Fueling and deprivation

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how I like to work – my creative process for want of a less pretentious phrase. In considering a piece of solo work that I might undertake, and reflecting on the kick I get from working with my team and other colleagues, a recent conversation with Tim Fawns has really stuck with me. He mentioned a concept he’s been thinking of which he calls “fueling”; priming yourself with the stuff you need (reading a paper, a conversation, whatever) in order to do what you need to do (in the case of the conversation we had it was designing courses and teaching them). I think his point was that whilst it’s not Professional Development (note capitals) it is an important part of both the labour and ideation process and needs to be factored into the model for designing and teaching courses.

I found “fueling” a really useful and attractive metaphor for thinking about how I prime myself for the kind of work I do, and it’s been roiling round my brain ever since. I’ve always known that my best thinking and ideas don’t come from thin air or direct from the moon.

Creativity requires fuel and some work to push myself out of my comfort zone. I also know I need to keep things pretty loose. Too narrow a focus, too much time spent on one thing and I get locked in and stuck in fixed patterns of thinking.

What does my own fueling look like then (for all the forms of work I do)? It’s a combination of things I think:

Immersion –  books, papers, blogs, websites, conversations, podcasts etc. on topics and subjects that are directly relevant to what I’m working on. I will gorge and feast on this.

Juxtaposition – deliberately seeking out contrast or alternative points of view; making space for fiction along with fact; whimsy alongside well structured argument. It’s in this friction space that some of my best ideas can occur.

Serendipity – making the space and time in life for art, people, reading for pleasure, cinema. I never know where it might take my thinking; what ideas or images might float into view. Allowing myself what might seem like indulgence and luxury, trusting that sometimes it will turn out to be so much more.

Self-care – making the space and time for cooking and eating good food, walking, swimming, crafting, gardening. Even just a short noodle around the garden or a good stare at the horizon is calming balm for soul and mind. I’m in this for the long haul. Self-care is not self-indulgence as Audre Lorde reminds us.

I’m also an insomniac.

I’ve always been grateful for the ability to function on a relatively small amount of sleep. It made it possible to party and work when I was young, and it made it possible to work and study across 2 degrees. Over the last 12 months of living alone I’ve had time to inspect my sleeplessness up close, and I’ve come to realise with greater clarity what a double edged sword it is when it comes to work.

When I am on a bad run of sleep I am utterly desolate. I crave sleep that I know won’t come. I am itchy, restless, too hot, too cold, walking, pacing, dry-eyed, scratchy, hungry without appetite.

When I am on a bad run of sleep in the dead of night when I’ve accepted that sleep is not coming, I am peaceful, calm, electric with low level energy. I can think until the end of time.

Last year Marina Benjamin published the most beautiful, rich, jewel of a book about her own insomnia and it captures so beautifully the madness and gift that sleeplessness offers to creative work:

“Problem #1: Insomnia makes an island of you. It is, bottom line, a condition of profound loneliness. And not even a dignified loneliness, because in insomnia you are cannibalised by your own gnawing thoughts.

Problem #2: On balance, I would rather be an island than have to endure some landlocked state of being, lacking in boundaries and natural definition. I would rather be a landmass unto myself, a sanctuary. And once I get there, please don’t go messing up my solitude.” (Insomnia, Marina Benjamin)

So paradoxically part of my fueling, priming myself for work, is also deprivation. Lack of sleep, and that late night / early morning alone time that comes from it, when there is nothing but my exhaustion and my thoughts is key also to creativity. I welcome that liminal space where I am alone with the universe in my head.

“The matter of what to do with an overactive brain determined to forge ideas and connections in conditions of sensory blackout troubles me.” (Insomnia, Marina Benjamin)

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