Focus is my eternal enemy in creativity as well as all other aspects of my life. Don’t worry though; it’s an enemy that I thoroughly vanquish every day. Never has the dread spectre of focus taken hold in my mind without being banished in mere minutes to the outer reaches of procrastination and distraction!
In all seriousness, this is a big deal—maintaining focus on things I want to accomplish, even things I’m passionately drawn to, has never come naturally to me and my creative life is marked with milestones of guilt and disappointment at skills unpracticed, works unfinished, muses unheeded. I’ve tried all kinds of regimens and tricks to try and make myself do what I long to do, but always my idle, distracted self asserts itself and scatters the fragments of Dream to the winds as I fill my head instead with trivia, amusement and hipster pap.
I imagine I’m not alone. But if you’re entering these chambers today in expectation of some wonder method to revitalize your art and practice, I’m afraid I’m in the trenches right along with you, struggling to triage my own stagnant creativity. I can’t promise easy answers, but let’s journey together, and see if we can’t uncover a few insights, shall we?
First, the problem—I can think of several factors that continually stymie me in making art, or anything else:
Fear of failure. The thought of producing something crap paralyzes me, and I don’t produce anything at all. I think “wouldn’t it be nice if…” I wrote this thing, or drew that thing, but never do it. Or I start and don’t finish. I have preliminary sketches of comics, opening chapters of novels, and unharmonized lines of melody, all cluttering up box after box in what I laughingly call my study. If I finished them, they might be crap, so it’s comfortable, if depressing, to let them lie stillborn.
Plain ol’ lack of dislipline. Honestly, there’s one dimension of my problem that’s not terribly mysterious or existential: I’m lazy. Somehow I internalized a path-of-least-resistance mode of operation long ago, and to this day I shy away from anything that’s hard or labor-intensive. So another reason all those works of art lie comatose in apple boxes is that finishing them would be a lot of work–and they still might suck, bringing us back to the first point.
Distraction on an epic scale. We live in a world where whole galaxies of information, of entertainment, of sheer stimulus is available at a mouseclick. If I run out of books to read, I have DVDs. If I’ve exhausted that, my Xbox provides hours of gameplay. And if that bores me, the internet provides everything—games, articles, videos, widgets and doodads. I can pump my cortex full of all the hip in-jokes or nerdrage debates or funny animals or naked ladies my poor eyeballs can stand, and still not be sated. I can do this for hours at a time and still have plenty left the next day. I don’t have to dream, because the entertainment machine will do it for me, stimulating and stimulating and stimulating until I crawl into bed to rest up for another round tomorrow. Once again, the path of least resistance means making art, living story, are just too hard compared to funny things on YouTube. It’s like a diet of Hostess Twinkies—I’m receiving a sensation I enjoy, and my stomach gets full, but is it really nourishing?
I think it’s telling that we’ve started to speak of “information,” of “data,” rather than knowledge. Knowing is experiential; data is just a string of bits filed away, devoid of context. But like it or not, the “information age” is upon us; it surrounds us, these constant streams of stimulus, and I for one just—can’t—focus.
So what to do?
There are lots of possibilities:
Kill your TV. You can, of course, dam up the streams. I don’t watch ordinary TV stations; I just using the machine for playing videos or games that We select or control. I don’t know that I’m ready, though, for cold turkey. If you’re reading this, chances are you aren’t either.
Set a regimen. You can deliberately manage your time—budgeting time for idle entertainment, and carving space for creation. I’ve tried this, and I’m terrible at it. But I have found that at least building the expectation in your mind that you will sit down with that manuscript today, or you will pull out that guitar this week, helps—a little.
Find a support group. This is invaluable, I’ve found, actually. Finding a group of people who will do it with you, in a safe place free of judging in the moment (critique can come later), allows you to open up creative streams that are blocked from fear, and carve out a place in space and time where you will do something. The improv songwriting project Ink Brethren was more valuable than I can express.
Just do it. However you end up making time for art, make sure to do something. Do lots of it, and do it often. My perfectionist streak (see “fear of failure”) leads me to desire perfect jewels of creative beauty, springing full-formed from my poet’s soul. But really volume is what makes art—attempt after messy attempt, which gets ideas flowing so that the truly great ones can sprout and grow, and creates an internalized impulse through sheer “wax on, wax off” repetition, so that you’re living in that world of spirit and creative flow. That’s another thing I learned from Ink Brethren, but I have yet to really take it to heart in the rest of my life.
So that’s where I’m at. I’ve got some pretty heavy hangups, but also some promising tools, though I don’t use them all that well yet. What about you? What defeats and victories have you had on this road? What are YOUR tools? How are they working out for you? I’d love to know.
This road’s less lonely with two.