Post #2060: When it comes to creativity, “to be everywhere is to be nowhere”.


Brian left on Saturday morning for a 9-day hunting trip up North, which coincided with the start of my intensive Zen practice period, and so the house has been very – very – quiet. While I normally fill the empty spaces by listening to podcasts, music, and sometimes netflix while working in the kitchen or sewing room – I started out on the day that Brian left by turning on nothing at all in the early hours before I went to the Zen-do. This was repeated on the Sunday morning, when I rose at six to work in the sewing room before attending another day of sitting – watching the light rise outside in the silence of morning as I worked on the bits and pieces that have been catching my interest lately. The photos above represent my work of the weekend and last couple of days – prepping the embroidery piece, natural fabric dying with some textual experimenting, binding the seams on the Cappuccino dress after basting them by hand. I have done most of this work in silence.

Sometimes the story in my head tells me that I must multi-task, or without *entertainment* the process of making is otherwise boring. I don’t know where that story came from, but it is lodged there, and so I keep a stash of podcasts and audiobooks just for when I’m sewing. I do most of my knitting at night while watching netflix or on the bus to work. My making is rarely done without the influence of other activities, in other words, and I rarely stop to question that impulse.

But in the last few days of minimizing other distraction in the sewing room, I’ve noticed how much my work style changes when I am simply on my own, listening to the voice in my own head, instead of channeling someone else’s words, ideas, or sounds. Sometimes I sing to myself during the rote parts of making (I’m working on memorizing some songs for an upcoming show) – but otherwise I have allowed myself to simply be in the moment with whatever I am working on. What that seems to mean is that rather than staying in one place (sitting at the sewing machine, tracing out a pattern, etc) there is much more flow to my working style and I am inclined to work on something as long as it captures my interest and then seamlessly moving onto something else, and then back again. So I do a bit of rote work like tracing, then I get up and go to the kitchen and mix up a batch of whatever natural dye I am experimenting with and cut up cloth to go in it, then I jot down some notes for a letter I am writing (and hope to incorporate into some textile art), then I organize supplies for a project that is in-process, and then perhaps I trace a bit more of my embroidery pattern before finishing up. Each task takes as long as it takes, without any other task overlapping – the nature of hands-on work.

This is counter to what I think of as my normal work-style, where I pick one task, turn on a program of about the length of the task and then sit and listen/work for the time period I have allotted. There is rarely time for creativity in that process, and I don’t find myself inspired to pick up another thing or intersperse activities. I am simply sewing/knitting/stitching and listening – and my brain is too full to do much else (like allow an idea to float in and then make some notes about it – which would be two other brain tasks in addition to the two already going on). This is not to say that I am not creative, but I tend to think about projects when I am in other modes of life, without my hands on the tools, rather than letting intuition guide my next movement in the place of process-making.

There have been a rash of studies and articles that demonstrate that most of us can’t really multitask as much as we think we can, and that our brain is just rapidly switching between one thing and another, which gives us the idea that we are able to handle more than one thing at a time. This means that we are forever balancing one brain process against another, and while it doesn’t matter much when doing a rote task (like endless rows of stockinette stitch on number three needles), it’s not conducive to the process of having new thoughts and then being able to follow them up with an action. That is, it impedes our ability to move fully into a creative mode, even while we are in the act of making. This experiment of the last few days – of intentional silence – is a reminder of that for me anyway.

I am not saying that I am going to give up listening to podcasts and music in the sewing room – we all know how much rote work we must engage in that truly does become tedious. Hand-basting miles of bias tape to seams is definitely made better by watching a bit of television! But part of my practice focus right now is to spend more time being *just* creative, and that means more time in silence when I’m at work on some or another project. I have some deep creative welling going on at the moment, and I figure the least I can do to honour that (and myself) is to listen deeply to that process rather than another round of This American Life.

(Quotation in the title is Seneca, the famous Roman Stoic and statesperson – he meant this in the physical sense – the full quote is “To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.” – but I think it applies psychically as well.)

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