I want to write about the lovely rituals that are sustaining me these days. At some point every day I spend 15 minutes doing kundalini yoga while listening to music (Mongolian throat singing; Tanya Tajaq; and Leonard Cohen’s last album are my current go-to’s). I follow yoga with 10 minutes of meditation, using Headspace, which is an online app. I’ve added in 15 minutes on the spin bike once a day, too, to get my heart rate up and start working on my cardio again, now that my head can handle it. And I’m walking about four times a week. Of course, I’m also writing by hand and spending a lot of time drawing, too. My hours are blessed and peaceful.
I am grateful.
I’ve been thinking that artists must be humble, must have humility before a higher power, as Leonard Cohen himself seemed to, because to make art is to be reliant on gifts beyond our grasp. We can only beg to be blessed, to be used, to serve, to be spoken through. So the work that gets done, the effort and discipline, it’s like trying to break a code, or tap some mystery that we know does not belong to us and cannot be grabbed, only given. Maybe that’s why my daily rituals seem so powerful to me.
I used to believe that work was the thing. Now I believe almost wholly in mystery. I believe in stumbling, through work but also through ritual, through faith, through any trick that might cast a spell, into the path of mystery; you might say, also, into the path of grace. I believe that whatever I’m here to do, I do not know, and it isn’t up to me to decide. What’s up to me is the choice to show up, again and again, with hope. To sing great praise, to open myself, to listen. I know nothing. I know nothing of what I am making, only that I am making it, planning it and studying for it (reading, researching, filling my brain with information and images) and making it. Surprise is the best part of the exchange. I am almost always surprised by what I’ve made, on the other side of making it. It is a simple joy. I want to share this joy, because it seems so easily discovered, like it’s always there, always waiting to be found.
I believe in mystery. I believe that anything I’ve made comes not from me, but through me, and it is not for me, and anything I gain from it is not for me, but for a power greater than myself, something I can’t know, but only glimpse, as through a glass darkly.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein
If you’re following along at home, week two of my experimental creativity course is underway. I’m titling this week’s theme “Brain/Play,” because we will be learning about the brain and doing exercises that call on us to be playful and let go of expectations.
A paradox I’ve noticed, as I design this course, is that I am attempting to teach two different art forms at the same time. The first is Lynda Barry’s speciality: cartooning. The second reflects my own developing interest: drawing from life, or realistic drawing.
Cartooning relies on symbolic representations: what is the essential form (there will be variations, of course) that says CAT or CAR or CASTLE? What says TREE? It always surprised me how easily my children, from a very young age, could identify a representation of a tree—any representation of any tree—in their picture books. Tree, sun, boy, girl. They could point out any of these forms, and it amazed me, because every tree in real life is a unique tree, every boy a unique boy, every girl a unique girl; and all real things are constantly changing. Not to mention that the real sun in the real sky looks nothing like its symbolic representation.
I finally understand: these symbols, and our ability to recognize them from infancy, are evidence of our brain at work, busily categorizing and simplifying, so as to make the world and all of its unique things comprehensible to us.
So that is cartooning. Learning to cartoon is learning how to make use of the symbols that represent things, in ways that are creative and yet easily grasped by the observer/reader.
Drawing from real life is a totally different undertaking: here, we are representing a figure that looks real and three-dimensional despite being nothing more than scratches on a flat page. In order to draw realistically, you have to see the uniqueness of the form you are attempting to recreate. Instead of drawing an eye, you draw the unique lines and shadows that will make an eye seem to appear on the page. In fact, in order to make an eye appear on the page, you can’t think about it being an eye that you are drawing at all. Instead, you have to look past the symbol of EYE and let yourself see purely in shapes and lines. Further, the eye you reproduce will be a very particular eye, a recognizably individual eye. It is a mind-boggling and mind-blowing experience to discover one’s capacity to see (and reproduce) shapes and lines rather than symbols. (If you already know how to draw from real life, this will come as no big revelation at all; but to those of us who believed we couldn’t draw, it is a positively exhilarating discovery.)
Now, the question is: will learning two paradoxically different art forms at the same time help or hinder our exploration of creativity? (An irrelevant question at present, as the experiment is in motion.)
Ultimately, the coursework is aimed toward creating a short book that combines text and illustration, and my sense is that some of us will choose cartooning for our final project, while others may choose more realistic drawing: our individual styles will emerge. That’s the hope.
