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The Movement Unblocks
Thoughts on the need for physical and mental movement in our creative practice and our lives.
Creative Fuel is a newsletter about the intersection of creativity and everyday life. If it’s your first time here: welcome! The main newsletter installments drop on the first and third Friday of the month. Paid subscribers also get a (mostly) weekly creative prompt, sent on Saturdays. It’s all a work-in-progress, as any good creative endeavor should be, and I am so grateful to you for being here. If you like reading, you can help to make this work sustainable by becoming a paid subscriber.
On Wednesday night, an orange sun tucked itself behind the blue mountain range on the horizon. The clouds above were a deep purple, turning darker and darker by the second. A storm was rolling in, bringing the contrast with it. A flash of light flickered across the sky, turning the deep purple clouds into a momentary flash of hot pink. The deep guttural sound of thunder rumbled in.
I was sitting on the couch looking at a spreadsheet trying to figure out finances. Work has felt economically tight lately—constricted, blocked, stressful—and I had told myself that at the very least, if I couldn’t fix it in the short term, I could at least try to get a grip on it. So taking’s good art business advice, I was trying to set aside a “money night.”
The sky outside the window flashed again, another wall of lightning. It occurred to me that Mother Nature might be trying to give me some kind of a cue. It was up to me to determine whether it was a more ominous one: “lightning storm to highlight what an electrifying mess it is to make a stable career of being an artist!” Or a more encouraging one: “hey you, whatever you have going on right now pales in comparison to this show that I’m putting on out here, let me give you a nice visual reminder that things are always in flux.”
I closed the laptop and put it away. I made my way over to the sliding glass door. This door leads to the deck, and it’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a floor-to-ceiling window. I sat down in the spot where I usually put my yoga mat, crossing my legs and planting myself right in from of the glass so that it felt like I had a front row seat to whatever was happening outside. I leaned my head forward and pressed my nose to the glass.
I watched as lightning occasionally flickered across the sky. There was no regularity or rhythm; seeing the beautiful display in the sky required sitting and waiting for the next flash to arrive, paying attention in order to catch the tiny moment of intense crackling light.
In the Pacific Northwest, lightning storms are rare, and when we do get them, you barely ever see that enormous jagged line of light shooting down. But on this evening in question, the bolts were plunging across the sky, a light-infused root digging into the clouds. I turned all the artificial lights in the house off and sat still and watched, letting the sense of movement and energy in the air roll through me.
What is the opposite of movement?
“Stillness” might be our first answer. After all, either something is in motion or it isn’t. But if you’ve ever sat in a moment of stillness, you know how much movement you can feel within it.
“Blocked” might be a different answer, a feeling of stuckness, of being incapable of movement.
We cannot have creativity without movement. The movement of ideas, a flow of mental energy. To be creative, we must make connections, and this requires the ability to move between two ideas, maybe connect them to some other unexpected point.
Creativity is often thought of as an endeavor of the mind, and it certainly is. Our brains are firing to process information, decide what’s pertinent and what can be discarded, make new connections. But the more time that I spend engaging in my own creative practice, and talking to other people about theirs, the more I come to believe that creativity resides in the body.
If we’re too much in our heads, we can get in our own way, and if we are physically stuck or blocked, it often leads to our creative work feeling the same. Through movement we create a channel, a pathway for our creativity.
As the authors of a 2020 study of creativity and everyday bodily movement write, “physical activity and bodily movement have beneficial effects on creative cognition. This is also nicely in accordance with the anecdotal view that creative people use bodily movement to overcome mental blocks and lacks of inspiration.”
In particular, it’s the freedom to move without external constraints that influences creative thinking. I am certain that my friends who are dancers, or have some other movement training, know this and feel this. It’s also no wonder that when asked to describe our own experiences with flow state, many of us pinpoint a physical activity.
