Like many people, I love watching the drama and unpredictability of the Olympics. This morning on the news, when analyzing a swimmer’s performance, her coach remarked: “She knows how to use the water instead of fighting against it.” This comment intrigued me. What an unusual way to describe swimming! The more I thought about it, the more I saw parallels with the creative process. Using a given circumstance instead of struggling against it is exactly what artists do. As a filmmaker, I often have to work with what’s available after the initial plan falls through, whether it’s a location, a camera move, or even an actor. The key is not only making do, but embracing the new element wholeheartedly. So I started thinking about all the similarities between athletes and creative folks and what we can learn from watching the Olympics.
1. The past is past Athletes talk all the time about the importance of the right mindset. When they lose, it’s often because some previous mistake had rattled them and they psyched themselves out. When they win, it’s because they were able to put disappointment behind them and focus. Isn’t that what art making is also about? Though technique is important (and often overemphasized by commentators and educators), the mental aspect is crucial. For myself, whether I’m writing, directing, or editing, I try to treat every stage of filmmaking as the opportunity make a new creative intervention on the material. This week, as we start editing the Tennessee film, we are looking at the footage with fresh eyes to see it for what it is rather than what it was during the shoot or what we wished it were.
Untitled Tennessee film: see the footage with fresh eyes
2. Flow For both athletes and creatives, a good attitude means leaving outside pressures behind so that one may experience flow. Much has been written about this term, first coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, in his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, so I won’t get into it here. Since the topic fascinates me, I’m sure it will come up in future blog posts. For now, I’ll just say that we have to empty out any thoughts of critics, commercial pressures or anything else in order to focus on the task. For many years I was obsessed with learning the craft of filmmaking. Nowadays I’m much more interested in cultivating flow in my creative practice. Maybe art schools too should give attention to flow along with teaching technique, but that’s a different story (and blog post).
3. Visualization also comes up a lot in athlete interviews. I don’t know the details of how it’s done in sports, but I’ve noticed for myself that my best work comes when I am able to visualize the thing trying to come into existence rather than just forcing it to do my bidding. It’s a matter of emphasis: instead of feeling like I’m the one in control, I treat it as if it already exists and I just have to uncover it. Could this be what Michaelangelo meant when he said that the sculpture was already present inside the block of marble and what he did was to reveal it? I noticed that if I can get a sense of what the finished film might feel like (the term visualization is misleading – it’s about using all the senses together), then I often find my way toward something more interesting than if I rely on intellect alone. For me, this only happens in glimpses right now; but I’ll take it.
Untitled Tennessee film: visualize what it wants to be
4. Fun, fun, fun Finally, a big common point between Olympic athletes and artists is their emphasis on enjoyment. There isn’t a medal winner who doesn’t say something along the lines of “I had a great time out there.” I never understood it before I started making films: how can they talk about fun when they’re working so hard and the stakes are so high? Now I get it. Enjoyment is the result of staying focused in the absolute present. It means flow, ease, and a lack of tension, which is the enemy of both athletic performance and creativity. I figure fun is also what a swimmer feels when she is using the water rather than fighting against it.
I tried to imagine what that swimmer experienced during her winning performance. I put myself in her place (visualized, that is). I felt the water going over every pore of my skin. The line between where my body ended and where the water began blurred. Before I knew it, I wasn’t just moving through the water; I was having fun with the water. I was floating, playing, and water was my creative material. Then it occurred to me that this is not a special situation, it’s an intensified form of conscious living. So the question becomes: can we do it every moment of our lives?