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box of matches

In Praise of Creative Indecisiveness

Posted 04/17/2014 by Stacey Cornelius

“He should pick something and stick with it.”

This said about an artist, not by a money-worried, security-seeking family member, but by someone in his creative community.

Those words never cease to amaze me. Or plunge an icy, serrated blade of terror into my heart.

As advice goes, it’s pretty awful.

If you’ve ever discovered that message about to exit your brain and become fully audible, I suggest you clamp your hand over your mouth immediately. Because you may have no idea who you’re talking to.

Not everyone strives for mastery in a single medium. Not everyone strives for mastery, period. Some people (and I may be in this group) will wither into pale imitations of their former creative selves when forced to do just one thing.

It doesn’t much matter if that “one thing” is complex. Multifaceted. Challenging. That’s not the point.

The point is our brains file “just one thing” into a box with limited oxygen. Once the air runs out, it’s time to move on to something else, which, depending on perspective, can feel like we’re fleeing for our very lives.

That, incidentally, does not mean we won’t return to that one thing at some point in the future. Or later that same day. Because that’s the way we roll.

By now you’re probably convinced I’m working toward a punch line. Or that I’m a complete flake.

Either that or you’re smiling and nodding your head in agreement.

Life coaches have a name for people like us. I’d share it, but labels make me break out in hives. Too confining.

The world of the “regular” work week is not a healthy environment for those of us who thrive on irregularity, seek out the surprising, revel in the undiscovered.

We don’t subscribe to the standard “art career” way of thinking, either. Devote a lifetime to one medium, or gradually evolve over a period of years, into another? That would never happen.

It’s something our culture admires. The dedication. The devotion. Staying power over the long haul. Like a marathon runner or high-altitude climber, the multitudes of obstacles are faced and defeated and the hero emerges victorious. Which, in my world, means pushing up daisies after missing a bunch of good stuff. But the thought occurs that other people might not see it that way.

Switch from one thing to another, sometimes in what appears to be mid-stream? Not okay. The result of a lack of character, perhaps. A lack of maturity, or an unwillingness to keep working when things get difficult.

Changing our creative minds isn’t something we’re supposed to do. At least, not until a recognized authority publishes a book, tucks the alleged flakes into safe, manageable categories, and…

Well.

I confess I’m playing with this a little. I have the deepest respect for people who find something they love and pour themselves into it. That kind of passion is evident in the work, right from the beginning.

I just can’t understand how their minds work — any more than they can understand mine.

But the tut-tut of disapproval is ridiculous, especially in an environment where imagination is thought to be celebrated. 

The frustration that comes with it only stops when you say to hell with it and start enjoying your varied interests. It stops when you stop worrying about what people think. Because you don’t actually know what anyone thinks unless they flat out tell you. Until then, you’re making it all up.

If someone does tell you to settle down and do just one thing? They might be worried for your future. They might truly disapprove, or they might simply be parroting advice given to them. In any case, it’s not your  problem. As long as the rent is paid and food’s on the table, carry on.

At least these are the things I tell myself when I begin to succumb to the pressure to settle down and behave. Then another idea pops up and I forget again.

I wonder if we’ll outgrow the “one thing” thing. As job security and even full-time work becomes increasingly scarce, “normal” may turn into something our parents won’t recognize (I’d make some thoughtful observation about the difficulties of financial planning under those circumstances, but for many who work in the culture sector and juggle multiple jobs, that’s very old news).

It’s comforting to think we might actually get the upper hand someday, that people might ask us how we manage to be so versatile. I could even put it on my resume: “Loves projects. Lots and lots of projects.”

(I might forget to mention I don’t necessarily play well with others on said projects, but that’s a topic for another time, and in the era of social everything and oversharing and a near obsession with community and collaboration, yet another taboo. That trend may swerve someday. I’ll consider myself ahead of the pack.)

Sometimes I regret the path that didn’t lead to mastery of, well, something. But I also wonder if there are similar twinges at the other end of the spectrum.

That said, twinges tend to fade when there’s meaningful work to be done.

Creative Commons image credit: Markus Grossalber