Understanding Your Creative Environment – Part 1 (a)

When we speak of understanding our ‘creative environment’, how is it that we might begin to see such a concept colligate? For most of us, what initially comes to mind is most likely the artist’s studio, the laboratory, the office, or in my own case – the bedroom studio. However, my intention is to expand the conversation of the creative environment beyond,  but without negating, the purely physical environment. The ‘creative environment’ is and should be different for everyone and yet, I feel, there are some understandings that when applied should allow most anyone attempting to be creative to improve upon their present situation. Let me just say that at this point the conversation is a very pragmatic one and concerned with the practical, productive aspects of the ‘creative environment’ more so than some of the deeper philosophical issues I hope to address in future posts.

As the notion of creative environment is quite broad in its explicative potential, we will be breaking Understanding Your Creative Environment into a mini series. However, it is likely that each post inform and have some cross over with the others in the series.

This first section is in relation to the physical creative environment and will be broken up into two installments, each considering distinct yet related elements: this first is with regard to workflow, the second – sensory input.

Physical Creative Environment

When I think of my own creative environment (I invite you to substitute mine for your own) what initially comes to mind is my studio. My studio consists of some monitors, a laptop, some microphones, some production hardware etc., and unfortunately, my bed, my clothes and so on. Admittedly, not the most creatively conducive environment, considering its multifunctional attributes, nevertheless, how is it possible to best organize and optimize this space, and the workflow that centers around it, to assist me in being as creative as I possibly can?

We will ascribe this creative physical environment the operational definition of “workspace”. Of course, any qualification of the optimal workspace can never be truly homogenized or considered applicable across all the folk all the time. Indeed, we all have very different tastes and preferences and our workspaces are going to be as varied and idiosyncratic as we are. Consider the case of the German poet Freidrich Von Schiller for example, who filled the drawers in his study with rotten apples which he would sniff from time to time for inspiration. Obviously not a method the majority of us would wish to employ (although it might be worth a sniff) and a rather extreme example, but it does accentuate the point.

Workspace Workflow

And so, what are some important factors when one is considering their workspace and its relationship with a concatenated workflow?

To illuminate my understanding of workflow I will walk you, step by step, through my own optimal workflow and any considerations I have with regard to its successes.

Next to my bed I keep an iPod touch. Over the years I have had everything from notebooks hanging from the roof, to chalkboards on my wall and dictaphones under my pillow. However, since the advent of and my resulting purchase of both the iPod touch and the smart phone, these older technologies have found themselves somewhat less employable. Lets just say their CV’s leave a little to be desired. The vast majority of us are aware of how creative we appear to be once we are conscious in the REM state. My reasons for having the iPod (or indeed a notebook or dictaphone in the past) is to capitalize on this seeming abundant source of creativity. Quite often words or imagery derived from our dreams provide insights that  form the basis of new ideas, offer solutions to problems that have been incubating or stir us up some way emotionally that we might not ever experience in waking life e.g. Last night I had a dream that I was coming in to land on an air strip, when suddenly the back of the plane started to tilt forward, we landed nose first and I died, only to wake. The point is, in those few moments my fear was genuine and in the moments succeeding my relief was absolutely genuine. Being able to capture such extreme affective circumstances with a phrase or leverage them creatively may have some interesting results, and potentially some therapeutic ones as well :-)

In addition to the numerous times we cycle through a state of REM each night we also experience some other conscious states whilst lying in bed that may assist us creatively. Just prior to falling asleep we pass through a state known as the hypnogogic state, as we awaken, we transition through a similar state known as the hypnopompic state.  Each of these conscious states is rife with creative potential. The objective is for the physical environment to reflect, enable and assist the creative opportunities that often present themselves by making any insight or idea easily and quickly captured for later reference and review. Having a notebook and pen, an iPod/Pad or Dictaphone just next to your bed will allow you to easily record for later consideration any ideas that may arises while you lay in bed. Additionally, being consciously aware of the environment you have created for yourself may help to promote insights, and ignite your motivation to record them.

