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Field Study

An Unedited view of design and thought process:

work, experimental and otherwise by Keenan Cummings

Leaps & Steps

Not sure I have mental capacity to write tonight. Been feeling short on mental capacity all day. It is, as we say, one of those days. Like a metronome I find myself regularly revisiting creative fatigue, mental exhaustion, psychological dead-endery. And these rhythms are mismatched — in fact, almost the inverse of — my physical rhythms. The bursts of energy and insight come late, early, when I am far away from a desk, a pen, or a convenient place to write, record, and act. And when I finally get all set up and ready to receive a wave of inspiration, my pulse slows, my chair cradles me, my sweater warms my body and dulls my wits, and I drift away from productivity. It’s not quite that predictable, but there is always the battle between churn (grinding through painful inefficiency) and flow (feasting from an endless wellspring of inspiration while hours melt away). 

Creative work is personal. You can’t get away from that. To do better work, you have to put more of yourself into it. It is a simple law of creative conservation. You put something in, and it takes something out of you. The best work, the stuff that takes real time, is exhausting. You move along slowly. Small steps. Little decisions. Maybe 10 or 15 solid decisions today. Maybe another 10 or 15 tomorrow. A long project can literally mean 10,000 decisions before it’s done. It’s an almost imperceptible shuffling of your feet. There is no wind in your hair while the world flies by. You inch-worm your way across 1000 yards of grass, dealing with each sharp-edged blade as it comes.

In The Shape of Design , Frank Chimero references the idea of the ‘adjacent possible’. Our goal is to create truly novel things. It’s a blurry destination, and we feel our way by navigating slowly, always just one step beyond the edge of what we know. Enough movements toward these adjacent possibilities takes us far into distant unknowns.

The distance traversed between the point of origin and the next step is hardly impressive on its own. Being so close to the process, we don’t get a chance to appreciate the summation or all of these small efforts. But when we look at those around us, those that we only check in on occasionally (probably when there is news to be heard and progress to be seen) we don’t see steps. We see heroic leaps. All those fits and starts blend together into fluid and fluent motion. It’s a false grace, like the poise of a ballerina that has learned to hide and master the micro muscle movements and twitches that hold the motion together.

We can appreciate our own work more when we step back and see the our efforts trending upward toward some greater thing. We appreciate others as equally burdened, struggling creatives when we dig into their work and find or imagine the individual steps, the pain, fatigue and mental blocks that slowed but failed to stop their progress. No good work, no leaps, no states of flow, no bursts of inspiration happen without the inefficient ebbs that weigh us down. Exhaustion and energy, churn and flow, steps and leaps. It is all one mixed and continuous stream. It all moves together. It all moves forward.

* Feeling some ebb in my flow today I solicited advice from twitter on how to overcome lacking confidence. A lot of great responses are viewable here. I decided to just make something with no real purpose or planning. The illustrations throughout this article are just that. Hope you enjoy!

  1. crackingedu reblogged this from keenancummings
  2. kevinwoodland said: Great writing. Just what I needed to hear today.
  3. keenancummings posted this
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