Keeping Up With The Synapses: Being In A Creative Flow

“Penny for your thoughts?” That’s what my better half suggested the other day. Took ages before it registered. I was deep in thought. I was thinking about…well, I was going to put pen to paper and share with you the block that I get from time to time, but that is strangely difficult when I am currently experiencing a creative drive.

I am inspired at this moment in time–have been for a while. I’m reading a lot, looking, seeing, observing, writing–obviously–(my journal gets filled up with so much garbage sometimes), drawing and painting most days.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like not to be creative…”

I can’t imagine what it’s like not to be creative–to not be able to realize my creative urges. Deep down I believe everyone has a creative spark. But you could be a virtuoso on the piano and live your whole life not knowing it because you reside in a jungle.

Those who are truly lucky enough to know and then realize their vocation..are lucky enough.

People who confess that they can’t even draw a stickman, hmm, maybe they can’t, but they are the ones who are imaginative and quick, say, verbally. I wish I possessed a razor-sharp wit.

So now I want to talk about the cerebral activity that accompanies all of…this, and by “this” I mean me entering a productive phase. Oh I know, I sound like a planet in orbit. But seriously, I go starry-eyed when the creative juices are flowing. I want to tell the world and I can’t type quick enough.

“But am I really sorry?”

Flow by Suzanne Southerton

Do you know what I’m talking about?  I think there are a couple of stages to this. Stage 1, it feels as though the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place. My ideas bounce around all over the shop. Solutions present themselves to scenarios I didn’t even realize I’d been subconsciously thinking about. I go to bed thinking about a concept and wake up with the answer–sometimes in the pitch black. Switching the light on to record my thoughts? Awkward! Getting back to sleep? Even more difficult. I love it!

Take the poll–What time of day do you do your best work?

Next day, I get odd looks from my husband because I’m gazing into space instead of focusing on the conversation, or the news, and didn’t hear a word. How rude! “What’s that love? We’re still a United Kingdom you say? That’s great! Sorry, my head is full of color combos this morning” (I do not ignore world news routinely or out of habit by the way). But am I really sorry? Ha ha…no.

“We both know, Art & I.”

Stage 1 is about the ideas that sprout up out of nowhere and spill out, as opposed to the days of actual painting itself, that’s Stage 2–the execution. Over the years I have learnt to recognize this pattern and also come to expect the regular cycle of energy and creativity with excitement and trepidation. Some people might be naturally gifted with permanent light bulb moments and get straight to it. But mine are like the tides that ebb and flow. I like to record and develop my ideas, it’s part of the progression.

Stage 1 is intense, like the unexpected lightning bolt that hits your torso from chemistry following eye contact. We both know, Art & I.

But if I’m honest I never know in advance what I’m going to come up with this time or next time round or how it will affect me on a deeper level.

Right now it’s in full swing. During a typical year I tend to experience at least half a dozen periods of hot, frenetic activity in the studio, where I can churn out paintings, and I will have several projects on the go, followed by very sedate and calm turns where I don’t go near the easel unless I’m doing a commission. They can both last for weeks at a time. It’s like, I have to make the most of what’s happening internally (and it feels urgent) because at some point in this game I know I’ll need to stop and give my brain a chance to recuperate–this is what flicks my switch!

But not being productive doesn’t mean I’m unproductive–and it’s not the same thing as a “block”. I generally always have something on the go, I’m just…slower. If I’m gonna’ get a block it will be the wintertime–just before Christmas–when I’m deprived of sunlight. It all gets a bit gloomier then and funny old thing, just after Christmas too, in January, I seem to be waiting for something to happen, as if I’ve been derailed, and suddenly, “pop”,  I’m back on track. But that’s another story.

“I would benefit from having something to connect with optically, other than my trusty, lonely laptop.”

I had a eureka moment recently, whilst talking with my neighbor. We were discussing the importance of visual stimuli in remembering things; basically the fact that pictures help you to remember a lot more than mere words alone. She has a 4 year old who has just started primary school.

Anyway, I suddenly realized mid conversation that all my reference material is in my art studio but I have nothing in the house next to my desk. So, come evenings when I’m reading, writing or drawing for hours at a time, pushing information around, I would benefit from having something to connect with optically, other than my trusty, lonely laptop.

That required a bit of shifting. Quite literally! That same afternoon I decided to move the large bookcase from the dining room into the lounge next to my bureau–which meant I had all my art books to hand–which meant I picked up Egon Schiele and started looking at his incredible and inspiring lean, line-drawings–which turned into me spending a few very pleasant, and in my humble view, quality hours doing line drawings of the dogs; very angular they were too – win win!

“Getting up early and going to bed so late it’s early again…”

I have come to realize that unless, or until, I physically run out of steam, the more I do the more I want to do. And that goes for the thinking about, writing on and actual practice of art.

I burn the candle at both ends on occasion, getting up early and going to bed so late it’s early again–a recipe for disaster if I’m not careful.

I remember reading that if you’re tired you can apparently be more creative because the brain doesn’t filter out distractions so well, which in turn can lead you to consider a broader range of possibilities. It’s true.