Another opportunity exists just succeeding the hypnopompic state. Subsequent to waking, the mind appears to be more readily able to draw upon what normally remain as more compartmentalized ideas or frames of reference, the interaction of which is often very creative and fruitful. For a number of years at this time, on and off, I have engaged in a practice, as do many ‘creative people’, know as morning pages. The idea behind the practice of morning pages is to write stream of conscious drivel from your mind onto a couple of pages in an effort to “open the creative passages in your mind”. Fruity as it sounds, I must admit, I did, somewhat ironically, find this practice rather fruitful. What it appears to do, at least in my experience, is to entrust you with the permission to write drivel, and consequently fight off any procrastination that is the result of a fear of failure, resulting in less resistance when faced with the blank page. However, I have modified this practice a little for myself, having taking into consideration the conscious state when this would normally be practiced. Rather than engaging in the morning pages and writing drivel in a time that is potentially very fertile to genuine insight, I now, first thing upon waking, make a beat on my iPod using an application called iMaschine. This application allows me to sketch, very quickly, a beat, a melody, a bass line, record a vocal line, add some effects and do some basic mixing. Having the iPod beside my bed allows me to quickly draft any ideas that are generated in this semi-conscious state that exists just upon waking. This has turned out to be an incredibly effective enterprise. In the course of a month you may have generated thirty ideas, each potentially the foundations of a complete creative work. What I like about this is that the ideas you generate in this state are often really imaginative, each one tending to be very different from those preceding. You are not approaching it in the same way you would if it were later in the day, when you already have ideas about what you “should” be creating and/or are acting from your more habituated patterns. There is a sense of genuine autonomy, in that you are less likely to be conscious of the social constraints, constructs and influences in which you are normally creating and the sub-conscious patterns of thinking that get you through the day have not yet being fully actualized, quite often this allows for the communication of normally disparate ideas. Your thinking whilst in this state is much more divergent and spontaneous. Of course if you are a writer, a poet, a designer, an architect, a philosopher, an artist, a scientist etc you may also recognize the value of this. The only thing different being your tool, or as GTD guru David Allen refers to it, your “capture tool”. Depending on your own taste and your particular creative endeavors, you might be using a notebook and pen, an iPad or iPod, your phone, a dictphone, your laptop and so on. There are also many apps available to help streamline and organize this capture process and the ideas you amass. However, it is worth noting that although this is a very creative state, it is not any substitute for daily practice. For instance, I would not be able to make anything even remotely interesting (maybe I don’t regardless) if I had not spent some years practicing and working on my craft (understanding composition, songwriting and musical theory). I can attest that the quality of my ‘morning pages’ have always being indicative of my conscious efforts and the practice I put in, and have always been, important as they might be, only ever the initiations of any work.

To return to the actual ‘morning pages’ for a moment. I do think these are a useful tool, only I think they may be employed at any time during the day (say just before writing) and for the most part are not as crucial as the process just outlined. I will do a post at some time in the future that focuses directly on morning pages and the psychology that they entail.

To capture ideas such as notes, voice memos, picture ideas, website or blog posts I use both Evernote and Somnote. Both are cross platform apps that allow you to sync information across your devices. Again, I have my phone next to my bed and with me all day. Any ideas that come to mind are usually saved via text with organised folders in Somnote and I can easily store any inspirational images, voice recordings or relevant web-based info to Evernote.  At your convenience, it is then possible to review and catalog anything that is worth saving. It is worth mentioning that both applications are cloud storage and negate the possibility of loosing ideas even if you loose your phone or computer (loose a couple of notebooks and you will recognise the value of this). As a more general to-do manager I use an app called AnyDo, which comes with a great little widget for android users. As well as this technology I employ the use of something a little more old fashioned. I always carry a Moleskine notebook. Sometimes having the notebook allows me to jot down ideas quick if they are in my head and need a little bit of massaging to get out. I find the tactile notebook and a pen to be better tools for this than typing on my phone. It also allows me to sometimes sketch ideas as images and manipulate them more freely than would any app I am presently aware of.

Combining my iPod, my phone and my notebook, I have an easily portable workstation. I will often play some of my early morning beats in my headphones or in the car during the day and make alterations or add new vocals etc. And again, any other ideas I have during the day can be quickly captured and organized with the apps for later review. Consciously making these efforts also directs your attention in a particular manner, what psychologists term the Tetris Effect, and can overlay your perceptions with a kind of residual intention and unconsciously manipulate them toward ends that may be very useful to you creatively.

