creativity, goals, and the dissertation

I’ve been consulting some books on art-making lately, that you could broadly say are on that nebulous idea of “creativity” itself. (Art and Fear is the most well known of them and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the best tiny book you’ll ever own.) As I’ve read more, I have realized that they apply not only to my artistic life – my life outside of the “work” of research and writing – but also to my current writing project as well. In other words, writing a dissertation, essentially a non-fiction book, is a creative undertaking of great magnitude and can be considered with the same principles in mind as would a painting or a composition or a mathematical theory.  (Fill in your creative path here.)

This was a revelation for me, despite the fact that I engage in drawing, painting, and creative writing as a part of my life: why would non-fiction writing for my “real job” not be creative work as well, and best approached with the same attitudes? Why  not?

So one thing that comes out of this is the issue of the goal. Art and Fear talks about this one and I’d honestly never considered it before. The goal often sounds like this: have a solo show, or get a piece in MoMA, or get a book published, or whatever. The problem arises that when the artist is successful and meets that goal, art-making can often cease completely, forever, because the goal has been met and there is no direction anymore, and nothing to aim for.

This book in particular recommends that goals should be more along the lines of “find a group of like-minded artists and share work with them.” Things that won’t be attained in a single moment, but that continue for the rest of your life.

It made me realize that yes, as a scholar, I have an end goal right now, and that is finishing my dissertation. After that, it’s a few articles, a monograph. But then what? And I don’t have a good answer for that. Thus, I am at high risk for becoming the same as the writer who quits after her first bestselling novel, adrift without an ongoing goal.

I wonder how scholars deal with this (I may just go and ask a few of them), but I think for myself, I’ve found a seed of it in a digital humanities project I’m dreaming up but haven’t had time to start implementing yet. It’s one that is less about content and more about opening up possibilities for exploring questions in ways that didn’t exist before, and to experiment with new methodologies that wouldn’t have traditionally come from my discipline. Sure, it’s building a database. But then it’s what to do with that database that’s the real project.

At the same time, I think a huge issue both in the arts and the academic humanities is that of solitude. I am not saying anything new here. Right now, a colleague and I are planning on co-authoring an article and attempting to get it published (please cross your fingers for us). I think it may be in my best interests, more than anything else, to keep in close touch with this person who works on things that are similar to my own work, and to keep picking up those business cards I like to collect from people I meet at conferences who are interested in my research for some reason, and routinely emailing them. My database project is something I want to leave open source and twist others’ arms to take part in. So I’m thinking now, as I’m nearing the end of my PhD course, where to start with the idea of forming a like-minded group to continue to share and collaborate with. To keep the end goal always moving and yet always fulfilled, because it is within myself and other people, and not just about me and something outside of me.

2 thoughts on “creativity, goals, and the dissertation”

  1. I have realized in the last few years that the solitary researching & writing is hardly my chief interest – hardly my chief goal. Being in academia is, in a way, a means to an end. Of course I’d like to get published, and indeed I do have a short list of projects that I would like to research. But, really, I think my goal is to surround myself with traditional culture activities; or, to lead a life/career where I engage more with history, art and culture than I do with paperwork and meetings. My “goal” is not particularly well-articulated, perhaps, but that’s what it is at the moment.

    Here at UH I have found that at times I couldn’t help but think of my thesis as of secondary importance as I focused on my music and dance classes, on attending art & theatre events, and on otherwise just being engaged and involved in the cultural scene. Perhaps this makes me a bad academic. But, I think that academia does not need to be such a solitary pursuit, when the campus environment provides these kinds of opportunities.

    Anyway, thanks for getting my gears whirring a bit. I’m going to go look into this “Art and Fear” book now.

  2. My reply is horribly belated here. I think your goal is an admirable one, a good way to live life. I’m not sure I should say that I consider academia my day job in public, but it is. And I’m not sure I can characterize my creative life as “my hobbies” or that “my hobbies” are the important thing for me, but perhaps I should say that it is my chosen lifestyle, my path in life, and living that path is the most important thing.

    But I hadn’t stopped to think before about how lucky it is that I did choose an academic career path, because researching and writing are profoundly creative activities. I am writing an entire nonfiction book this year without even realizing it until I was almost done with it. So there – I’m a writer. I always wanted to be one. I just have to keep in mind that I am integrating my academic life into my creative life in ways that aren’t always apparent, and that I shouldn’t forget about it.

    I don’t think that any of this makes you a bad academic. It makes you an admirable human being, and that is an important thing in life. Work is work, even if it is your dream and your passion (and that’s the best sort of work). Life is more than work, and I think the fact that your work and your passions dovetail nicely (as they’re both humanities-oriented and Japan-oriented) is even better. What a good complement.

    I do recommend “Art and Fear” very highly. Although I must warn you that it is about art making, not art consuming, so it’s best to approach it from that direction. If you’re looking for something that’s more about appreciating art, it’s probably not the right book. But if you’re looking for something that you can apply to your thesis and research as well – because they are creative pursuits and involve some of the same fear issues as any other art making – I think you could get a lot of value out of it. After all, it’s a tiny book and only about $10. 🙂 But it’s so full of wisdom that it’s not really a one-sitting read. It’s the best of all worlds: concise and profound, one where you want to dog-ear every single page.

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