Creative cycles

If you read this regularly, or read back a few pages, you’ll know that I’ve recently come back to blogging here after quite a long break, and that there’s been a mini-flurry of posts. You can read them below!

Resolutions

A while ago, an online artist friend wrote in her blog that she’d decided to try to draw something every day, to practise her art skills. I was immediately attracted to the idea of trying to write something every day, maybe for this blog, as a similar useful discipline. But then I hadn’t the energy for it and the idea foundered.

Then I re-read her post the other week, and was encouraged to have a go. My flurry of posts ensued.
I believe in encouraging the encourager, so I mentioned to her that she’d encouraged me to start writing again. Her reply was along the lines: “Well actually… Yes, I really ought to get back to doing that.. I’m not doing it at the moment”.

Another online friend, a clarinettist, had had good intentions of practising every day. She wrote in her blog about feeling discouraged at not managing to do it. (She also wrote very encouragingly about being encouraged by me! Thank you.) And as you know if you’ve read below, my violin practice lapsed over Christmas…

How many of your New Year resolutions took the form “I will [insert idealistic ambition of personal perfection] every day”? Did they succeed?

I very much doubt that they did, but I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Reflecting on my own situatiion and the experiences of my fellow bloggers, I found myself thinking about the idea of creative cycles.

Learning, rest and cycles

I think any creative activity is in fact a learning process. Musical performance is included in this, by the way, because you have to create your particular style of playing. You’re always trying to develop and move forwards…

But learning is hard work for the brain. It doesn’t like concentrating hard on one thing indefinitely; after working at something new, it likes time to assimilate what has been learnt. If you play an instrument, imagine this scenario: one day, you go to a long rehearsal, or you do some intense practice at home. You work hard at it. When you stop, you’re definitely ready for a rest… Next day, when you practise some more, you don’t want to work on the same piece again, so you practise something else. Or you do try to play the same music, but seem to be having an “off day”. Or, more likely than not, you have a day off from playing, but the music you were practising is still going through your head. You find yourself unconsciously whistling tunes from it as you do other things. A few days later, you play the music again. You find it has improved a lot–while you weren’t working on it. Your practice told your brain what was required to play. Afterwards–most likely while you were asleep, if the suggestions of recent research are right–your brain set about “reprogramming” itself to achieve what you’d fed into it.

It does seem that most of the improvement happens between practice periods, not during them. That’s one reason why it’s a bad idea to force yourself to practise the same thing for hours on end, expecting it to become perfect as you practise. When your brain says you need to stop, you need to stop.

I think something similar might apply over longer timescales. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to keep our self-promise to do a particular activity every day–or even every week. Maybe it’s not even desirable that we should. (Or maybe our needs in this respect vary from person to person.) Each activity needs rest periods. A particularly long, intense period of one activity might need to be followed by a particularly long and complete rest from it. This might actually be healthy and not a failure on our part at all; it might be the success of recognising the way of working that enables us to give the best results.

Solo musicians whom I’ve met generally say that they like to learn the notes for a piece, then put it aside for several months before coming back to it. Then they’re ready to work on getting it ready for public performance. Slogging away for ever isn’t necessarily the best approach. In fact I’m pretty sure that for any creative activity it’s entirely the wrong one. (On a smaller timescale: I wrote the bulk of this post a week or so ago. Then I left it, and now that I’ve come back to edit it, the process feels a lot easier than it did then.)

I’m interested in a lot of different things–that’s probably obvious from my blog posts. But with most of them I’m never happy unless I involve myself in them in some depth. I’ll buy a textbook on a subject and study it. I’ll try to find out what the “professional” approach to it is. I’m interested in music, mathematics, computer programming, writing, and so on. Well, I can’t do all of those at once in the sort of depth I want to. Typically I’ll immerse myself in one of them for several months. Then I come to a natural point where it feels like time to do something else. I take a break from the activity I’ve immersed in, and immerse myself in the next one. So each activity happens in cycles, interspersed with the others.

The most important activities never quite go away, though. For example, there’s no time in the last twenty years when I’ve not been playing regularly in at least one orchestra. But there have been times when I was working hard at improving my violin technique, and others when I simply did what was required to prepare for the next concert. Those times haven’t been ones of musical inactivity, though: I’ve had the sense of using and consolidating the technique that was previously worked on. A period of learning followed by a period of consolidation.

So that’s how it seems to work for me. If you’re involved in any creative activity, do you have a similar experience of it going in cycles? I’d love to hear from you.

One response to “Creative cycles

  1. Interesting stuff Tim. I think you’re probably right. I do feel that my art, creativity and even my interest in certain aspects of creativity go in cycles although I haven’t pinned down the pattern yet.

    However, I had a period of many months where my aim was to draw every day. I didn’t announce it or formalise it and I was allowed to have days where it didn’t happen. But if I got to the evening and hadn’t done a doodle at least I would pick up a pen and move the pen on the paper. I was able to push past the fallow periods in the cycle and I certainly developed my style during that phase. It wasn’t easy a lot of the time and a lot of stuff was not so good. But I learnt from the process.

    I also completed a daily self portrait photography project – I don’t know if you know about this? I took a self potrait photo every day for a year. It was sort of an artistic challenge to approach the same subject every day and certainly pushed me to be more creative with my photography. Again it helped me to develop past a point where I may have either not gone naturally or at least would have taken a long time to evolve into. But as well as an artistic challenge it was also a way for me to document the days and months with my illness in my first 18 months of diagnosis.

    It was not easy! But mostly I got into a routine with it. Around the 4 month mark I was totally fed up with it. But I had come so far I kept going to get to the 6 month mark – which came and went during a phase of greatly increased creativity.

    So yes I see cycles. But also I see a benefit in challenging yourself and taking the discipline of a daily practice.

    My number one rule though – “I am in control of the (daily) project, it does not control me”. Finding a way to get it to fit with my life was very important to having success.

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