The Artist Inside the Academic
Don’t feed the critic, care for the artist
I have found myself attracted to what it means to be creative in the last few months. In an earlier post, I told you about what academics —and, I suspect, anybody else— can learn from YouTubers. Lately, I’ve been reading a few books on creativity (The Practice, Big Magic, and The Artist Way). I’ve found both comfort and encouragement in them. I don’t think “this is something they should teach in grad school” because, having finished grad school recently, I have zero intentions of making it longer. Let me tell you how making connections between the arts and academia has helped me.
Grad school involves learning a method to ensure rigor. During my training, I learned how to look for flaws in every article I read. This was actually part of my homework in some classes. I’m not trying to discredit this activity. I learned a great deal about how to ensure an experiment is methodologically sound, how to go beyond a simple description of results, and how to evaluate research. These are all important skills for a researcher. However, the inner-critic got so strong that it prevented me from writing at all. Every sentence I wrote, I would delete because it had innumerable mistakes. Grad school trained the critic in me, but they forgot about caring for the artist. By artist, I mean the creative part pushing us to look for new questions. The combination of strong critic and poorly maintained artist leads many of us to paralysis. Undoing the damage is taking me time and effort, but proving to be rewarding.
I’ll tell you a bit about The Artist Way. If you are allergic to feelings and spiritual matters, this book is not for you. Or rather, it is for you, but you won’t like it and probably won’t read it. I recommended it to my brother and he asked me if he should worry about me being abducted by a cult. The book references God often, but Julia Cameron (the author) explains that it can be substituted by anything bigger than you (the Universe, the Force). I consider myself atheist (maybe agnostic, I’m still not clear about it) and God didn’t bother me. The book’s main premise is getting you out of a creative block. It’s a 12-week program revolving around two main tasks: morning pages and artists’ dates. I’ll focus on the former today.
Morning pages are 3 pages of longhand writing first thing in the morning. Whatever comes out of your mind. I’ve been writing morning pages for a few months and it’s been helpful for different reasons. It has shown me that I can write around 500 words daily. Obviously, this quantity does not immediately translate to writing academic papers at that speed. It’s been significant to look back and see how much I’ve written in a few months (I’ve finished three notebooks already). Most of it is trash (e.g., “I don’t know what to write about today”, “I want to sleep more”). But every now and then, I get a good idea that would probably not have appeared had I not been writing crap. This is a common theme to everything I’ve read on creativity and productivity. Famous artists (or researchers) are often not qualitatively better than other creators. They are just more prolific (of both good and bad creations). So I’ve learned that if you keep doing enough bad things, some good will come out (Seth Godin often mentions it in The Practice).
These readings are helping me develop a sense of self-trust that I couldn’t find in grad school. Maybe it was there and I wasn’t ready to see it. I’ve discovered that creating space to think about what you want to research, to explore questions that motivate you, has become essential to me. In the last two months, I realized my future research plans were not mine, but those my Ph.D. advisor would have liked. I signed up for a Grant Bootcamp and I was getting ready to write an NSF grant to follow up on my dissertation. It was hard for me to sell the idea and towards the end of the bootcamp I realized why. The topic was interesting, but it wasn’t a burning question for me. I was molding my head to think the way my advisor thought and, obviously, it wasn’t working. I’m not sure what will come next. It will probably not be groundbreaking. But, at least, I’ll be able to explain with conviction why I find it important.