This past year I made a huge leap forward in my creative practice by realizing that I’m naturally improvisational. I do best, and I’m happiest, when I work off a loose theme or structure and discover the details as I go.
Goodbye, over-plotting. Goodbye, obsessive planning. This year I said “hello” to adventure and to the unknown.
I wouldn’t trade that mindset shift for anything.
Along with this new, more intuitive way of working, I’ve begun exploring improvisational art styles like improv quilting. Sherri Lynn Wood‘s fantastic book The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters has become something of a devotional resource for my whole creative practice. Even for my writing and painting.
Above all things, Wood encourages her readers to cultivate what she calls “the beginner’s mind.” She defines this as “the practice of having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.” Cultivating beginner’s mind, she suggests, is perhaps the single most important discipline of the improvisational creative life.
I’ve come to realize how very true this is, in my own practice at least.
As I’ve delved deeper into this world of discovery, exploration, and beautiful mistakes, I’ve noticed with Sherri Lynn Wood that what makes improv so fantastic is not that it throws off the so-called “rules” of the art world.
What makes improvisational creativity so special is that it forces us to remain perpetually open to what might come next.
Experts and masters, after all, know how to do things.
Beginners do not.
No one expects mastery from the beginning practitioner of any art. He or she must experiment in order to find his or her way forward. He must try things, many of which he may never use again. She must weigh advice given by older practitioners and establish her own style.
Mistakes are fun for the beginner. So is the joy of discovery when “happy” mistakes that work out better than expected.
For the expert, mistakes are never a positive part of the process, because expertise by its very nature demands a kind of perfection (or at very least, predictability of performance).
The opinion of the outside world matters very much to an expert, who by definition requires the veneration of others in order to maintain that status. The expert’s cousin, the master, likewise has developed a very specific set of answers to the questions posed by her art form. How could she have achieved mastery any other way?
In both cases, little is left for either master or expert to discover; every detail of their artistic endeavor—from the ideation, to the production, to the probable reaction of the audience is predictable with a high degree of certainty through years of experience.
But therein lies the fatal flaw of cultivating expertise: we cut ourselves off from the beauty of imperfection and the genius that comes with not knowing.
Expertise and mastery do not allow us (as much opportunity) to be surprised. To change our minds. To change our approach or start over again.
The beginner, on the other hand, always has those options.
This is not, of course, to say that high degrees of competency are bad. But when competency becomes a standard by which we judge our creative practice, we have put our happiness and the future of our work in the hands of an arbitrary judge: the rest of the world.
We chase expertise instead of chasing curiosity. As a result, we find ourselves frustrated and bored, wondering where to find the magic that seems to be missing from our work.
Yet as creatives, it is so easy for us to chase mastery or expertise as primary goals. I certainly did in my early years as a writer. But the more I learned the art form, the more my art stagnated, and the more afraid I became to try anything new for fear it would run under, over, or around the boundaries set up by my so-called expertise.
Eventually I found myself locked in a world where I could only teach my art form, not really practice it, because the practice of art for me had become the practice of following codified rules rather than following my curiosity.
As Sherri Lynn Wood so wisely points out, Beginner’s Mind breaks all of this. The perpetual beginner can embrace any technique he or she wants to.
He does not have to worry about disappointing his audience, because his first audience is himself—and he always shows up to the performance. She does not have to worry that a certain stylistic choice will remove her from consideration with an agent or editor, because each choice is simply that: a choice. She can change again tomorrow if she likes. And she most likely will.
Only by cultivating Beginner’s Mind all over again, and learning to sustain it, was I finally able to make the breakthroughs I needed so badly to move forward in my work.
Becoming an expert killed my creativity. Returning to my roots as a beginner helped me resurrect the dead, so to speak, and experience a new artistic life on the other side.
So what are the practices of Beginner’s Mind, you ask? And how do you know if you are work as a Beginner, rather than an expert? Sherri Lynn Wood shares a fantastic list on page 92 of her book. Here’s a quick sample to whet your appetite.
In their artistic practice, beginners tend to:
- Focus on questions, not answers.
- Do the exercise simply to see what their experience is.
- Take one step at a time without worrying about the destination.
- Keep an open mind about how they apply their experience and native wisdom in each new circumstance.
- Develop a sense of awe, wonder and excitement.
- Shout “Whoopee!” and celebrate mistakes as an important and exciting part of the journey.
- Let go of being an expert.
Did you catch that last one? It’s worth repeating every hour of every day for the rest of our creative lives.
Let go of being an expert.
Because the death of expertise is always the beginning of true creativity.
The world doesn’t need one more expert in anything. Really. Honestly. (Pinky promise!) But it sure as heck does need your creativity.
As we go into 2016, I hope you’ll join me in cultivating Beginner’s Mind at your writing table, painting easel, sewing machine, or wherever your practice takes place.
Who knows what you’ll discover! At the very least, you’ll learn something about yourself and your process: pieces of “native wisdom” that you can apply in new and creative ways in your next project.
Along the way, you just might find that distinct style, voice and message that you’ve been looking for, and that your readers/customers/fans have been craving all along.
Because these things won’t be found by mastering anything. They will only be found by plunging deeper into what you don’t know.
Kill your expertise, and watch your creativity flourish.
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PS: No matter what your creative practice, I highly recommend Sherri Lynn Wood’s book on improv quilting. You can apply the exercises to any creative discipline—and I dare you to see for yourself whether they don’t change your practice forever, whether or not it involves cloth!