Creativity: process, flow, and block
Welcome back to the EXCEL log! I hope you’re enjoying these last couple of weeks of the semester, and not spontaneously combusting. There are only 6 days of classes left- we got this! Last post we talked about burnout, and this week we’ll explore creativity. Read on to find out more about how creativity works in our brains, creative flow, and the creative processes of students on campus!
When I think of creativity, I think a lot about when I compose – I hear ideas for pieces of music in my head and then I write them down. I get these sparks of inspiration everywhere, whether that be in class or the shower. Sometimes, I get so engrossed in a piece of music I’m working on, or a song that I’m improvising with on the oboe, that I actually live in the present when normally I’m dwelling on the past or worrying about the future ahead. I’m not thinking about the rest of the day, how I’m going to pay rent, or what I’m going to eat for dinner. I’m just living in the music.
What is creativity
Creativity is defined by California State University Northridge as “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.” Britannica thinks of it as “the ability to make or otherwise bring into existence something new, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form.”
Scientifically, creativity is somewhat supported by the part of our brain that imagines the future – the hippocampus. Interestingly enough, the hippocampus is also the part of our brain that recalls the past. According to the National Library of Medicine, the hippocampus also plays a role in the generation of creative ideas by working with a group of regions in the brain called the default network. This network tends to activate when our mind starts to wander. When our minds wander, we are often engaging with the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis which states that memory and imagination involve constructing episodic details of people, places, and events we’ve already experienced. We reconstruct past events in our brains, and we construct possible future events based on what has occurred/or what we have seen in the past. This system is beneficial to creative thinking, which requires us to use our prior knowledge to form new ideas.
When it comes to the arts, philosophically, Aristotle said that music, dance, and drama involve imitation and that this imitation must “transcend the mundane replication of an object or event and startle the audience.” On the other hand, Plato claims artists can create authentic and meaningful works because “the divine speaks through them.”
I think that my whole creative process comes from the divine. Not completely in a religious sense, but definitely in a spiritual sense. When I think of ideas, it feels like they’re coming from a place separate from the world we know. It sort of aligns with what Plato believed, but my brain is also definitely constructing new ideas based on prior events. The creative spirit moves through me, and then my brain works to translate it into a human way of understanding based on details from memories. I particularly feel this creative process in action when I get into a flow state.
I’m working on a musical right now, and one of the songs, “You’ll be missing me then” randomly came to me in the shower. When I started notating it, the music just poured out of me – the chords and melody just fit together with ease and I didn’t even notice the time that went by. I was definitely in a state that many call flow.
In an article from the journal Frontiers in Psychology, flow is described as:
“A subjective state of psychological well-being that is strongly associated with the creative process. Flow is said to be characterized by “a challenge that is perfectly matched to the skill level of the participant, goals are clear with unambiguous feedback, concentration that is fully directed on the task, actions executed and merged with heightened awareness, and a sense of control without self-consciousness.”
Flow often alters a person’s sense of time and for performers, artists, and creatives of all kinds, flow can involve a “sense of valuing an experience for its own sake,” in creative flow, there’s a “desire to continue a creative activity for your own personal merit.”
Flow feels amazing, and fulfilling. I think it also usually means work gets done. So, is there a way to cheat flow? Make it happen on a whim? I’m not sure. Frontiers in Psychology also describes a study that measures flow in dancers, sharing that “people who often experience flow have ‘autotelic personalities’; they desire a challenge, demonstrate superior concentration skills, are intrinsically motivated, and engage in active coping strategies. They possess meta-skills such as general curiosity, persistence, and low self-centeredness. These individuals generally have higher self-esteem and lower trait anxiety”
I don’t necessarily think you have to have all of these traits to experience flow. I am sometimes very anxious, and at times I have trouble concentrating but find myself in a flow state while composing pretty often. In an article for Ted.com violinist and keynote speaker, Diane Allen says you can hack flow by first identifying the times you’ve experienced flow, examining the memories you have of that time, and then working to recreate those conditions. Allen also suggests that the next time you find yourself in flow, you should notice the activities you’re doing that activate that state. Are you on stage? Are you writing a paper? Reading a monologue or dancing? More broadly, are you engaged in acts of service? Sharing? Creating a sense of unity or community? Are you problem-solving? Immersed in deep focus or deep listening? What are ways that you can recreate this experience, in order to reap the benefits?