In short, if my poor head is too tired to focus properly on the task at hand it will opt for new ways of thinking. Hence if we have access to more alternatives then we also foster more cognitive insight. So…my late nights are good for me. Jackpot!

But I certainly do find it draining; I can feel tired during these days. Burnout sounds quite apt. Not happened to me…yet! Write! Draw! Experiment! Paint! Reflect! Evolve! And repeat! Not necessarily in that order either. Ever the student, I hanker to interpret stuff after I’ve done it. It’s like working backwards, but do I care?

“Occasionally, yes, it does flow rhythmically too.”

Lightning Undersea by Suzanne Southerton

Although I would not hesitate to say that my bonce (“head” for you non-Brits) is filled with ideas that come in fits and bursts, occasionally, yes, it does flow rhythmically too.

I have to seize these hemisphere moments, however they occur, and write them down, consistently. Putting pen to paper is essential rather than cannon fodder for those occasional times when I run out of ideas and it all seems to dry up. For me personally I can solidify my memories this way because otherwise I will lose ideas, whatever I’ve gained and however little I’ve gleaned.

The thing is that sometimes the ideas tumble out so bloody quick and I can’t keep up with them. My brain is on overdrive in a creative burst and I’m trying hard to keep up.

It really does feel like that– just don’t have enough hours in the day to do everything visually I’d like to do.  Also, if I don’t record my ideas somehow then they will fade and I’ll go cold on them.  But have I got time to stop every 5 minutes?  I suspect most artists are frustrated at some point,  if, say, you think “oh wow, that would look just fab as an etching or whatever, but no, mustn’t deviate, mustn’t get sidetracked–focus on what I’m doing right here,  right now!” And deep down you know you’ll never get round to doing it.  So I think to myself, “but that’s just the one idea,  I’ve got plenty more that are popping into my head as I paint,  and hell, I can’t even keep up with this canvas”.

I do think, however, what I can write down ultimately helps me make sense of my life–gives things more of a purpose.

Thank you for reading.

Suzy Southerton

  I was born in Aldershot, Hants, but grew up in Germany as my Dad was in the Army. Married with two children, I've moved around a lot with the family as my husband is also in the Armed Forces. Army life is sometimes demanding--but it also informs my work. Between living in Germany, Ireland and England I've realized a dream and completed a degree in Fine Art. Being an oil painter was all I ever wanted to do.

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you! This is the way it always is with me from as far back as I can remember. I have almost come to grips with high energy idea fits, high energy production fits, slack time between. What throws a monkey wrench into the works are the obligations which invariably rear their ugly heads in the middle of the high energy parts. so- the paint dries and the idea has to be stored where ideas get stored but most times they go somewhere else to someone else probably.

    • suzy southerton says:

      hello stephen,
      thank you for your comment. yes it’s the obligations that tear us away from the moment – like a good book that you can’t put down but you have to because the pesky family want to eat.

      oh to have enough money that we could afford someone to come in and tackle all our other chores for us, maybe one day… 🙂

  2. Exactly! Suzy, you have described my life exactly. All of what you say is what I live. Except the bookshelf. GOOD IDEA! Thank you! A delightful peek into the petri dish!

    • suzy southerton says:

      hello susan,
      oops, sorry for the delay in replying. thank you for the comment, it’s just great when someone feels the same way.
      the bookshelf was so obvious, when i sit at my bureau of an evening now, i look at my books first and browse through them (like a warm-up almost).
      and i’m picking up heavier tomes, carravagio for instance (last year’s christmas pressie) which i love to dip in and out of.
      why didn’t i do this ages ago?

  3. roopadudley says:

    Aah yes purpose! That eureka moment when one discovers order in seemingly what appears to most as chaos. Didn’t we have that discussion before Marcus?

    My best ideas come to me when I am in a book store (around Noon time with my children or my husband), having a cup of coffee and flicking the glossy pages of an Art Magazine. Last time I was in BAM (Books-A-Million last weekend) I was drooling over Alponse Mucha’s work and I could not keep up with a series of ideas that came barging in like a line backer through a balsa-wood door. I managed to capture two (lovely/strange) ideas. I quickly jotted those down on a piece of a semi crumbled napkin to capture my fleeting genius before it abandoned me forever. I usually copy those down in my Sketch book before I put them on the canvas.

    • suzy southerton says:

      ha ha roopa,
      i take my hat off to you.
      your comments did make me giggle. that’s probably what we all feel but very eloquently put.
      and fleeting moments of genius – they say many a true word is spoken in jest.
      my journal/sketch book contains all my ideas and is invaluable to me. i keep all of them, dating back to college days and before. but it’s easier said than done, taking your book with you wherever you go.
      ever had a brainstorm in the bath?

    • MTMcClanahan says:

      I think we did, among many other things, Roopa. I love books and magazines. I love the internet maybe for the same reason–looking for knowledge and that itch is never satisfied! And that’s why I enjoy all of you too–you really make me think!

  1. September 30, 2014

    […] This poll was inspired by Suzanne Southerton’s article Keeping Up With the Synapses–Being In A Creative Flow. […]

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