind, remember, favors control and correctness, rather than creation and experimentation. Such a stark environment will not encourage growth.
When we work as if our product must justify the creative input behind it, through monetary gain or merit, we are ordering our brainchildren to earn their keep before they are mature. We measure their merit—their value—on what we think we will gain from them. That’s cold. That’s artistic abuse.
The idea of the rational mind serving the creative mind—rather than the other way around—may feel precarious, out of control, out of our mind even, but I believe it is there that the power lies. Learning to harness that power in our subconscious will propel us to new heights of creativity AND productivity.
Key 2: Being Faithful
Where you are creating from, inside of yourself, is as important as what you create. (Read that again if you need to…)
What I’ve sampled from those who crank out their work like a machine tasted bland to my pallet, rushed and not matured; it was manufactured rather than created, and I knew it. The point of origin showed up in the final work, and I could read their motivation like Braille across a page. The acrid smell of desperation, or dollars, lingered on. Their allegiance was to the award or reward, rather than to their craft or to the work.
We walk a fine line between producing what there is a demand for and what our creativity wants us to produce. Ideally, we can combine the two and be financially and artistically satisfied, but at other times we play the game of not breaking faith with our creativity while still trying to make an income.
The ancient proverb of, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” comes to mind. Where we perceive to be the greatest value, that is where we will invest our time and energy, where we will invest of ourselves. The problem comes when the perception is skewed and we gamble our success and wellbeing on something outside of our control.
Back down the line in the process, it is a heavy load to work under, this goal of being recognized as the best and waiting for recognition. We have to hold it up high enough for us to still have space for ourselves to create and work under it. And that can be tiring. Physically, mentally, intellectually, and emotionally tiring.
It seems much healthier, to me, to invest myself in my craft. I can control the output and the pressure of working for such mercurial external validation won’t deplete me of my creative energy.
Keep one eye on the prize, by all means, but keep the other eye, your mind, and your heart on your work. It is always your work that will carry you forward if you are faithful to it.
Key 3: Being in it for the Journey: Sustainable Creativity
Burn out and block are the stuff of nightmares for creatives—whether you are an entrepreneur, painter, web designer, writer, or chef. Your creative health matters. To maintain that health, and our productivity along with it, we must learn to look to the process. More than that, to trust the process.
Talking of process and creative mind-scapes, treasuring, and exploiting your brainchildren can sound all rather wafty, rather artsy-fartsy. However, it is the very opposite, this is serious stuff. Our progress is in the process.
Creatives can—and do—make a living from their work. They always have done so. We must let go of the pernicious social myth that we can’t; it must die so that we may not just live, but flourish. We are vital to the survival and development of our societies, even when those in power forget that.
What is vital to our survival is our trust in the active process of creativity. First, we need to understand the different modes in which we operate (the artistic mind and rational mind). Second is staying faithful to our craft, and the final objective is understanding that the quality of our work comes through the quantity of our work. As in all things, truly, our progress is in the process.
The actor Michael Caine talks about how critics have slammed him for making some awful films. His response of, “the film may be terrible but the house that it paid for is great,” for me, sums up his down-to-earth approach. There was always something to be gained from each and every situation he found himself in. Still working in his eighties, he has some very simple, practical lessons to share with us. I’d like to share this extract from his book, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off:
“Success comes from doing. The best way to keep doing enough of the right things is to keep doing a lot of things. Even if some of these things end up being flops, you’ll be gaining experience, building relationships, building confidence, opening up opportunities, keeping life fresh and learning your craft.”
When I think of those I admire, I see that quality: the quality that keeps going. Hit or miss, keep going, trusting the process and gleaning the good from each experience in order to develop something better.
The greats of today understand this: Stephen King, John Grisham, Elizabeth Gilbert, Diane Keaton, Richard Branson, Taika Waititi. As did those of the past: Einstein, Fred Astaire, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the list goes on. I’m sure you have those you would add to both my lists.
By trusting their creativity, understanding the process of creativity, and just plain doing the work, they gained the success that they enjoyed. Through that, they gained their acclaim. I am sure they are looking over their shoulders, winking at us, and beckoning us to do the same.
“If you make it in your universe, it’s because you keep doing enough of the right things. It sounds simple. It is simple, really. —Michael Caine
Kate Pennell, English and slightly geekish, is a coach and dream catalyst who lives in Spain with three kids, various furry creatures and a patient husband. She loves nature, creativity and seeing people discover what truly makes them come alive. Kate provides the people she works with permission to launch and helps them begin to fly as they were made to. She teaches, encourages and connects with fellow travellers across our global village. Find out more at https://www.permissiontolaunch.website/.