In my own papercutting practice, when things feel tight and tense and I don’t have time to go take a walk or go on a bike ride, the best antidote is to put on some music and simply move my body in unexpected ways. It even works sitting in a chair, just letting my arms take up wild forms in space.
To have a creative practice is to be in movement.
We move physically and mentally. We move fast and slow. We pause and we begin again. We extend and we rest. We ebb and we flow. It is all some form of movement.
Sometimes our movement is constricted—physically or mentally—and we have to find new ways to come to it. Our bodies and minds are all different, all capable of different things. A form of movement that works for one of us does not necessarily translate to someone else.
An injury may shift how we move, may require us to relearn movement entirely. Other times, we may just need the reminder to return to the most organic, truest forms of movement that our bodies depend on to survive.
Creativity asks us to come back into our bodies.
A few weeks ago my friend Sara and I facilitated a little experimental session on movement and creativity (mostly because we needed it ourselves). We worked through some breathing exercises and then drawing exercises, followed by some simple movement sequences. Afterwards I noted this in my notebook: “Frazzled leads to being stagnant. You think it’s movement but it’s a block at every turn.”
Probably like many of you, I often feel like my workday has a lot of moving parts. This may come from being self-employed and feeling like it’s necessary to constantly keep all the balls in the air, but I also think it’s a consequence of the day and age that we live in. Things feel frantic and chaotic a lot of the time. There are demands, there are expectations.
There is an underlying pulse of energy that never seems to let up. So we have a sense that we have a lot of movement, that we’re going from one thing to the other and back again, that we’re toggling between tasks and projects.
Take five minutes to sit and focus on your breath, and it starts to become pretty clear how much that movement is also a place of block, of static. Within that kind of movement there can also be a sense of stagnation. We’re moving, but the edges are frayed and we are buzzing with an agitated energy.
Someone explained Brownian motion to me this week, a physical phenomena that describes the random movement of particles in liquids. The continuous movement is caused by the particles’ collisions with other atoms or molecules surrounding them. I immediately envisioned the agitated and frenetic energy that I can often feel when there are all kinds of things happening around me that make me feel pushed in all directions. Tell me you don’t feel like this sometimes.
Yes, that’s movement, but it’s not necessarily the movement that we want when we come to our creative practice. This kind of movement can feel fidgety, frazzled, frenetic.
But it’s also the kind of movement that we’re coexisting with all of the time in our everyday lives. Despite the urge to go offline, retreat to a cabin in the woods, and dive deep into making art, that’s not usually how creative work gets done, nor is it what most of us have access to in the face of the various demands we experience in our everyday lives as social human beings.
Creativity is shaped and formed in the spaces in between, impacted and influenced by what is going on in and around us. Instead of opting out of those external forces, we have to learn to navigate them.
That requires incremental gradual movement. This can feel counterintuitive to our “bigger, better, faster” culture. In the face of a block all we want to do is push through and remove the block. When something feels large and heavy, we might feel the craving to simply opt out of it, wish we lived in an imaginary world where we could just get rid of it.
Think of it this way: how often do we wish for an enormous shift, some magical solution to our problems and frustrations? “If only I figure [insert pretty much any conundrum here] out then things will fall into place. Then I’ll feel some balance.”
We’re waiting for momentous breakthroughs, lighting bolts of inspiration, groundbreaking change, forgetting that it’s the small incremental movement that builds over time. Balance, after all, is a sequence of continuous micro-movements and adjustments, not a static place of arrival.
Take our breath for example. We cannot take one enormous breath and carry it with us for a whole week. We must breathe regularly, methodically, incrementally. In, out. In, out. In, out. We know this. We do it without thinking because it’s what keeps us alive, and we know wat happens when this movement is constricted.
Take a moment to focus on your inhale and your exhale and you can physically feel this movement too.
Not everything is incremental and gradual. Momentous change does sometimes occur, something that happens in an instant. A movement that is so intense and so drastic that it appears to have altered everything, leaving a “before” and “after” in its wake. Those moments cause a restructuring, a reshaping.
