A client called me yesterday in crisis. Three years ago, we reworked his book proposal and his agent sold it to a premiere imprint. The editor seemed perfect for the project, too. Three years later, the client has turned in the manuscript and is facing what I would call one of the classic phases of author crisis. The editor is demanding major changes. Permissions must be attained. Deadlines must be met.
“Maybe I’ll just give it up,” the client said, “and return to a normal life.”
“And what would that look like?” I asked, “A normal life?”
I could hear him grin on the other side of the phone. A creative life, by choice, counters normalcy and complacency and even predictability.
We then talked about some unconventional ways for him to get re-connected to what matters, to get re-inspired, to keep creative momentum by tracking wonder.
It is in moments of crisis and doubt and confusion that we most need to track wonder.
I just overheard a guy say, “The problem with being self-employed is that you rarely know what day it is. The week goes by like a blur. The only way I know it’s the weekend is my kids are home from school all day.”
That could be one problem for us creatives – this day-blurring. This monochrome gray hue to every day. But what if each day had some definition? Some distinct color? What if each day merits being given delight back? You get what I mean?
So whether you’re finding yourself in serious doubt or just needing more definition and hue to your filters, here are five suggestions drawn from my own experiences, consulting work, research, and interviews.
1. HONOR YOUR QUIRKY CURIOSITY.
Take stock of what you and possibly only you are curious about.
When E.O. Wilson was a boy who roamed Alabama’s fields and woods, he paid attention to ants. Chalk up his obsession to boyhood fascination, and you miss the point. He has kept his eye on the industrious insects most of his life. His open wonder and active curiosity have led him to develop great ideas that have changed how we view social behavior, the unification of knowledge (consilience), and human beings’ innate attraction to other living species (biophilia).
Your curiosities might not lead to scientific theories, but they might lead to new projects for your business, your design, your art, or your writing – or they might just lead you further into the woods of your own imagination. And that’s not a bad thing. If you don’t pursue these seemingly quirky curiosities, who will?
2. STOP KNOWING SO MUCH.
When someone offers a new idea or a bit of information that might unconsciously threaten you, part of your brain sizes up the new idea into your mind’s known categories. This biological impulse comes from what I call “Survivor Brain.”
Our ancestors needed Survivor Brain. As they tromped through thick woods or new land and saw a shape, their brains automatically registered “predator” or “prey,” and the body – before the conscious mind could even register the right category – responded with uplifted spear or running legs. (See cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, a fascinating study of this impulse.) The truth is most of us do not need Survivor Brain to be as active as it likely is in our daily professional and personal lives.
Survivor Brain ironically counters the mind’s capacity to stay open to possibility – a crux for creativity. Survivor Brain reacts more than creates. Survivor Brain bolsters our ego by bringing out our Mr. Know-it-All. Our Mr. Know-it-All pretends we already have all the answers.
The Mr. Know-it-All in each of us sends wonder in hiding. When you’re pursuing a creative project, keep your mind open. Live in more questions than answers during three critical phases of a creative project:
Inception – Don’t start a project thinking you have everything already figured out. You’ll lose interest and drop the project more quickly than a baby drops yesterday’s toy.
In the Middle – How do you stay fresh with a long-term project day after day? I heard Susan Orleans, author of Orchid Thief and writer for The New Yorker, address this matter. One litmus test that she’s onto a good project is whether or not she is continuously having questions about the subject. “If I already know everything about it or know where it’s going, then what’s the point of my writing the piece?” Wonder is an awesome motivator. If in the middle of a project, you lost that wondrous feeling, either stop knowing so much or assess whether or not this project even merits more attention.
Toward the End – Refrain from tidying up a project. Poets, novelists, and memoirists have to trip up the mind’s attempts to tie up the lose ends. Some artists have to hold back from making a piece look too polished. A business product might be refined when produced, but it’s likely going to need improvements.
Art, products, and life – they’re all works-in-progress. And the more we think we know about any of them, probably the more we realize how little we do know. Savor that not-knowing, and turn on your Wonder Brain. You’ll find it in the wilds of your imagination.
Drop in the Hut
How do you court curiosity and trump both the Survivor Brain and the Mr. Know-it-All? I’m collecting stories and examples – so drop in and share!
And if you want more ideas along these lines, download the two Tracking Wonder Handbooks by entering your name in the box to the right —>>>. And spread the wonder.
See you in the woods,
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Author of The Journey from the Center to the Page (Penguin 2004; Monkfish Pub., revised & updated ed. 2008)