we should be delighted when we’re proved ‘wrong’ — it means we’ve learnt something — Prof Brian Cox
I listened to a jazz musician recently, explaining the beauty of navigating improvisation; how integrating many notes and rhythms drawn from a collection of players, is down to the art of listening. Of responding to the melody’s fluid progression; slight changes in tempo or reimagining a note that was played accidentally. It is the quiet art of remaining in an open place he said, of an un-bias intuitive perception, trusting that the additions — practiced and unplanned — will make up multiple harmonious layers towards dynamic and emotive sound.
He described that one of the main aspects of doing this effectively was to let go, not try to control a piece towards an end result; but approach each action playfully, remain present and not linger on the unexpected F# that found its way into the atmosphere somehow.
Indeed, here we find that the resonance of each note is able to vibrate, fully breathe in the space between and find its own way of weaving into the fabric of the moment. Not that we can’t influence the pattern that plays out of course. (By all means, we are still an integral and powerful part of the tapestry’s production and remain responsible for the framework that crafts the design; adjusting the tensions, choosing ‘colours’ we add or remove). But the truth is, there is no road map or concept of a mistake in jazz, just a series of evolutions amongst an octave — wonderful and unknown cycles of risk taking and experimentation.
When we’re taught at school, we typically come to a point in the academic term where we are accessed on our retention of knowledge about a particular topic or chunk of information we’ve been learning. Here, we gather all the acquired ‘new information’ we’ve learnt about a subject and we’re asked questions on it via a test: a linear process of pulling facts into succinct answers and categories that are logically related.
For some, particularly those with incredible memories and means to retain chunks of ‘like’ information, this is an easy task. They expertly feed back what they have consumed to gain marks — Q & A — it’s a great skill and one that is needed. However, for others, the structure of this exercise that’s entrenched in our systems of education, is devoid of creative meaning and response. It’s not necessarily wrong, just not how many digest, synthesise or communicate ideas.
Give me a sewing machine or canvas for instance and I could connect and construct textures of social living conditions inner city Londoners experienced during the 2nd world war, or paint a canvas of layered hues expressing the ambition and control Lady Macbeth communicated to the audience in that infamous ‘Scottish play’. I’m not saying being able to articulate the facts on paper is unimportant, I just wonder if there are further ways we could continue to acknowledge the process of how we can extract the information, to discover if a person ‘gets it’. Indeed through the familiar pass / fail system of assessment, the narrative quickly becomes engrained in a significant proportion of the population; ‘I lack intelligence and have failed’. And this could not be further from the truth.
One of the most important characteristics of creative process is flow. Admittedly it’s not a particularly scientific term, but it graciously lends itself to what most of us can identify and have experienced in one way or another in our lives. You know that moment when you’re ‘in your element’ or hit that ‘sweet spot’ doing something you love. When work on an activity suddenly becomes an ecstatic source of energy that seems to eliminate time and awareness of anything that might be going on in the periphery. It feels good and it produces a weighty ability to capture creative thought effortlessly and in a systematic order that, at the same time, remains seemingly chaotic from the outside.
Flow is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t always come that easy. There are often distractions and disruptions that counter growth and block progress towards what we need and want. Fresh off a call from an employer who graciously acknowledged I’d just been piped at the post for a contract I’d applied for, and not long after I’d found out funding for a 10-year pipeline dream had been dropped unexpectedly, I was then reminded by email of a presentation I’d agreed to give on ‘Failure’. The timing was impeccable, albeit ironic, and as I walked through London’s bustling China Town, balancing a sandwich in one hand and umbrella in the other — dodging an inordinate amount of puddles towards my destination — I had ‘a moment’.
These experiences — moments of disruption — to our ‘plans’ towards success, are regular occurrences for most people who have travelled through life a bit and range from significant to more trivial matters depending on perspective. Regardless of circumstance however, they can instigate similar effects across the board. Much like early experiences in the classroom, an outcome has not been perfect or altogether ‘correct’ in terms of the perceived assessment or judgement, therefore: I’ve failed. Bluntly put, this is a sure fire way of eliminating any environment that cultivates creativity — and of course immediately stifle any sort of preceding flow.
So with that in mind, how do we continue to cultivate a healthy creative flow and what are the possible challenges that we should be aware of that might inhibit along the way?
Of course, there are obviously a myriad of unique ways flow can be disrupted, let’s unravel three of the most common, starting with fray. Looking back to the creative waves framework (in the previous post), this is when one of the threads in the process tails off, there is an unravelling of an idea and consequently the strand loses momentum or perhaps splits off in an entirely different direction altogether. Essentially, fray describes a process that has lost motion and is therefore unable to support the flow of creative energy:
This can be disappointing or leave us feeling lost, having suddenly and unexpectedly come to the end of an idea or connection we’ve woven time and emotion into. In this instance it can be hard to change gear. However, on the flip side, it can actually be an invaluable moment of growth.