When working in the studio anything I have made earlier on the iPod is easily transferable to my laptop for more detailed work. That is not to say all my ideas come purely from my iPod, but that if necessary there is a seamless transition from one to the other, hardly disrupting the workflow at all. Again, if I am in the process of working on something and need to get out of the studio or go somewhere for a few days, I can bring everything back to my mobile devices and continue to adjust and augment even when away from my workspace. This I believe is important, (as I will go into in more detail in a future post) as very often insightful ideas come to us when our mind is not focused directly and analytically on a task, but rather is dipping in and out, allowing the task in mind to interact with other possibly informative ideas that stream through your consciousness. Also, getting out of your immediate workspace often takes a certain amount of pressure and expectation of your task and allows you to approach it from differing points of view. It is good also to have some easily accessible place or places in mind that allow you to do this effortlessly i.e. downloading your work onto your iPod etc. and putting it on while you make your dinner, take a walk or go for a drive. This allows for a change in atmosphere and sensory input and can lead to minor, or quite possibly major breakthrough or moments of satori, as the Japanese would say. It should make for good practice and experimentation to work with some of these ideas and figure out for yourself what would best suit your own workflow.

Once a week I’ll do a review, an idea often promoted by David Allen and very worth taking heed of. Taking all the notes, ideas, memos etc. I have collected during the week, and some I have possibly began developing, I will dump the ones I don’t feel are up to scratch and organize those I do. I do this with both Somenote, Evernote and iTunes, and those I have begun developing further will be either stored in the programs being used to work on them, either Ableton Live or Maschine or continue being worked out in my notebook. I can easily sync any tracks from my iPod into iTunes and organize them into distinct playlists or folders (I also do a club and radio show and use the same techniques, both Evernote and my iPod to collect and review tracks and notes, and then organize playlists with iTunes). I will do a complete breakdown of this in a future post, as it tends to streamline your workflow and allows you to be creative straight away without loosing any spark trudging through endless bits and pieces in various places across your “capture tools”.

Another important thing to remember about workflow is to try and get  projects finished. Initially when we engage in a creative project our mind is (hopefully) working from a state of thinking that is more divergent (broad, open ended) however, as we move through a project we move progressively towards a more convergent (decisive, single minded) thinking style. This is a completely different set of cognitions, yet every bit as relevant to creative production (the stage of the process the more naturally creative tend to struggle with) and needs to be understood and practiced.

If you have not already it is worth while spending some time to realise precisely what is necessary for you to do in relation to finalising your works. i.e. Is there any further stages that your work must go through before being presented to the public? What are the best ways to present and promote it? Etc. These of course will be different for everyone, but having a clear understanding of these processes – the who, what, where and how they will get done will take some of the stress off this stage of the process and assist you in being more productive and creative overall allowing you to focus on the important parts.

To summarise, lets review quickly our thoughts about workflow:

  1. Have your capture tools available at all times, while in bed, in the car, when out walking etc.
  2. Become conscious of and utilize naturally creative states (e.g. just upon walking) and have these opportunities reflected in your environments ability to record and capture any ideas.
  3. Utilise available productivity and domain specific apps such as iMaschine and Evernote etc.
  4. Have other spaces that you can easily access aside from your workspace to allow for the transition between different states of mind and atmospheres and possibly help inspire new and fresh insights (more on this next post).
  5. Do weekly reviews to stop things getting out of hand. If you are gathering ideas all the time they will quickly build up and get messy without some intervention.
  6. Finish projects as often as possible.
  7. Know what is necessary to get your work from ‘the studio to the gallery’ and have these channels and processes set up and easily activated (e.g. having a Dropbox account set up and ready if your sending off large music files to have mastered).

The next post is in relation to physical environment and is part b of this first part of the mini series ?-/ It is to be entitled Sensory Input. . . .

I ask you to engage critically yet respectably with all the content on this site and hope that you, having distilled and augmented your thoughts just to your liking, by way of leaving a comment, will add to, or indeed, somehow subtract from the conversation. . . .

Here is a link to a blog post on why creatives should consider David Allen’s GTD system.

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  1. Jaia

    Wow, this is an awesome article! It is super helpful and well-written! Thank you so much!

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