The opposite of creative flow would be creative block. The website Masterclass defines it “as an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in the creative process without the ability to move forward and make anything new.” Similar to burnout, it’s a debilitating feeling that prevents creatives from imagining ideas or continuing projects. According to Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, creative block can come as a result of many different factors such as:
- Stress: Sometimes, stress can cause creative block. You may be so overwhelmed by classes, jobs, the future, relationships, finances, family, etc that your creative ideas are stifled.
- Too many ideas: Believe it or not, sometimes having too many ideas can cause creative block. You can be overwhelmed by the number of options and unsure where to start.
- Fear of imperfection: Sometimes when we create we become too invested in how “good” our projects are. We worry about what people will think of our work, and whether or not there is more we can do to better our projects. This fear of imperfection can also cause creative block, and stop the generation of ideas completely
When it comes to overcoming creative block, there are many different methods:
- Take a break: Linkedin suggests simply taking a step back away from creative work can help cure creative block
- Find a sense of play: Poet, author, and musician Joy Harjo says to invite play into your creative process. She says you can experiment with different mediums, such as doodling, freely dancing to your favorite song, or even making collages out of old magazines to refresh your mind and stimulate new creative ideas.
- Immerse yourself in a new environment: Perhaps changing up your work environment can stimulate new ideas. If you typically create in a quiet place, try going to a public place. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a great way to stimulate creative ideas.
- Write about what is on your mind: Sometimes writing about your problems can yield creative inspiration. It allows you to process emotions and may clear your head or yield inspiration for other creative projects.
- Find inspiration in other creative projects: Sometimes listening to music by other artists, reading work/papers by new authors, exploring new choreography, or exploring plays by playwrights you haven’t seen before, etc can help stimulate creativity. SMTD is a community of artists of a variety of disciplines and hearing about our colleagues’ projects is a great way to overcome creative block and get inspired!
If I’m feeling blocked, it helps me to embrace a “trash draft.” For example, if I’m feeling blocked while writing, or if I don’t know where to start I’ll set a timer for 15 min or so and just write. If I don’t know what to say, I’ll just type random letters and then pick it back up again when I come up with a thought. This method comes from an upper-level writing professor at U of M and it really helps. Sometimes, what I wrote is better than I thought and I feel inspired to keep going. Other times, it’s just as bad as I thought it would be, but working to improve it yields new ideas. You can apply this method to anything, but I think dealing with block always involves embracing the difficulty and giving yourself grace because you’ll eventually be inspired again.
Many artists within both SMTD and the broader UM community express their creativity in different ways. We all have different creative processes and for me, hearing about others’ creative processes benefits my own. I talked to some fellow composers to get their perspectives on creativity and their creative processes, which show that within the same field, creativity can look different from one person to another.
Nelson Walker, a 1st year MM student in composition says his creative process varies depending on what he’s working on. He shares:
“I often tend towards improvisational processes or chaotic/chance-based processes as a starting point for my art, and then let my choices be guided by my intuition and what I see in that chaotic material. I also find that having the right balance of empty space and community in my life is very important for my creativity: I need that contemplative time to feel grounded and inspired in my creativity but too much empty space away from other art and other artists and I become uninspired. Having healthy deadlines tends to be a good motivator for me, and provides the small amount of external pressure needed to prioritize being creative.”
5th year BM in composition student Sam Todd says that SMTD composition professor Evan Chambers suggested he sing to facilitate his creativity. Sam says that the physicality of singing brought lots of inspiration to his music, and allowed him to approach composition with a more embodied lens.
Some composers listen to music to gain inspiration for future pieces. Willie Cornish, a 1st year MM student in composition says his creative process involves listening to lots of music and being kind to himself as he works:
“Listening to music is equivalent to researching before writing a 20-page paper. Depending on what I am writing/who it’s for, I will focus on listening to that particular idea. When listening/studying, I try my best to listen to things outside of just the standard Western-European classical music. By broadening your music intake, you will garner a larger appreciation for all types of music while simultaneously increasing your creative music palette! One key thing I often remind myself is to be patient with myself. If you are not being kind to yourself, it can make the process much harder than it should be. There will be obstacles during the creative process. However, you can minimize them by treating yourself with the respect and love that you deserve!”
Overall, creativity can look different for everyone. The way individuals create, both within the arts and beyond, is unique and powerful. I hope by reading this post you’ve found inspiration for your creative practice, and that you’ve learned a thing or two to help with future projects.
Thanks for tuning into the EXCEL Log!
Enjoy the end of your semester, and have a great summer. Check out the rest of the EXCEL Log for more articles on navigating the performing arts, the happenings in the SMTD community, and beyond!
Where in the brain does creativity come from? Evidence from Jazz musicians
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