May is the marker of the anniversary of one of those moments for me. I know this will likely prove to be a difficult month, I can feel some of those emotions percolating already. It’s why I’ve become adamant about ensuring there’s some kind of physical movement in the day—set the routine and commit to the practice in good times, and it becomes a lifeline in the more difficult ones.
It is how I worked through it the first time around, and it is how I know that I might work through the future unknown moments. One breath, one pedal stroke, one word. Repeat. It is the incremental movement that sustains us. It is how we rebuild a scaffolding when it falls apart.
The reminders of gradual, continuous movement can be found all around us in the natural world. The flutter of a bird wing. The final days of the now purple and paper-thin trillium leaves. The gradual extension of a foxglove emerging from the ground. A field slowly filling with daisies. There is stillness, quietness. There is also ongoing change.
I got to see Nils Frahm play in Seattle last week with a good friend and my husband. I had seen him play pre-pandemic (you know, a lifetime ago), and at the time I wasn’t very familiar with his music. But I do remember being entranced by how he moved on stage, how he appeared to be a pure physical manifestation of “creative flow.” He was a channel, a pathway.
This time was the same, but I felt myself sink into the music more now that I knew it better. I was also sitting down, so for over two hours I sat in plush theater seat, only getting up for the standing ovations.
To sit for two hours is probably not anyone’s immediate definition of movement. But as I sat there, doing nothing else but listening, feeling the music in my body, feeling my head, arms, and legs align with sound, I felt an intense sense of internal movement.
The live version of the piece “Says” felt like a musical version of a lightning storm, a crackling of internal energy. Ideas swirled, one continually linking to the next, as if the music had become a catalyst to creative thought and a sense of flow.
It was mental movement but in an incremental, uninterrupted way that felt cleansing and exhilarating. The frayed edges had realigned.
A reminder: the movement unblocks.
There is movement in emotions.
There is movement in color.
There is movement in a question.
There is movement in a conversation.
There is movement in music.
There is movement in a thought.
There is movement in practice.
There is movement in stillness.
There is movement in us.
This is what creative practice asks of us: not just how do we find movement, but also, how do we find movement in stillness?
How do we create the channel, carve out the pathway?
There is no one answer. But I do know that part of it lies in one incremental movement at a time.
A LITTLE CREATIVE INSPIRATION + OTHER TIDBITS
I am teaching a few various papercut and art workshops this month and next, both in person and virtual. If you’re interested, there’s more information on all of those here.
I am finishing up my analog newsletter experiment and planning on sending out next week! If you’re a paid subscriber and want to receive it click here and scroll all the way down so that I can get your address.
“When I think about movement work, we can listen to each other and be with our individual hurting, but actually we need to restore a much larger balance, so that this river can be flowing again for all of us—this river that has been run dry by these ideas of control and separating ourselves from the Earth. This process of returning to the Earth sometimes happens in a moment of returning to each other and being like, “I’m going to be with you in your pain.” The tears we’re going to cry are also part of the river, and the ideas that we have in this lifetime are also part of that river.” - adrienne marie brown
I read Motherhood by Sheila Heti this past month thanks to a nudge from. Definitely worth a read for any of you out there with nuanced thoughts and emotions about parenthood.
I taught an after school art class for middle school students in April, and we did papier-mâché, so when I came across Liz Sexton’s work I was immediately obsessed.
Katy' Hessel’s new book The Story of Art Without Men is out in the U.S. I just put it on order from the library and am very excited to dive in whenever it arrives. Check out her newsletter
Of course I am going to leave you with this song as it has provided a welcoming and inspiring landing place for me lately. Put it on as loud as you can and do nothing else but be with it, move with it:
Thank you so much for being here and supporting my work. Other ways to support: buy something my shop, buy one of my books, come to a Creative Fuel workshop or free Wednesday session, or send this newsletter to someone who you think might enjoy it.
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