first posted January 2018
A coaching client spoke of how, as her time spent on her creative work increases, she has become more aware of the aloneness of it. It’s something I remember an old art tutor mentioning, when I was nineteen or twenty; but it seemed to me at the time that the way he expressed it had a touch of martyrdom about it; a slightly dramatic sigh as he spoke of the loneliness of the artist.
Yet when my client spoke of it there was no drama, self-pity or dislike of the aloneness, and I connected with her in recognising that particular quality of solitude. And in actually relishing it, and seeing the sanity in it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researched and wrote about flow; I recall him describing a geologist who in her enthusiasm to begin an exam paper on geology, put off writing her name on the first page until she’d finished the paper. However she experienced such deep flow while answering, that when she went back to the beginning of the paper to write her name, for a few moments she couldn’t recollect what she was called. Csikszentmihalyi writes that one of the elements of flow is a loss of self-consciousness while immersed.
Many artists experience flow as a sort of magic where we yield unselfconsciously to a process that grows out of a familiar process yet takes us to something that is entirely new to us. But this movement towards the unknown, inherent in a lot of creative work, contains a challenge to another component of flow; “having clear goals every step of the way.” There can be aspects of our work where we have clear goals and steps, but that creative bit, encountering new territory, involves a surrender to not knowing where we’re going, not knowing if what we do know is of any relevance to this moment, feeling lost, and not knowing if we’ll find our way to – what? Somewhere we want to be? Something we value? And when we’re not in flow, we can find ourselves back in our social minds, the active part of our mind that feels like a crowd expressing agreements and disagreements, echoing a multitude of opinions, some valuing where we appear to be going, and some negative and critical. We can lose all sense of solitude and the delicious spaciousness that can accompany it. So at times, we can feel as if we are fighting to walk into the studio, not only when physically entering, but over and over again, as we struggle to free ourselves of the disruptive internal audience and try to regain our sense of solitude.
And yet, many fear the solitude. It can bring recovery with it. And recovery doesn’t always feel great at first; as the mind’s censor moves out of the way, it can seem a little like purgatory as the interior space previously taken up with irritability, sadness, hurt, neurosis clears – and we start noticing that we feel them. We might experience resistance, a desire to get the hell out of the studio. We might start to give all of our attention to the negativity. Or we might potentially see it as a bit of an internal clearing, possibly accompanied by an external preparation of the studio space.
And when it does open up, the spacious solitude, a lot of fear evaporates. Marion Milner wrote in “On Not Being Able To Paint”, something like “I have nothing, I know nothing, I want nothing.” She found that this mantra opened up the space to connect. A fearless mantra; I wonder how our lives would be if we could take it with us beyond the studio.
Image by Marion Milner from On Not Being Able To Paint