Creative Rebellion Essays: Embracing Discomfort

Be in the flow and let go — by John S. Couch

When I lived in San Francisco, a couple decades ago, I would draw every Sunday morning at a studio a few blocks away from my home in Noe Valley. I would carry my box of charcoal, pencils, erasers and drawing board down to a studio that focused on life studies. Sunday morning was an open, non-instructional, time and I paid for the opportunity to draw from a live model.

There were about 10 artists in the room, some from the San Francisco Art Institute, some animators from Pixar (the guy who designed Shrek sat next to me) and several enthusiasts. A man or woman (we never knew in advance who was showing up) would enter wearing a robe, walk to the round stage at the center of the room, disrobe and start striking poses in rapid-fire so the artists could warm up their hands.

There was a middle-aged woman who came every Sunday like clockwork. She was very sweet but once she sat down to draw, her demeanor changed and she transformed into a Tasmanian devil (the cartoon): leaning forward and backward, sighing, yelping, drawing and then erasing and then cursing under her breath before tearing the page off the drawing stand and starting anew. Now, this is not a judgment — everyone has their rhythm and approach to creating. One morning, after she ripped down her fourth drawing on newsprint in about five minutes, she stood up and looked over at my drawing. She sighed heavily and then plopped back down.

At the break, as I was standing outside drinking a cup of coffee, she came over to me.

“How do you do it?” she asked.

“I’m sorry?” I responded.

“How do you draw like you do?”

“I’m not sure what you mean. I look at the model and then I let my arm do what it wants.”

“I can’t make a good drawing,” she said. “It’s not at all like Van Gogh.”

At this, I realized what the issue was.

“Maybe stop trying to draw like Van Gogh and draw like yourself,” I said.

“But I can’t do that. In my head I see what it should look like but when I start to draw it, it’s all wrong,” she said, getting teary. “I get flustered and I feel I’m an absolute failure. I’ve been doing this for six years and I’m worse than when I started.”

“Okay, stop that,” I said. “Stop seeing what it should be in your head before you start. Your job is to be in the moment of creating the drawing. Don’t think of it so much as you are making a drawing that has to be perfect but more that you are a conduit for the drawing, however it comes out — good, bad, ugly or beautiful. You are giving birth to the drawing and whether it’s great or not is often beyond your control. Just be in the moment and allow it to come through. You are not copying the model, like a camera. You are interpreting it — visual information comes to your eyes, goes to your brain and then extends through your hands. It’s unique and it’s all you. Don’t worry about the end result. Be indifferent to it. Just be in the flow and let go.”

“Be in the flow and let go,” she repeated.

When break was over we sat back down and even though she went through the drawing process with her customary gusto, it wasn’t punctuated with her usual self-flagellating sighs and grunts. She didn’t rip through multiple sheets of paper but just worked on the same drawing for 15 minutes.

I stood up and looked over at her drawing.

“What do you think?” she asked.

The drawing looked nothing like Van Gogh or anyone else. It barely looked like the model but that wasn’t important. It looked like her work.

“It doesn’t matter what I think. Or what you think, really.” I said. “You made it and by that very fact, it’s great. It didn’t exist 15 minutes ago and now it does.”

“I think so too,” she said and I saw the stress in her face relax. “I mean, not that it’s great but it simply is.”

“Exactly.”

And from that point on her work did, in fact, become freer and looser. Without expectations of the final work, the work was allowed to become what it needed to become on its own terms.

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

David Bowie

We have to become comfortable with discomfort. Not only in art but in all things. Whenever we are starting out on a new venture or learning a new skill or software, there’s the immediate resistance that appears. Learning strikes a deep chord in all of us and either you can embrace the change and draw energy from the discovery of how to do something new or you can fall subject to anxiety and ultimately procrastination — not learning the new skill because of a litany of excuses: I’m too old, I don’t have time, I can’t focus, I’m too busy, etc ad infinitum.

I’ve found that most resistance to something new comes from a pre-determined model in one’s mind about how great it has to be before commencing on the actual process of creating: it has to be a blockbuster movie script or it has to be a unicorn start-up or it has to be a perfect drawing.

All this does is to add unnecessary expectations and stress to the creating of a new thing. Your job as a creative person is to simply create. And if the creation isn’t quite right, then continue to create until you get there. The more you do, the less anxiety and pressure you come to bear on the outcome.

And quantity truly begets quality over time.

You are learning when you embrace the uncomfortable.

John

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