July 14th, 2016

Don’t think about breathing

By Carl Gustafson
rising steam

Photo credit: Unsplash, Zugr

I haven’t written much lately. Even though it takes more than two hands to count the number of times I have sat down with an idea for a blog or article in the last year, and written a couple sentences, none of those ideas have hatched into anything coherent enough to be worth sharing. But I’ve been trying! Really hard. Writing stories on topics I've been reading about or opinions that have precipitated in my mind is quite cathartic. Evidently I am also pretentious enough to think that someone else might care that I have an opinion. But, lately when I've tried to collect my insoluble thought products and extract them into words it all seems to lose inspiration and fall dead on the floor like an old balloon from last week’s birthday picnic. How uninspiring. How not to liven up the party.

What a ridiculous impasse. It’s easy to blame the mental block on grad school – working 60+ hours a week on a project that can be frustratingly filled with unknowable variables seems to be a drain on the creative batteries. Besides, putting together formal papers on my research has taken some of the joy out of sitting down with a blank word doc and creating something fun to write and (hopefully) interesting to read. But nobody likes excuses and I shouldn’t let work get in the way of doing things that I love. Not only is creative / informal writing something that I really enjoy (creative / informal writing meaning blogging about science, health, and education), but for me it has been a crucial part of progressing as a scientist. My job requires me to find creative solutions to problems, and creativity is a muscle. The more I exercise it, and the more I exercise it in new ways, the stronger it will become. If all I did at the gym was the stationary bike and nothing else, at some point I would reach a plateau where the stationary bike can’t help me much anymore. It’s better to mix up the workout and keep my muscles on their toes, so to speak (am I mixing too many metaphors?).

Photo credit: David Marcu

Photo credit: David Marcu

Anyways, I was spelunking through some of the cavernous vaults of the internet and came across a couple pieces of advice that encouraged me to stop trying so stupidly hard. One was by The Oatmeal, and due to its nefarious (and hilarious) content I won’t link it to our squeaky clean Diversity in Education blog (but if you Google search “the oatmeal creativity” you might be on the right track). As the only breakfast cereal that isn’t bad for you puts it, creativity is like breathing – “when you make stuff, you’re exhaling. But you can’t exhale forever. Eventually, you’ll have to breathe in. Or you’ll be dead.” How uplifting, right? It is, though. Don’t be a dead balloon that just slowly leaks out someone’s old breath. If all I do is try super hard to squeeze out stories and blogs because I think that I have to, I’ll end up gasping for breath with no creativity left within to fill the empty shells of ideas that build up inside me. What a way to barely not die. So, the second source of wisdom came from the wonderful people at FiveThirtyEight. Christie Aschwanden wrote about her conversation with cognitive modeling researcher Kenneth Stanley, and his advice on creating something (which was, essentially, “stop trying”). Stanley had written an AI program that would create random images, then produce iterations or “children” of those images based on selections by human users. Sure, you might expect this to only result in the production of random blobs shaped like nothingness, but users guided the program to create beautiful images of planets and racecars and butterflies. All from random figures that an AI produced. An artist couldn’t start the process thinking “today, I will draw a butterfly!” The program forced them to simply follow their intuition – the only thing guiding the evolution of the image was their projection of what any given set of assorted colors, shades, and lines might be. This forced users to stop trying to create, and simply let creativity be. How nauseatingly meta (yet superbly intelligent).

Photo credit: Alice Achterhof

Photo credit: Alice Achterhof

Naturally, these things got me thinking about how to write, and how I seem to have lost some innate capacity to build stories. Have you ever sat down and thought about breathing? It’s really weird. If you think about it, you can control it. In, out. In, out…But now it’s annoying. It's suddenly awkward and full of effort. You have to lift your shoulders a bit, pull air in, push it out. Don’t push out too much. Don’t pull in too little. But all this time you were sitting here reading and breathing, not thinking about how you were doing either, and I just ruined it for you. You weren’t controlling it at all. You were letting yourself do the breathing because your body knows that it’s just better when you don’t think about it or try hard to do it. Which is exactly like creativity – don’t try hard to do it. If you do, you’ll ruin what it was supposed to be. Just let yourself write, paint, play dodgeball, sample mustards, record music – whatever it is, you’ll be better at it when it’s less about producing some specific thing, and more about letting out the stuff that builds up inside and needs to be expressed.

So, no, this doesn’t mean I’ll be back at it again, writing blogs right and left about good food, cool grad students, or why you should stop sitting around reading my blogs. Because if I promised you that, then I would have to try hard to keep my promise, and that would negate everything I just learned. Alternatively, what I can promise is that I’ll just let myself enjoy it, and so should you.

Have comments or questions? Leave me a message below!

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