This post is about a different kind of flow.
As I continue to work on the curriculum for my creativity course, I’m reflecting on what this course is attempting to do. A creativity course is not a creative writing course or a drawing course, but something rather different that would use both of these forms as tools. I first conceived of the idea of designing a creativity course when I was asked to speak to a local writers’ group about time management. I’d prepared a tidy little 10-point lecture on subjects like organization, scheduling, efficiencies, with practical tips on each. But one point, a very important point, seemed to stump everyone, including me.
“Don’t procrastinate,” I said. “Get into the flow and just go.”
“But how can I do that?” one woman asked, genuine agony in her tone. “I can’t seem to get myself to sit down and just get to work.” The others agreed. Invisible barriers seemed to be invisibly stealing their time, distracting them from what they firmly believed they wanted to be doing—which, in this context, was to write.
How to get into the flow? I was unable to answer their question adequately, even though I seem able to get into the flow myself, sometimes with ease, though other times not easily at all—why is that? What does it mean to get into the flow? What, exactly, is flowing? Where is this flow located? Can I train myself to go there—wherever there is—at will?
As I continued to think about this question (or series of questions), I became increasingly intrigued by the nature of the flow mindset, by its qualities, which seem almost to be physical as much as mental, and by the similarities in experiences described across creative disciplines.
Let’s consider some of these similarities in the flow experience: There is a feeling of immersion inside another world. Time slows, or one’s sense of time vanishes altogether. The smallest details pop—of action, of sensual awareness. Whatever you’ve given your attention to becomes immensely interesting, absorbing. You feel as though you are following an idea, a pattern, an image, a set of chords or musical notes, a line; you are not dragging something behind you, you are alert to what is before you. It commands your attention. You seem able both to anticipate and to be surprised by what you are making. And the feeling that accompanies you after such an experience is a wonderful high, a buoyancy, a delight in the world around you and its possibilities. You cannot explain what you have done, exactly. It is as if what you have done has been something you experienced as happening rather than made to happen. You reliquinshed control. You are yourself amazed and charmed by what you have done.
Athletes experience this during games; musicians experience this in performances (and in practice); writers experience this as they write; and artists as they create.
The experience is a gift. But it must be said that it’s also the result of discipline. You can’t improvise on a theme without knowing how to play your instrument, without practicing to create a foundation to ground you.
All of this I know.
But is it possible to teach this?
This course is my attempt to answer the question: how do I get into the flow?
How do I do what I want to do, which is to create? What if the barriers to creativity are built into our brain structure? How can we convince the left side of our brain to cede control to the right side? How do we see with eyes that recognize the uniqueness of every grain of sand, every line, every shadow, every eyelash? It can feel overwhelming to the left brain. It can feel scary, because we are letting go, we are letting ourselves be flooded with sensory material, because we are leaving ourselves behind, in a way, in order to be immersed in a different experience, and because we are seeing differently, in ways that defy assumptions our left brain relies on to keep our world organized and our brain operating efficiently.
You may be changed by opening yourself to the flow. Your left brain knows this, and it’s afraid. What does it feel like to let go and be led? When is the last time you did this? How to create trust in this process, to bring us all to a different place, or way of being, so that at the end of a 12-week course, we will be able to answer the question: how do I get into the flow?
Most of the time, I am not afraid to step into the flow. I make time for it, and when I do, when I’m there in the flow, I am perhaps the most content and at peace with my life that I could ever hope to be. I know the delight it brings me. I know I can’t get stuck there, and in fact that I am lucky to be there, in those moments. I know, too, it’s always there, waiting for me to return.
So. This is my starting place. I’m excited to see whether this is something I can share with others.
We drew from pictures we’d clipped from the newspaper and magazines. This is my version. I started with a cartoon, but switched to realistic drawing after the first panel.
This is the second time I’ve done this exercise. Here is my first version of the same poem, illustrated.
I think the exercise could be completed in a number of different ways. It could even be done without doing any drawing whatsoever: the text could be illuminated with interesting lettering, or by changing the shape on the page.
The poem is “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty,” by Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks, if you want to look it up.
PS The tiny print at the bottom of the Record/Collect section of the course outline includes the instructions to collect graphic novels and comics you admire, i.e. Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki; and Jane, the Fox and Me, by Fanny Britt and Isabella Arsenault. I will keep adding to this list. Do you have any favourites?