Creative oscillations (the third)

Isabel writes in obligation vs compulsion:

I also feel this distinct sense of compulsion to be doing this work. I’m intentionally calling it compulsion and not obligation. These are two distinctly different forces—like a push vs. a pull. Obligation requires you to push yourself to do the thing: get up from what you actually want to do and do the obligation, instead. Compulsion is a much more natural, somewhat erotic force, where you feel like you must do that thing. The force calls to you in a very personal, almost transcendent way, where it feels like you would be doing yourself a disservice by not listening to its call.

Who’s call? You might ask.

Answer: the muse.

Compulsion is the muse seducing you. Compulsion is the muse saying: come play, come see what we can create together. The muse is begging you to look at her, spend time with her, get to know her, communicate what she is trying to tell you to the world. Compulsion is the muse, personified.

So: obligation is duty—something you have to do. And compulsion is the muse—something you want to follow.

It’s a great post on learning to enjoy the process, rather than the outcomes, and the difficulties of feigning enthusiasm (“I wish I were interested in this, so let’s make this interesting”) and going through the motions of compulsion.

This experience is what it feels like to break through a creative block, to finally be in touch again with chaotic energy; or as DJ Dahi would tell me, it’s also the state that enables prolific creative work—like Lil’ Wayne’s 2000s mixtape run—to take place.

Sometimes, compulsion needs balance with a sense of structure. This mostly means setting and accepting constraints, that you and I are people—very finite beings. Working within the constraints you have is how compulsion best manifests itself into creativity.

That’s true for committing too: most people need to stick with one medium and develop their craft there. Procrastination can manifest itself in distraction, which can also feel as seductive as a compulsion; in an interview in Inside the Artist’s Studio, Chuck Close says:

I mean, I know so many artists for whom having the perfect space is somehow essential. They spend years designing, building, outfitting the perfect space, and then when it is just about time to get to work they’ll sell that place and build another one. It seems more often than not a way to keep from having to work. But I could paint anywhere. I made big paintings in the tiniest bedrooms, garages, you name it. You know, once I have my back to the room, I could be anywhere. I could care less.

Oscillating back and forth, between compulsion and structure, is part of the key in good creative work. The magic happens in the middle. Too much structure means obligation, uninspired, stagnant work; too much compulsion means inconsistent, unfocused, and potentially blocked creative work. It draws to mind a fable Oliver Burkeman writes about in Four Thousand Weeks:

The philosopher Costica Bradatan illustrates the point by means of a fable about an architect from Shiraz in Persia who designed the world’s most beautiful mosque: a breathtaking structure, dazzlingly original yet classically well proportioned, awe-inspiring in its grandeur yet wholly unpretentious. All those who saw the architectural plans wanted to buy them, or steal them; famous builders begged him to let them take on the job. But the architect locked himself in his study and stared at the plans for three days and nights—then burned them all. He might have been a genius, but he was also a perfectionist: the mosque of his imagination was perfect, and it agonized him to contemplate the compromises that would be involved in making it real. Even the greatest of builders would inevitably fail to reproduce his plans absolutely faithfully; nor would he be able to protect his creation from the ravages of time—from the physical decay or marauding armies that would eventually reduce it to dust. Stepping into the world of finitude, by actually building the mosque, would mean confronting all that he couldn’t do. Better to cherish an ideal fantasy than to resign himself to reality, with all its limitations and unpredictability.

There’s a time and place to obsess over details, and a time and place to let go; to not let the obsession literally destroy the work in the first place. The key is knowing—feeling!—when to do what.

See also part 1 and part 2.

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