Inward and Outward – Striving for a Creative Life in an Attention-Driven World

In my earliest incarnation, I was a child who loved to dance. I would fly across the room, finding a way to explore what I couldn’t express in words. I wasn’t worried that anyone was watching.  In fact, I sometimes snuck into my dance teacher’s studio after hours, keeping the lights off, just to put on some music and set myself free. That was all that I needed: simply to explore the inner workings of my spirit, body, and mind.

It’s a need that I have almost forgotten how to honor.

Most of us know from experience that social media is an unavoidable fact of creative life in the digital age.  To be a writer, dancer, artist, actor, or practically anything that requires public attention and support, you have to be “out there” in the social media world.

But social media requires a constant, narcissistic call-out, an obsessive, intentional, outwardly focused action, a request of the world to “Pay attention to me!”  More and more, we creatives spend time thinking about how to get other people’s notice while we neglect the time needed to be with ourselves.

Focus on the darkened stage where imagination steps forward and begins to dance. (c) David Hofmann

We cannot forget the core requirements of creative work: time and inward attention.  To turn inward and stop listening to the noisy, demanding world allows us to make room for the muse, that quiet voice within that speaks when we are receptive and still. In the moment when we stop listening to the outside, we invite the possibility of silence. We focus on the darkened stage where imagination steps forward and begins to dance.

But if we fill every moment with outward distractions, the muse is shut out. The house lights are thrown on and the audience—that receptive part of our inner selves—gets up and leaves.  The creative force within is silenced because the muse cannot—will not—compete in a world where we’re all too busy screaming to truly listen.

In his charmingly in-your-face Ted Talk, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt discusses how craving attention actually makes you less creative. That’s been my experience as well. When I’m deep in my writing, I don’t think about anything else.  I forget the time of day; I often forget to eat.  I make weird faces at my computer screen as I experience my characters’ reality and record their words. Hours pass without notice while the light outside my window fades.

It’s hard enough to simply find time to write, but when I sit down finally at the keyboard, and suddenly my Facebook post tings with a new like, or I get a ding from Instagram or a dong from Twitter, I fall down the rabbit-hole of ego and distraction. It’s more than a demand to respond. It’s my all-too-human desire to be noticed, to be important, to be loved. And I convince myself that all the attention is actually helping me build my platform which will help my writing (which I’m not doing).

In fact, social media neediness can distract us so much that we work harder on building our followers and platform than on our work. I’m feeling that myself lately, as I post yet another adorable cat photo on my Instagram feed or promote my upcoming talk at a conference in New York.  Honestly, the conference announcement has value.  But the cat photos? I know that statistically, they get likes.  (It’s horrible that I really know that.  There are studies that confirm…!)  So the whole thing feels like a distracting manipulation instead of an authentic effort to “share my life.”

In the words of a song by a local band, Tula Vera, “Recognition is hard to come by when there’s a million people in the world.” (My sons really like them, and so do I.  And, no, they’re not famous either.)

As “channels of distribution have been democratized,” says Gordon-Levitt, “creativity is becoming more and more a means to an end, and that end is to get attention.” I and all creatives need to actively find ways to let people know that we have work out there, whether we’re telling a next door neighbor, a childhood BFF, or a stranger who stumbles across our work and is honestly intrigued.

My Instagram feed. Nature. Beauty. And yes, there are cats!

How do we find a balance between out and in, between courting the muse and courting the market? Here’s one thing I’m doing that’s actually working for me. I’ve started a short Instagram video project—15 seconds or so apiece—taking time simply to record the small wonders that I notice, hear, and feel on my hikes through the woods nearly every day.

My first video was honestly an intentional mocking of Instagram’s countless selfies and random photos of food. I am exhausted by the narcissistic gaze and want to share something instead that matters far more to me: silence, nature, the small, incidental beauty that I find where few people look.  Capturing these tiny intervals and sending them into the world lets me make a statement: Stop naval-gazing. Look around. Pay attention. There’s something bigger and more important than us!  And though I don’t have a ton of followers (and probably never will), a few friends are noticing and even following suit.  And for that, I am truly grateful.

At the same time, I’m working to spend longer moments in my own silence, in thought—in no-thought. In just being. I’m taking longer walks, focusing on the sound of leaves chittering in the wind and the chime of my meditation bowl. I’m working to close down, to be in the moment and with my breath. Listening. Letting the world fall in. Fall away.

Creativity shouldn’t be simply a means to get attention.  Fulfillment really should be the point. And understanding: Of ourselves and others. Of this great planet and the insignificant grace of humanity.

For me, it’s time to reach back to that authentic child still within me who wants simply to express, discover, explore. And maybe between my footsteps and the screech of cricket-song, there’ll be space for the muse to slip in and accompany me.

Cross-posted at The Writers Circle.

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Judith Lindbergh is the author of The Thralls Tale, about three women in the first Viking Age settlements in 10th C. Greenland, and the founder/director of The Writers Circle. Her newest novel will be finished soon.

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