This is not a post about inebriates so awash with self-abusing substances that they have lapsed into a coma. It’s about that part of your brain that does the work of creating, innovating and surprising even yourself, when you are not thinking about your art at all.
We’ve all seen artists that just do. They don’t seem to think about what they’re doing or hesitate. The work just flows from their hands and minds, emerging fully formed and spectacular on the first draft. It all looks so effortless. It is effortless. They are not trying hard in the sense of angsting about what they are doing. They are just creating, like breathing.
I think the sub-conscious mind is at work here. It is my belief that you can only achieve this impression of effortless flow when you have practiced your art for a long time and internalized all of the critical creative questions and decisions, your aesthetic approach, your taste and your judgement, so that they become automatic. You need to think it all through, piece by piece, during your long hours of rehearsal, development, practice and study, but having done so, they are accumulated by your unconscious mind, which is free to act independently of your conscious self.
I know of many songwriters that always seem to produce a soaring melody and a catchy hook, overlaid with lush harmonies and interesting, surprising chords, every time they write a song. I know artists whose every brush stroke is the perfect stroke, of the right colour and tonal value, with exactly the correct gesture to render their subject with delicacy and delight. These people only became this good by starting out bad and working toward good. Whistler famously won a court case brought against him alleging the prices he charged for his portraiture were excessive, on the grounds that the sitter was not paying for the canvas and paint, nor the time it took Whistler to paint the portrait, but for the lifetime of learning and experience Whistler had to accumulate before he was able to paint a portrait in such a short time.
Often, we need to sleep on a creative project before the work or the solution emerges. This is often true for writers. They have a germ of an idea, but cannot commit it to paper immediately. When they sleep on it, it gives their unconscious mind the time and uninterrupted freedom to work the problem out in full, without them having to consciously think about it. Invariably, the work flows out in the morning, fully formed and better than anybody had imagined it could ever be. John Cleese tells audiences that this is his process for writing comedy, in his corporate speaking engagements. I think he’s right.
It’s a lovely feeling when your art flows out of you without apparent thought or effort. It’s very satisfying and mystifying. There is, of course, a lot going on in your brain while you create, you just aren’t aware of it. Your creativity has become so enmeshed with the fabric of your person that being artistic has become autonomic. It’s almost instinctual. When you can create that effortlessly, your art becomes remunerative and you reach a higher standard of quality of output.
Becoming an unconscious artist is a goal we should all aspire to, in my opinion.