Perhaps the investigation has in fact taken its natural course and we should learn and feel able to leave and allow that idea to finish without the need to ‘fix’ the fray. It also allows us a moment to reflect, which is important and necessary every now and then for honest assessment of what’s working or not going so well. It also presents us with an opportunity — to pick up a new thread — and one that might have been missed or be even better suited the present phase of evolution, than the one before. Either way fray is inevitable and to be expected. So allow the fibres to break, and max the space it creates, before introducing the next one…
In other instances, we might feel like we’re going round in circles, a process that can often feel frustrating and difficult to resolve. In a sense, we are tangled — and the more we try re-route, the more we get tied up in knots (this is our second form of disruption). Orthogonal is a term in physics used to describe opposites in various dimensions. It could be perpendicular lines at their point of meeting, or two independent ideas that cross or connect at right angles. In the case of the framework, orthogonal waves can occur when there’s overlap with other vibrations (depicted here by the gold threads), and this can cause both positive and negative disruption:
In a positive disruption; picking up a new perspective, addition of information or practical introduction such as a contact or injection of capital, the flow continues on, boosted by the addition of alternative energy. However, with negative disruption, perhaps conflicting priorities from stakeholders, a sudden change in governmental policy or maybe shift in relational dynamics– we can jar.
When it comes to knitting, untangling knots is a process of patience and literally letting go. Often if we keep working away at the knot, we end up knitting the fibres tighter together and can create even greater tangling. It’s helpful at this point to stop, take a step back and let the situation settle. That way we can actually allow the fibres to relax and loosen in every sense. It’s important to avoid engaging with the negatives, they can always be revisited at a later date if they remain relevant. However if we remain open and aware of the wider perspective, we may find other means to address the problem. In fact we will tend to find the situation will either resolve itself or be cut out altogether, having discovered or set up other alternatives.
Finally; ladders. In knitting, a drop-stitch can be created by accident or deliberately and this creates a ladder or a hole. They can be quite beautiful, but also frustratingly unexpected, causing unwanted tensions to stretch the surface of the material and other threads in motion to jump off needles. Similarly in all sorts of ventures, sometimes we realise there’s a gap in knowledge, process or expertise when we’re doing a project, something’s missing and it’s now effecting the forward motion and overall rhythm happening at present. Again, this demands a moment to pause in order to get under the surface of the situation. Indeed some ladders can only be seen or addressed after a period of time and once there is a fuller structure around the hole to actually display the disruption, illumination of the gap:
These occurrences, although in some ways time consuming, do not need to be creative blocks or labelled ‘failures’. With insight and awareness, they can be resolved by re-visiting the place of contention and picking up a stitch, hooking or integrating through threads in order to re-establish the structure and pattern as intended. Moreover, going back to the point of a drop stitch and establishing a stronger connection is actually hugely beneficial. You’re gaining more information and building further clarity into the design, which in turn, strengthens the overall process with an unmistakable depth and authenticity.
With all these disruptions we choose our perspective. We can see areas as ‘failures’ that in turn shut down the flow — or disruptions that allow us to navigate alternative directions, ones that may in fact give us a more embedded perception and process of development, as well as a truer manifestation in terms of the creative output we’re working towards.
By being aware of frays, knots and ladders we can maintain a healthy continuation of our GDP — gathering, dreaming and planning(!) — in our creative process and can then identify areas that need adjustment. This could look like pulling in gathering strands: asking who we need and don’t need to meet right now, in relation to contacts, for instance. Or pushing out our dreaming strands perhaps, by carving out more days to explore environments that will fuel our inspiration… Whatever it is, each of us tends to have stronger and weaker strands, and one’s that will differ depending on the task in hand. The idea is not to find a ‘balance’ per say, but if we want to have collision moments that catalyse a particular result, we might just need to adjust the tensions a little — I’ll unpack this more in the next post.
Ultimately, the common misconception about flow is that we often try to get into one or make efforts to find it, rather than perceiving its constant present reality running through our lives. Indeed, the fight has, and will always be, about how to stay aware of that presence, despite inevitable failures, change or disruption along the way. As Picasso once said, everyone is born an artist; the challenge is remaining one as we grow up.
Jennifer Sturrock is a designer, educator and writer within the realms of research, public engagement and creative facilitation. Working in a diverse range of environments, her background in fashion & textile design led to programme design, development & communication within the arts. Founder of blancc_space, now specialises in design process, creative direction, editorial content, presentation, workshop facilitation and brand experience.
Jennifer has a First Class honours in Fashion Design & Textiles from London College of Fashion and a Masters in Theology & the Arts from Kings College London. She has partnered with various learning institutions and worked in both private and public sectors, most recently with the Victoria & Albert Museum and University of the Arts London. Currently based in London, Jennifer regularly travels to Scotland, as well as internationally for research and continued creative collaboration. For more writing see here.